After a few nice weekends in the Portland area, I got out of town last Saturday and Sunday with a few friends. We got up early Saturday morning and made the four-hour drive to the Juniper Dunes in South-Central Washington, near Tri-Cities, and spent a wonderful thirty-six hours in some harsh, open, magical country.
The Juniper Dunes area is rolling dry, country, covered with sand, grass, sagebrush, and junipers. It’s so open that Google Maps actually gives you an excellent impression of the area. Take a look — you can count the trees. Zoom out and you can see that this is one of not too many areas of this arid region that hasn’t been irrigated for crops.
Zoom in, and you can see that the area where the marker is sitting has no roads or trails — that’s the Juniper Dunes Wilderness. You can also see a lot of crisscrossing roads and paths to the west — that’s the Juniper Dunes Off Road Vehicle area, where people come to zoom around on dirt bikes and four wheelers.
Access to the wilderness is through the ORV area on a reasonably rough road. We were in a 2000 Subaru and negotiated it just fine, but I think that anyone in a regular passenger car would have had to stop at the first major “parking” area. We made it to the second, which didn’t have anyone parked in it, and I think a more adventurous rough-road-driver than myself would have continued without issue right to the Wilderness gate.
We ended up sitting in the car for 15 minutes right when we arrived as a little squall blew through, and then walked the rest of the way — maybe three-quarters of a mile? — to the Wilderness boundary. That three-quarters of a mile took us at least an hour, not due to any obstacles, but because we were constantly stopping to check out the foreign plants we found ourselves among. As the day went on, our speed increased, because we recognized more of what we saw or had already realized we weren’t going to figure it out.
There was a good deal of sagebrush. I love sagebrush in the springtime! I love pulling off a few leaves, rubbing them in my hands, and smelling it. It keeps my hands smelling nice for a while afterwards.
There weren’t as many wildflowers as we thought there might be (I guess it’s still a little early) but we saw arrowhead balsamroot, Cull flowers, purple Larkspur, and two flowers that we recognized only by family. A little yellow mustard flower (the flowers had four petals and six stamen, and the leaves tasted a lot like fellow-mustard bok-choi, which I had in lunches last week), and a phlox (the flowers had five petals and five stamen, and my very smart friend said it was a phlox).
Dotted across the landscape were juniper trees, the tallest of which probably topped out at 40 feet, but which were probably hundreds of years old, given the harsh conditions they were in.
The juniper berries did smell gin-like, and I joked to my friends that I should soak some in vodka to make my own gin. It seemed funny at the time that gin might just be flavored vodka, but it turns out, that’s what it is! I now regret not having brought home some juniper berries. Next time I’m near some, I’ll take a handful home so I can follow this recipe.
Far more abundant than juniper, flowers, or sage, though, was grass. Most of it we couldn’t identify, but I did see an old friend called cheatgrass. When I was out in this area a little less than a year ago (about 25 miles to the West, in the Hanford Reach), I took some walks through this stuff and I was picking those sticky little things out of my socks and shoes for months afterward. In early April, though, as opposed to late May, it hasn’t gone to seed yet, so my socks were happily seed-free.
My hand is in that last picture not just to provide scale — I had to hold the grass still to take the picture, because it was so, so windy. It was incredibly windy. There was an essentially constant daytime wind out of the West at 20-30 miles per hour. It calmed a bit and came out of the East overnight, while some rain blew in, but was roaring out of the West again by 9 o’clock the next morning.
Though slightly slowed by wind and plant identification, we did make it to the Wilderness Boundary, and back to our car again to spend the night with the food and water we’d brought. I’ll be posting more about our wilderness adventures and the second day of the trip (Sneak Preview: wildlife sightings and more crazy weather!), but if you can’t wait to find out more, I’ll point you to some of the sites I read while doing research before the trip:
- Trip Report from Backpacker Magazine
- Trip Report from a Tri-Cities hiking blog
- Some hiking info from the Washington Trails Association
- Access and other basic details from the BLM, who manages the land.
- More basics (slightly less current, I think) from wilderness.net