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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

June 10, 2011 at 10:30 AM

Cowiche Canyon, with a chilled white wine chaser

The open skies, basalt rock formations and silvery sage of the Cowiche Canyon offer a sere beauty just outside Yakima well worth exploring. Just the thing for Westsiders sick of all the rain and cold over here, baking on a rock like a lizard last weekend felt just great. The yellows of balsamroot, the blue of the lupine and fresh green of the sage were just the right jolt of color after a long gray spring.

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Balsamroot and lupine light up the sagebrush steppe

The idea was to hike the Cowiche Canyon, where Cowiche Creek winds green and fresh through the sagebrush and basalt.

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Cowiche Creek, full and noisy with June snowmelt

The oddest thing was the entry to the trail head: a winery, it turns out. The sister property of the Tasting Room in Seattle, this winery by the same name in Yakima offers either the festive kickoff, or, upon your return, soft landing for your hike.

Entering the canyon from the winery, simply walk past the basking vines to the sign for the canyon, hook a left, and down you go. To find the winery on your way up from the canyon, follow the less-than-1-mile footpath winding through sagebrush and wildflowers.

The sun-baked hiker encounters several signs along the way, to reassure that succor in the form of chilled white is not far off:

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Hand-lettered signs encourage the thirsty hiker along the way to the winery

Who knew? But winery or not, this is a hike to savor. With its wildflowers, and old growth sage, cottonwood fluff floating on the breeze, and birds, especially swallows, dipping and swooping over the river, the canyon is pure refreshment.

A triumph of The Cowiche Canyon Conservancy, the canyon is perfect for hiking with dogs, especially in the cooler morning or later afternoon, and a place to appreciate the ecology of the sagebrush steppe.

The trail is a conversion of the old 1913 BNSF branch line serving growers in Tieton, Cowiche and elsewhere in the upper plateau. Abandoned in 1984, it was converted to a trail by the conservancy, formed for the project, but active ever since. Executive Director Betsy Bloomfield reports the conservancy’s new project is the 80-mile William O. Douglas trail from Yakima to Mount Rainier.

To join the conservancy, volunteer for trail work, or learn more about their work and check maps for their trails for a great hike check the conservancy’s website

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Blue skies and basalt: a winning combination

Once dominating vast sweeps of Washington, intact, healthy sagebrush habitat is rare now. Here, every plant has a strategy for survival, and even the surface of the soil, with its biotic crust, is an adaptation to protect the soil from erosion. Made up of a thin layer of lichens, mosses, algae, fungi, and cyanobacteria, the crust grows on the ground between shrubs, grasses and wildflowers. It looks like scattered patches of black, gray, yellow, orange or green. If damaged by foot traffic, grazing, or agriculture, invasive weeds such as cheat grass easily seed the exposed soil. It can take many years for the damaged crust to recover.

To learn more about sagebrush country in Washington, read my story in the Seattle Times.

Sagebrush country offers a beauty that can be vivid or subtle.The soft pink of Bitterroot, sunny yellow of Cusick’s sunflower, and purple sage were all in flower over the weekend, and the sage was soft with silvery green new growth.

Some of the sagebrush in the canyon is as big around at the base of the trunk as your ankle, making it an old growth specimen. Lean over and breath deep: Sagebrush is the fragrance of West.

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Artemisia tridentata, or big sage in Cowiche canyon

Douglas MacDonald, photos.

For two great reads on the natural history and pleasures of sagebrush country, try: Northwest Arid Lands, An Introduction to the Columbia Basin Shrub-Steppe, by Georganne O’Connor and Karen Wieda (2001, Batelle Press) and Singing Grass, Burning Sage, by Spokane author Jack Nisbet (1999, Nature Conservancy of Washington, Graphic Arts Publishing Center)

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