Trip reports

Cowiche Canyon

Canyon wall detail, Cowiche Canyon

Hot, hot, hot, hot, hot. By the time we reached the Cowiche Canyon trailhead, the temperature in eastern Washington reached 94 degrees. And we were headed into a canyon. Maybe the year-round stream and canyon walls would cool the air a little. Armored in head-to-toe desert khaki and clutching water bottles, we set off.

We were on our way to Tri-Cities, where Mr. Adventure was giving a presentation for work. With plenty of time to get there, we wanted to get a hike in, knowing it would be less-than-ideal conditions. Hewing to our “any day outside is a good day” philosophy, we found the six-mile round-trip Cowiche (pronounced COW itchy) Canyon trail on the Washington Trails Association website. It was only a few miles off the highway and, as it followed Cowiche Creek, essentially flat.

Sheep surprise

Crossing the Cascades from Olympia, we were driving around a curve along the Naches River when a flash of white on the slope above caught my eye. “Oh! Oh! Oh!” I yelled. “It’s, it’s, it’s…” I couldn’t find the words. “What?!” Mr. Adventure said. “What is it?” I finally spluttered: “Sheep! Bighorn sheep!” We pulled over in a spray of gravel and turned around. Calmly traversing the hillside just above the highway were 15 — no, 20 — no, 25 — no, at least 35 bighorn sheep, ewes, and several lambs. Some stopped to stare down at us. Some shepherded lambs along the ridge. Some climbed out onto a rock and skylined, showing off in that look-at-me-way-up-here way they have. If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know I love bighorn sheep. I’ve written about searching for them in southern California and finding them in unexpected places.

Bighorn sheep skylining on an outcropping above the highway
Bighorn sheep skylining under a faint half moon on an outcropping above the highway (Mr. Adventure photo)

We watched the sheep for 45 minutes, until the last of the herd disappeared further into the Oak Creek Wildlife Area, a 67,000-acre conservation area managed by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Each winter, the WDFW feeds elk and bighorn sheep as part of its wildlife management program. Viewing the animals at the feeding station in February is one of those classic Washington weekend trips. Seeing the bighorns in summer was a thrilling surprise.

The bighorns moved in a cluster across the slope (Lauren Danner photo)
The bighorns moved in a cluster across the slope (Lauren Danner photo)

Driving on, I wondered aloud why these animals captivate me. Like any other nature lover, seeing charismatic megafauna is always a thrill. But there’s something about bighorn sheep. Maybe I feel such affinity because I was born in the Chinese year of the sheep. “Maybe it’s that they have no predators other than the occasional cougar and humans,” I mused. “They seemed so supremely unconcerned we were there.” I thought about Ellen Meloy’s wonderful book Eating Stone, about spending a year observing the bighorn herd near her Utah canyon country home.

And then Mr. Adventure said, “It’s because they live in the mountains. Where you always want to be.” Oh. Of course. He knows me well.

In Cowiche Canyon

The Cowiche Canyon trail is one of several overseen by the Cowiche Canyon Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust headquartered in nearby Yakima. Through ownership and conservation easements, the organization manages about 5,000 acres of shrub-steppe, the iconic panorama of sagebrush and rimrock that has vanished from much of the West. Cowiche Canyon is a picture-perfect example of shrub-steppe, with its namesake creek flowing from the foothills of the east slope of the Cascades to the Naches River. Much of the land along the creek, a salmon stream, has been developed. The Conservancy formed in 1985 to protect the canyon, and in 2005 a nearby ranch also came under its management.

The trail is a straightforward gravel and sand affair that crosses a dozen bridges on its route from one end of the canyon to the other. Because it was midday, most wildlife was wisely resting in the shade of the trees and shrubs that line the creek. We did spot one marmot trundling across what must have been scorching basalt rocks to the cool shelter of a tunnel.

Cowiche Canyon's floor is lush and green, while the hills above are shrub-steppe
The canyon floor is lush and green, while the hills above are shrub-steppe (Lauren Danner photo)

As we neared the northern end of the trail, Mr. Adventure flushed a covey of quail from a bush, although they seemed too phlegmatic to put much effort into escaping. Cowiche Canyon is a well-known birding destination, and despite the heat we spotted magpies, cliff swallows, hawks, and vultures. Heading back downstream, a bright orange bird flew directly across the trail in front of us, looking a lot like a winged version of the clownfish from Finding Nemo. We later figured out it was a Bullock’s oriole.

Volcanic origins, 13 million years apart

Cowiche Canyon is undeniably beautiful, with volcanic rock cliffs squeezing in and expanding outward. The canyon walls look different on either side, and an interpretive sign explains that the floor and south side were formed by lava flows from the east 14 million years ago, while the north wall is made of andesite from the Goat Rocks to the west and is a mere 1 million years old.

Andesite walls drop straight down to the floor of Cowiche Canyon
Basalt walls drop straight down to the canyon floor (Lauren Danner photo)
Rockslides are common in the narrow parts of Cowiche Canyon. The trail skirts them or, in some cases, goes right through.
Rockslides are common in the narrow parts of Cowiche Canyon. The trail skirts them or, in some cases, goes right through (Lauren Danner photo)
Ancient lava flows create horizontal bands on Cowiche Canyon's north side (Lauren Danner photo)
Andesite is squeezed into horizontal bands on Cowiche Canyon’s north side (Lauren Danner photo)
Weathered columnar basalt forms a dramatic wall in Cowiche Canyon
Weathered columnar basalt forms a dramatic wall in Cowiche Canyon (Lauren Danner photo)

The cool-down

With perhaps a quarter-mile left to walk back to the car, we passed several private houses on land adjacent to that owned by the Conservancy. On one lawn, a sprinkler sprayed an arc of cool water in a circle. A marmot lounged under a tree just outside the water’s path, taking advantage of the outside air conditioning. We thought that looked pretty good, and happy with our exploration of this fascinating place, turned up the car’s A/C and headed to Tri-Cities and the possibility of a hotel pool.

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About Lauren Danner

When I’m not out hiking on our public lands, I'm either buried in a book or writing about Pacific Northwest and environmental history, outdoor recreation, and public lands policy from my home near Puget Sound.
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