In spring, bright-yellow arrowleaf balsam flowers flutter like butterflies atop lava bluffs. Camas blossoms carpet wet areas in bold blue.
Summer is a relaxed pose of serene beauty. Hidden lakes reflect images of cliffs dabbled with greenery. Ponderosa pine stands sentry. Above, white, billowy clouds sail on an endless blue sea. Fall is a riot of color and noisy protest of migrating birds. Welcome to the Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington!
Beginning 17 million years ago, this area of Washington and parts of Oregon experienced approximately 300 catastrophic volcanic eruptions. For 11 million years, layer after layer of lava poured out to create a 63,300 square mile “scab” on the earth’s surface. One million years ago, this was followed by the Ice Age.
In northern Idaho, an ice lobe blocked a river valley creating ancient Lake Missoula, 186 miles long. The ice dam burst, releasing a monstrous, 60-mile-per-hour flood that gouged, carved, and cut the desolate lava plain. Scientists speculate this may’ve occurred 100 times.
The Channeled Scablands are the only known place on Earth where enormous floods of lava and water have combined to create a unique landscape.
To experience these geological features, we headed to Fishtrap Recreation Area and Lakeview Ranch, both managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Poker in the Pines
Fishtrap has more than 5,000 acres of public land managed for wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities. To get to Fishtrap, take I-90 27 miles west of Spokane, Washington, to exit 254. Turn left on Old Highway, and go over the interstate. In about 2.8 miles, you’ll see signs for Fishtrap. Outwardly, this area appears to be flat and uninspiring. Appearances are deceiving! Here, you’ll find pine forests, shrub-steppe, and Palouse grassland. Other features include several wetlands, basalt cliffs, and two major lakes, Fishtrap and Hog.
Our first ride here was with the Back Country Horsemen of Washington, Inland Empire Chapter (www.iebch.com). The group was holding its annual spring poker ride, which is usually held during the first week of May.
Undoubtedly, this is one of our favorite poker rides. It’s well-organized and well-marked, and the folks running it treat you like a new friend.
The BLM office is in the old Miller ranch house across from a primitive campground, which has water and an outhouse. Many folks arrive at this camp the night before the ride, relaxing, scouting out the area, and visiting with other riders.
The first and last playing cards are given at the old Miller ranch house, where the 12-mile loop ride begins and ends. To get a card, one may throw, toss, or spin something. We’ve never gotten the winning hand, but we have enjoyed the social fun.
During the four- to five-hour ride, riders stop at three poker stations, where someone holds your horse while you select your next card, stretch your legs, and visit with other riders.
At the third card station, you may choose to extend your ride by four to five miles or continue back. We highly recommend the extension. It meanders past Hog Canyon, seasonal waterfalls at the canyon mouth, and pretty woodland.
You’ll find that it’s difficult to decide where to stop for lunch. By a copse of stately pines that stand guard over a sparkling blue lake? Or by a basalt formation covered with lime-green tufts of lichen and little white flowers? Tough decision!
Keep your eyes open for wildlife. After a leisurely picnic with friends, we found a rattlesnake not far from where we were sitting. With protective coloration, some animals are very difficult to spot, rattlesnakes in particular.
The poker ride takes you over relatively level, but rocky, ground and varies in difficulty. Generally, the most difficulty we’ve seen has been with antsy horses who are rarin’ to go after a long Northwest winter!
We learned that these folks are members of the Washington Civil War Association. They gather once a month during the summer to re-create camp life and full-scale battlefield engagements. Needless to say, the cavalry added a whole new dimension to our adventure, one that was both entertaining and educational.
Songbirds & Waterfalls
To ride on your own, get a map of the Fishtrap area from the BLM office in the Spokane District. We love to camp at the Folsom farm. There’s no water, but there is an outhouse and a fire ring.
The farm’s history describes the struggle and backbreaking work of a family trying to make a living farming the dry, rocky soil. The family homestead burned down in the early 1900s. Today, a ramshackle barn remains, guarded by rusty machinery.
However, the Folsom barn overlooks a rich wetland alive with singing birds. A bench is here. You can sit and marvel at the miracle of dawn creeping into the wetlands while flinging an array of colors into the morning sky. Not to be outdone, hundreds of birds perform a melodic symphony.
From the Folsom camp, you can ride the upper loop, which takes you past Hog Lake and the waterfalls. Or, you can follow the large, lower loop, which encompasses a portion of Fishtrap Lake. Or, you can be adventurous and just ride cross-country.
On the eastern side of Fishtrap Lake, you’ll find another dry camp. To get there, exit on the Old State Highway, and turn east on Fishtrap Rd. Stay on Fishtrap, and pass the Fishtrap Resort.
Then follow West Scroggie Rd. a short way to a large parking turnout on your right. From there, you can do a two-loop ride with various side extensions. We discovered another abandoned farm with a large windmill.
On our ride, we saw deer, hawks, ducks, turkeys — and owls! As we watched one owl fly away from a large Ponderosa pine tree, we both had the same thought, owl pellets!
Owl pellets look like large gray bullets. Made from regurgitated fur and bones, they’re dry and odorless, It’s interesting to pull them apart and see the bones of voles, mice, and other unfortunates.
Coyotes & Sage
To continue our explorations, we headed over to Lakeview Ranch, near Odessa, about 55 miles west of Fishtrap. From Odessa, travel north on State Route #21. In about 2.5 miles, Lakeview Ranch Rd. will be on your left. Take this road for about five miles. The Lakeview Ranch farmhouse will be on your right, with the camp and corrals on the left.
Lakeview Ranch is located in Lake Creek Coulee. It offers water for horses, picnic tables, primitive campsites, abundant shade trees, and roomy, well-built corrals with water troughs. Since nearby Walter Lake has dried up, there’s no longer a “lake view” at Lakeview Ranch.
Consider this a desert. During summer months, the temperature soars, and there are few shade options. The best times to ride here are spring and fall. The lake was large, shallow, and slowly drying up. Wildlife was concentrated around it.
The trail skirted along on the left side of this lake. Later on, we came across another shallow lake. A remaining volcanic plug formed a peninsula. Lush vegetation turned it into a gleaming emerald. Continuing west, we took a left fork to a side loop. This took us past Waukesha Springs and a scenic canyon overlook to “dry” Delzer Falls. On the trail, we saw horned lizards, also referred to as horny toads.
After completing the loop, we headed south toward Odessa. At one gate, we found old farming implements. Later, we learned that in the early 1900s, this land had belonged to the Lakeview Ranch manager’s grandparents.
This was the end of the trail for us, so we headed back to Lakeview Ranch. However, you could continue on for 13 miles and arrive at Odessa. It would either be an endurance ride or one involving a shuttle. The Channeled Scablands of Washington feature the only landscape formed by fire and ice. This ravaged, pockmarked earth has its own beauty and wonder. Enjoy!
For more information on the Channeled Scablands, contact the BLM, Spokane District Office, 1103 North Fancher Rd., Spokane, WA 99212; (509) 536-1200; www.or.blm.gov/spokane.
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years. (For a sampling, visit www.superstock.com, and type “Kent and Charlene Krone” in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at email@example.com.