Trail Log: Ancient Lakes

I’ll admit to being a bit of a fair weather hiker. Despite living in the Pacific Northwest, I don’t love the rain (do most people who live here?). It means that I spend our late winter/early spring sucking it up or waiting for nice days. I also don’t own a lot of quality rain gear for myself, so its fairly unpleasant if it rains too much. I needed to catch some miles this weekend though, so we chased the sun east, to Central Washington.

I’m not a huge fan of sagebrush country for recreation (I blame being fair skinned and a wuss in the heat), but I do appreciate the geological history of the region. Central Washington has an incredibly interesting prehistoric record carved into its landscape.

When hiking into the Potholes Coulee where the Ancient Lakes are located, its hard to wrap your mind around just how much water was moving through this area. Quincy’s town website has a great writeup about Ice Age processes that carved the canyon walls from the earth:

The flood waters from glacial Lake Missoula generally came down the Grand Coulee, Telford-Crab Creek drainage, and the Cheney-Palouse route. Regardless of which way the flood waters went, they all met at Wallula Gap by Pasco. These converging flood waters overwhelmed Wallula Gap’s ability to accommodate the deluge. The flood waters quickly backed up to a depth of 900 feet. These waters backed up the Snake River valley over 100 miles. The waters flooded the Pasco Basin, the Yakima and Walla Walla river valleys and the Othello and Quincy Basins.

If you’re hiking with an older child, this could be a great trail to tie into a lesson on how  volcanic history combines with Ice Age flooding, especially if you have a terrain map available, as the aerial view really illustrates the effects of flooding on the topography.

ancient lakes
via Google Earth. The upper canyon holds the Ancient Lakes, and the lower one has the large Dusty Lake, which we did not visit this time.

We started a little late, around 11:30 am, as we had to drive 3 hours to the trailhead. Si slept almost the whole drive, but T was awake and chattering about hiking on the rocks. At some point, he asked for water but we had forgotten to bring a lidded cup for him, so Justin gave him one of the Camelbaks. He sipped on it for awhile, and I cautioned him that maybe we should slow down on the water after the last incident where we let him suckle on water continuously (…yea, instant diaper leak when it all exited…on the trail). I was outvoted. Lets just say this was a bittersweet “I told you so” moment, as we instantly needed a change of clothes upon exiting the truck. Bittersweet because I didn’t pack extra hiking pants, just a baselayer in case it was cold. So, hiking in long underwear it was. Lesson learned: Don’t second guess your instinct to over-prepare.

The parking lot was busy with people ready to ride horses, mountain bike, and hike. Groups of young kids were loading up backpacks with bedrolls and supplies. Turns out that this is a very popular backpacking trail for families and youth troops. We even ran into our neighbor who was there to chaperone his kid’s scout camping trip. I mean, seriously though, what are the chances that out of every place to backpack in this state, of all the weekends to do it, our neighbors would be on the same trail, on the same day, at the same time, on the other side of the state?

We waved hello and goodbye, then went on our way. The plan was to pack T most of the way but we let him stretch his legs at the start. In his usual manner, he just wanted to throw rocks and climb logs. The only issue I have with this is Si won’t fall asleep in the carrier until we start walking, and he had been sleeping in the car all morning. Once he gets mad about being in the carrier, he struggles, and gets hot. And then I get hot because I have this squishy furious infant pushing against me. Which makes him hotter, and madder.

So I did it. I undid the clips on my Lillebaby, loosened the shoulder straps, pulled down my shirt, and attempted to nurse him in the carrier for the first time. Combined with the head support and sun/rain cover on the carrier, we were incognito breastfeeding as people walked by. The only hint was my hand in the side helping Si not make a huge mess as he tends to do.

Justin had my camera since my hands were a little full. I guess my face looked as awkward as I felt at this newly learned skill.

We made it about 1/3 mile before it was time to load T in the pack and pick up our pace a little. I’ve been craving a normal, adult paced hike and we’ve been really slow to add miles to our Hike It Baby 30 challenge. This was intended to be a catch up day for us.

The old dirt road curves towards the towering basalt walls, and splits early on. The left heads towards the Ancient Lakes and popular camping sites, and the right is a longer walk to the larger Dusty Lake. Its unsigned so its good to have a general idea of where you’re heading. We followed a mom and her very young hiking companion to the left, which leads through a small wetland area. Shortly after, we saw a waterfall misting off the ledge, the water disappearing into the rocks and dirty by the time it reached its end. An enormous boulder marks the trail, and another half mine or so later, the lakes come into view. Small trails split off here and there, and dozens of tents lined the hill between two lakes in the distance.


My goal was the cascading, tiered waterfall at the edge of the canyon. The trail split again, and I chose the route that headed to the northernmost lake’s edge. Here, we headed down steeply and I had to take my time. I remember wishing I had brought my hiking pole because the thought slipping and falling with the baby on me is terrifying. The trail disappeared alongside the lake, replaced with a boulders and rough scree. We could see it resume near the waterfall, and there were people scattered around above the falls and lakeside, so we figured it was relatively safe. I wouldn’t recommend this route for young (under 7?) kids. There are too many hazards and its fairly difficult scrambling for short legs. We packed T through this both directions.

There are a few sandy spots beneath the water fall that are great lunch spots. We chose one across a stream and surrounded by some brush on one side for privacy. Soon after, the sun made its afternoon debut and it warmed up. Initially, I wanted to climb the trail above the falls because it looked like a beautiful vantage point, but after watching a few people make the descent on their butts, I decided this was a good turnaround point. Without kids, it would be a fun adventure, but the consequences of any of us slipping where harsher than I was comfortable with.


After navigating the rock scramble again, we followed the lakeside instead of  back up the hill. You can see a trail going up in the photo above, and that’s the route we took back. It meets back up with the trail we came in on almost right away. If you continue following the lake, you’ll eventually head back on a parallel trail that rejoins closer to the canyon entrance.

At this point, there was a cloud of gnats harassing us and the sun was beating down in a very summer-like way. We hurried through the next mile before letting T out to do his toddler thing, which is mostly scaling small boulders and sitting in the middle of the trail.


The rest of the hike was uneventful, other than Si being 100% over the carrier and needing carried the last half mile again. We are really close to our 30 mile goal now, and it was cool to see a different environment in our state.

Spring is an ideal time to explore this trail network. The hills are practically verdant with green grass and there are patches of wildflowers throughout the hike. Inside the canyon walls could be uncomfortably hot in the summer time, but it was perfect for an April afternoon.

WTA Hiking Guide: Quincy Lakes

Flickr Album


2 thoughts on “Trail Log: Ancient Lakes

  1. Pingback: April HiB30: Week 4 & Wrap Up – 8 Feet Outside

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