The cliff-lined coulees and desert landscape around Frenchman Coulee and Echo Basin (near Vantage) gives visitors some different daydreaming opportunities. For starters the scenery is right out of a Spaghetti Western that has the mind recalling scenes where bands of white settlers are passing through desiccated waterless country but about to meet their Waterloo from the Indians lining the cliffs.
Another perspective is to put on the geology glasses. Frenchman Coulee and Echo Basin (the adjacent coulee to the south) may be waterless now, but water – massive thundering cubic miles of water – carved these coulees during the Ice Age Floods (aka Missoula Floods). As many as 40 times between 15,000 and 12,000 years ago, Great-Lake bodies of water raged over this landscape as the ice dams confining huge lakes of melt water stored in Montana occasionally failed. Then, over the period of few weeks, great walls of water moving at 60 miles per hour poured over these lands and ripped open the channeled scablands now occupying this part of the state. The coulees (drainages with horseshoe-shaped cliffs) and the many unusual pond-sized divots in the desert floor were sculpted with incredible rapidity as the culvert of Eastern Washington directed these great bodies of water emanating in Montana toward the Pacific Ocean.
Finally, if you visit this area in the spring or fall — the best time, really – non-climbers are likely to be shocked by what a rock climbing hub the area has become. As you wander under the cliffs carved by the great floods, dozens of parties will be climbing. Watching the progress of those who have roped themselves to the walls is quite entertaining.
Any way you cut it, walking or riding through the area, rubber-necking at the climbers, imagining celluloid scenes from old movies, or envisioning the geologic past is interesting stuff. Furthermore, this route takes you to interesting places. You can reach the very base of a plunge pool at the head of Echo Basin that’s a good 200 feet below the lip of the cliffs. Imagining the maelstrom of this spot when water, hundreds of feet deep, poured over the walls is terrifying. You can also access a large sand dune, walk up it, and run down it. The sand is also a byproduct from the calamitous erosion wrought by the big floods.
So while short, this route has no shortage of things to enjoy.
Details Details: Vantage – Sand Dune Hikes
Season. This is hot, open country best avoided in the heat of summer. Fall and spring, however, are beautiful out here amongst the blue skies and rust-colored cliffs. The area is also a good winter time destination for walking and even mountain biking if you dress warm because the amount of snow accumulation is slight and the rocky/sandy soil drains well.
Activities. Hiking, trail running, family outings. Mountain biking on the short loop (the non-cross-country part) is also fun. Mountain bikers will also want to explore the dirt roads on the north side of Vantage Road that can be accessed from the Lower Parking area.
Length: Short loop: 2.75 miles. Long loop: 5 miles.
Skill: Short loop: 1+ (advanced beginner). Long loop: 2+ (advanced intermediate due to cross-country travel and navigation skills needed).
Fitness: Short loop: 1 (beginner). Long loop: 2 (intermediate).
Access. From Interstate 90 take the Silica Road Exit that’s about 7.25 miles northeast of Vantage or 5.5 miles southwest of George. Follow Silica Road for 0.65 miles and turn left on Vantage Road. Follow this 1.45 miles to the Upper Parking area on your left with a vault toilet – this is the start of the long loop. The short loop starts another 1.2 miles farther down Vantage Road where you’ll park at the pullout formed where a gated dirt road intersects the paved road. Discovery Passes are needed for both parking areas. Both parking areas are heavily used by climbers, so expect plenty of company on spring and fall weekends.
- Short Loop. From the Lower Parking area, cross over to the south side of the road and pass through the gate. Head due east on a narrow dirt road heading into Echo Basin. After about 0.75 miles the main tread of the road hooks south, but stay on a fainter tread and travel straight toward the head of the coulee where you can imagine a waterfall flowing if there were water. You’ll start dropping and it is worth going down into the pit of the punch bowl formed by the great floods.It’s a big hole and it’s impressive to look up from the bottom of it (cross-country travel required to go down into it) and to imagine the floods that created this hole. When done at the punch bowl, return to the larger dirt road that hooked south and follow this, first in a southerly direction and then in a southwesterly direction as it leads to the sand dune area.After visiting the sand dune, retrace the road that delivered you for about 0.25 miles and then take a tread that heads northwest and returns directly to the parking area. If you want to walk a little farther, use the dirt roads on the north side of Vantage Road to explore a different coulee (see our map).
- Long Loop. From the Upper Parking area, follow a rocky dirt road south and then east for 0.4 miles, passing Zig Zag Wall (popular for climbing). After 0.4 miles, start heading south. Initially there may be a tread to follow but striking off cross-country is fine as well. The landscaped is pocked here and you’ll go up and down and through little indentations. After 0.3 miles, you’ll start heading in a more southwesterly direction. Generally you’re paralleling the nearby wall of the coulee and it’s worth wandering over to the lip of the cliffs now and then for the views. As there is no trail, use our map to navigate to the dune. There will be many little obstacles along the way but getting around, over, or through these obstacles is never very hard even though it will entail a little scrambling. At the bottom of the dune, head north and pick-up the dirt road. For scenic reasons, we recommend returning to the Lower Parking area by the longer route via the punch bowl (see map). Once at the Lower Parking, follow the paved road 1.2 miles back to the Upper Parking area – Vantage Road sees light use and is a pleasant stroll.
Maps. See (and print) our topographic map.
Land Ownership. Predominantly state lands managed by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Permits. Discover Pass required for both parking areas.
Leave It Better than You Found It. This should be every user’s goal. Do no damage and pick up trash left by others.
Disclaimer. Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change and those contributing these reports are volunteers–they may make mistakes or not know all the issues affecting a route. You are responsible for yourself, your actions, and your safety. If you won’t accept that responsibility, you are prohibited from using our information.
This post was originally published in November 2019.