Discover Cowiche Canyon
By Sara Bristol
Enjoying the great outdoors as a family doesn’t always mean loading up the ice chest, marshmallows and tent poles into the SUV and driving for hours in search of a nice, quiet place.
Nature, it turns out, is right here in our backyard.
Just a few miles west of Yakima, the Cowiche Canyon Trail is a great place for little legs to get some trail time. Built on the bed of an abandoned railroad line, the 2.9-mile trail is flat and wide; a sturdy jogging stroller should be able to handle the gravel trail bed. On foot, the walk is definitely more of a stroll than a hike – especially with dawdling preschoolers.
“I think it’s a great place for kids,” says David Hagen, a board member of the Cowiche Canyon Conservancy, the non-profit group that owns and manages the trail. “Being an old railroad bed, the trail is so flat and wide that it’s really safe. It’s a great place for kids to be out in nature.”
In July, six families with young children joined Hagen for a guided tour of the Canyon Trail, which features nine trestle bridges over Cowiche Creek. Our bunch, the most intrepid, made it to bridge No. 6 before stopping for a snack and turning back.
Be sure to use sunscreen, bring plenty of water and plan your walk during the cooler hours of the day. The trail is especially sun-blasted in summer when the sun is high. When the sun is lower on the horizon, the canyon walls may provide some shade.
Spring and fall are the best seasons to visit the canyon, recommends Hagen. “Spring has all the flowers, so it’s prettier and it’s green,” he says, adding that the trees’ fall colors are lovely, too, beginning in mid-September.
The canyon’s towering cliffs are mostly Columbia River basalt, a volcanic rock that spewed up from the earth’s surface up to 17 million years ago. Swirly formations along the top of the canyon’s north side are a different type of volcanic rock called andesite.
Want some more rockin’ trivia? This is the longest known flow of andesite in the world. (Hey, I knew you’d like that.)
Along the trail, a lush border of trees and shrubs line Cowiche Creek, but the trail’s overall topography is more representative of our region’s arid shrub-steppe environment. It’s not a desert, Hagen says.
Rather, “steppe” is a word that refers to vast treeless grasslands. In areas such as the Yakima Valley, where the dominant vegetation is shrubs, the term “shrub-steppe” applies.
Plants in Cowiche Canyon include lupine, purple sage, tall buckwheat and the Western White Clematis. On our visit, we spied several small birds and two hawks.
“If you’re lucky, in the spring or fall, when it’s not too cold or too hot, you might see a Yellow-bellied Marmot,” Hagen says, referring to a native ground squirrel that weighs up to 11 pounds. “They live in the rocks and they have a kind of shrill whistle.”
Just for kicks, keep your eyes peeled for coyote. However, Hagen notes, “You’d probably have to be pretty lucky to see a coyote.”
Lizards and toads are more likely. But cautious parents should also be on the lookout for rattlesnakes.
“Usually, if they’re out there, they’re going to be right out on the trail in the sun,” Hagen says. “They hear you coming and slither away. They’re shy and they want to get away from you.”
What to do if you see one?
“Stop,” Hagen says, “and stomp your feet. They respond to vibration.”
Overall, the trail is safe for little explorers, Hagen advises. Just use common sense: It’s OK for kids to pick a sprig or two from the plants, but avoid plucking leaves by the handful.
It’s also OK to let kids climb a bit on the rocks, or toss a few stones in the creek. “Kids like to climb on rocks,” Hagen says.
The hiker’s rule of thumb is to leave things as they were. Pack out your trash and try not to disturb the plants or wildlife.
“It is a nature preserve,” Hagen says. “We have this tension between preserving (the land) and wanting it to be used.
“We want kids to have a hands-on experience. They don’t have to walk down the middle of the trail with their hands in their pockets. We want them to enjoy themselves.”
When they grow up, Hagen hopes, our children will spread the Conservancy’s message to their own children.
From Yakima, drive west on Summitview Avenue to Wiekel Road, about 5 miles west of 72nd Avenue. Turn right onto Wiekel Road, then follow the signs to the parking lot.
Filed under Featured Stories, From the Mag, Hikes, Outdoor Play