Destinations Northwest – High Desert Trail Riding in Washington State

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by Robert Eversole


High Desert Trail Riding in Washington State by Robert Eversole
Robert Eversole riding near Burke Lake. Photo credit Robert Eversole

Washington is known as The Evergreen State. Home to “Rain City” (Seattle), it is portrayed in countless movies as uniformly rainy and dreary. Indeed, with the majority of our population west of the Cascades, it’s easy to forget that a large portion of the state consists of a much drier, semi-arid climate that prevails east of the Cascade Range. Burke Lake, Odessa and Northrup Canyon are just a few dry land riding areas filled with deep canyons and towering rock formations. They beckon west siders like a magnet, those who have grown weary of spring rain clouds and gloom. It’s fascinating that the force that created these fabulous areas is the same one at work on the western side of the mountains: water.

The most commonly held theory of how the scabland area came to be is that back in the days of glaciers, wooly mammoths and perhaps some of our more grizzled members, an enormous lake in Montana (Lake Missoula) burst causing a spectacular flood. This catastrophic flood scoured deep into eastern Washington and formed the complex network of channels and coulees that now make for outstanding exploring and riding for horse and mule owners. Let’s take a quick spin through some of Washington’s finest dry country riding areas for some early season trail excursions. These are wonderful places to visit when the mountain snows melt away and allow access into the high back country, but before the high desert gets unduly hot.

By the time you’re reading this, Burke Lake will have already hosted a myriad of rides starting in April. It will continue to be a fine area for at least a few more weeks, before the heat of summer really starts to take off. If geology is of any interest to you Burke, with its towering basalt cliffs, should be on your to-ride list. This is Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife land so be sure to include a Discover Pass on your pre-trip checklist. Camping is primitive here with little beyond vault toilets in terms of amenities. Be sure to bring your own potable water and a method for containing your stock that doesn’t involve trees as you won’t find many of those here, either.

Odessa is another dry land area that is excellent for your early season tune-up rides. Often referred to as Pacific Lake Ranch, this is a Bureau of Land Management area and as such a Discover Pass is not required at this location. Fortunately, there is still much to discover as you wind through the sage brush and dry lake beds. As the name implies, this is the location of a former ranch and many of the original structures are still intact, including corrals for holding your stock. Other amenities are limited to restrooms.

Northrup Canyon is a scabland oasis of meadows rimmed by scenic basalt cliffs and surrounded by desert. Part of Steamboat Rock State Park, in the winter months this desert canyon offers excellent viewing of large flocks of bald eagles who, like us, are fleeing the incessant rain of the more coastal areas. If you’re not so interested in watching the many types of birds that call the area home, you’ll still find the idyllic abandoned homestead, and meadows filled with wild flowers worth the trip. As I mentioned, this is part of a state park so be sure to have your Discover Pass with you. Also worth noting is that there are only five designated equestrian camping spots available so you should call the park to reserve one if you plan anything other than a day ride.

As always, for more information on this and many other great horse riding and camping areas in Washington and beyond visit


Published June 2014 Issue

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