by Gayle Picken
Walking among wildflowers in the rolling foothills and canyons of Central Washington is like being dropped into the middle of a fairy tale.
The landscape is a giant kaleidoscope of colors dancing in every direction you look—yellows, purples, pinks and whites offset the soft sage greens covering the hills in the spring.
This is my first spring season living on the east side of the Cascades and I can’t get enough of these cheerful Arrowleaf Balsamroot and Lupine wildflowers popping up everywhere. I even found some growing in my yard 🙂
The balsamroot start blooming in April, so some of the lower elevations have already reached their peak, but trust me, there are still plenty of beautiful spring wildflowers in Central Washington foothills for you to enjoy through May.
Here’s what I’ve learned about wildflower hikes and drives in Central Washington. I hope you get a chance to see the early spring wildflowers in the foothills on the east side of the Cascades. It’s an experience you’ll remember!
Wildflowers at the Columbia River Gorge
The Columbia River Gorge is known for beautiful wildflower displays against the backdrop of the gorge with views of Mt. Hood in the distance. There are several hikes on both the Oregon and Washington side of the river where you’ll get great views and fantastic wildflower displays. I chose to explore Washington’s Columbia Hills State Park.
Columbia Hills State Park
I read about the gorgeous wildflowers at Columbia Hills State Park on the Washington side of Columbia River Gorge near Maryhill and Goldendale. During my first visit, I parked at the Crawford Oaks Trailhead off Hwy 14 and walked a mile or so up to the trail system on the hills. I then followed the Vista Loop trail and it was magical–wildflowers as far as you could see with beautiful views of the Columbia River and Mount Hood.
There are miles of trails to explore in these hills, including a trail to the historic Dalles Mountain Ranch. Here is a nice description of the hike plus a map from Friends of the Columbia Gorge. I didn’t realize at the time that I could have driven up to the ranch and started my hike from there. So I came back the next week to check it out.
The road to the ranch is a gravel road, but in good condition and there were several cars parked at the trailhead at the top of the hill above the ranch. And if you’re not in the mood for a hike, you can enjoy the wildflowers right from your car!
This is a State Park, so a Discover Pass is required for parking. And while you’re in the area, be sure to check out the collection of Native American pictographs and petroglyphs located in the Horse Thief Lake area of the park.
Wildflowers in Wenatchee and Leavenworth
There are many wildflower hikes and scenic drives to explore this area surrounding Leavenworth, Plain, Dryden, Cashmere and Wenatchee. This year I checked out Sage Hills above Wenatchee and Ski Hill in Leavenworth. Both areas are spectacular!
Sage Hills Trails in Wenatchee
I learned about the Sage Hills trails through friends on social media. What a fantastic place! It’s multi-use trail system in the rolling foothills above Wenatchee, close to town with several access points. There are 12 miles of trails for a long loop or you can choose a shorter hike with an out-and-back route.
Parking areas are in neighborhoods and can fill up fast. There are no facilities at most of the trailheads, so use the restroom ahead of time. Bring water, pack all of your garbage out, keep dogs on a leash, and have fun! The trail is open to mountain bikers and hikers and can get crowded on weekends, so be ready to share the trail. No parking permits required.
I’ve only begun to explore this amazing Sage Hills area and found the following resources to be helpful:
- Washington Trails Association – Sage Hills Trail
- Alltrails – Sage Hills Loop
- Wenatchee Outdoors – Sage Hills Complete Trail System
Tip: There is a new TREAD Map app available that provides comprehensive trail maps and real-time updates on a wide range of recreation trails in the greater Wenatchee area. I’ll be checking this out for future adventures.
Ski Hill in Leavenworth
As you drive through the town of Leavenworth on Hwy 2, you’ll see a sign for Ski Hill. When the ski season is over, the trails are open to hikers and mountain bikers and in the spring, the hills are covered with wildflowers.
I followed the signs and found the parking lot mostly empty on a Tuesday afternoon. The wildflowers were immediately visible and made for some great photo ops.
There are about 6 miles of trails to explore. Pets are allowed on leashes. No parking fees or permits required during spring, summer or fall.
Learn more here: Ski Hill trails in Leavenworth
Wildflowers in Chelan and Winthrop
In the coming weeks, I’m planning a trip up north to Chelan and the Winthrop to look for wildflowers. I’ve heard that the hills come alive with wildflowers in the spring. Fun fact: the arrowleaf balsamroot is so prevalent in the Methow Valley that the Twisp Chamber of Commerce chose this flower as its logo!
I asked some friends in the area for their recommendations for wildflower hikes, and here’s what they suggest:
- Rex Derr trail at Pearrygin Lake State Park in Winthrop
- Any of the trails at Sun Mountain, including the Patterson Lake trail
- Meadowlark Natural Area in Winthrop
- Chelan Butte in Chelan
- Echo Ridge Trails in Chelan
Wildflowers in Cle Elum
Once you’ve trained your eye to look for the bright sunflower balsamroot, you’ll start noticing them everywhere!
I’ve seen these sunny flowers along I-90 from Cle Elum to Ellensburg, along Hwy 97 over Blewett Pass, and along the main roads while driving through the towns of Roslyn and Cle Elum.
One of my favorite scenic drives in this area is Hwy 10 through the upper canyon and it’s currently bursting with colorful arrowleaf balsamroot and lupine!
Scenic wildflower drive: Highway 10 from Cle Elum to Ellensburg
State Route 10 follows the Yakima river through the upper canyon from Teanaway to Hwy 97 north of Ellensburg. The fascinating geology of the region can be seen in the rock face (watch out for falling rocks!), and during spring the hillside explodes with colors of the wildflowers.
There are a number of pull offs if you want to stop and take photos or enjoy views of the river and hillside.
Want to learn more about wildflowers?
To learn some fun facts, history and wildflower identification info, check out these online field guides:
Enjoy your wildflower adventures and share your photos and stories with us on social media. Tag @daytripsinwa for a chance to be featured!