Cowiche Mountain– Explore Snow Mountain Ranch’s flowery mountain

 

Quick Facts:

Location: Snow Mountain Ranch, Yakima County, WA

Land Agency: Cowiche Canyon Conservancy

Roundtrip: 6.2 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,250 feet

Contact: Cowiche Canyon Conservancy

Notes: Dog must be leashed

Access: Follow I-90 east to I-82. Continue east on I-82 and take Exit 31A onto US 12. Then head west and take the exit for N 40th Ave. Follow this arterial south for 1.6 miles. Then turn right onto Summitview Road and drive for 8.8 miles. Bear left onto Cowiche Mill Road and continue for 2.5 miles to trailhead on your left.

Good to Know: dog-friendly (on leash), kid-friendly, historic, exceptional wildflowers, practice Leave No Trace Principles

 

Hike to the top of a broad windswept ridge and savor sunshine and sweeping views. Cowiche Mountain is the centerpiece to an old cattle ranch transformed into a nature preserve. Wildlife and wildflowers are prolific here. Especially the latter come spring when the surrounding shrub-steppe is shrouded in brilliant golds and purples. And the views? They’re breathtaking and extensive from the gateway peaks of the Yakima River Canyon to Washington’s two highest summits—the snowy volcanic twins Rainier and Adams.

Welcome to Snow Mountain Ranch, a historic cattle ranch now part of the Cowiche Canyon Conservancy’s more than 5,000 acres of protected lands west of Yakima. Founded in 1985, the conservancy is a nonprofit land trust whose mission is to protect natural areas of the surrounding shrub-steppe and to help connect people to the outdoors. The Conservancy maintains more than 30 miles of trails on its two largest parcels—Snow Mountain Ranch and Cowiche Canyon.

Study the map at the kiosk (you can download one on the Conservancy’s website) and head down the Entry Trail. Immediately pass the Garry Oak Trail, which makes a short loop through a stand of oaks. This important tree for wildlife—particularly the threatened western gray squirrel, grows here at its northern limits on the Cascades’ eastern slopes.

Next, pass remnants of the ranch’s old irrigation system. Then come to the South Fork Cowiche Creek flowing through a grove of towering cottonwoods. Cross the creek on a wide bridge and reach a major trail junction. For a grand loop up Cowiche Mountain head right on the Cowiche Mountain West Trail. Pass the Riparian Trail West Loop and some old ranch remnants. Then pass the Ditch Trail and come to another trail junction.

Here the Wildflower Trail branches left. Take it—or the Cowiche Mountain West Trail—they meet up in one mile. Start climbing out of a small sage-filled draw. Pass the Balanced Rock Trail and continue up a broad gentle slope. Look back—views of the valley and surrounding hills are emerging. They only get better with each new footstep.

Look down—from late March through early summer the trail is lined with showy blossoms. Grass widows, desert parsley, arrowleaf balsamroot, biscuitroots, clovers violets, lupine, phlox and more. From late summer through winter these sage-steppe hills are quite drab—but in spring they burst with color—and provide enough purple and gold to satisfy a UW student or alum. Scan the blossoms and grasses for rustling. Perhaps you’ll spot a rare Townsend’s ground squirrel. You should have no problem catching glimpses of horned larks—they nest all over these hills. Their melodious calls fill the sage-scented air in spring.

Continue hiking across open country passing old fence posts in varying degrees of decay and the first of a couple of old bath tubs once used by thirsty cattle. At about 1.2 miles come to the Bench Trail. You can make a shorter loop and avoid more climbing by following this trail left for .9 mile to the Cowiche Mountain Trail East. Otherwise continue forward climbing more steadily up Cowiche Mountain. Soon once again reach the Cowiche Mountain Trail West. Head left on it. The trail eventually bends left to approach the long ridge crest of Cowiche Mountain. Be sure to look over your shoulder. What a view! Adams to the southwest. Goat Rocks directly west—and to the northwest rising above everything is Rainier.

The trail now follows the crest of the ridge paralleling a large elk fence demarcating the property line between the Snow Mountain Ranch and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife property. At about 3.4 miles come to a junction. Here a path continues a short distance east to near the 2,968-foot east summit of Cowiche Mountain. The highest point on this nearly 12-mile long mountain is much higher and much farther west. A radio tower sits on the east summit, but that won’t detract from the views. They are sweeping—particularly to the east where you can see the city of Yakima, the southern opening of the Yakima River Canyon, the dramatic I-82 bridges over Selah Creek and the desolate peaks of the Yakima Firing Center.

Now follow the Cowiche Mountain East Trail descending off of the flowered and windswept mountain crest. Pass the eastern end of the Bench Trail and dip and climb out of a small draw that houses a seasonal creek. At about 5.5 miles come to a junction. Now either follow the Ditch Bank Trail or Riparian Trail back to the Entry Trail. The Ditch Bank Trail is slightly shorter and a little easier following alongside an old irrigation ditch. The Riparian Trail East hugs the banks of the South Fork Cowiche Creek beneath a canopy of cottonwoods. The bird-watching along both trails is excellent. Then retrace your steps on the Entry Trail back to the trailhead. Be sure to check yourself, kids and dogs for ticks before reflecting on what an incredible wildflower hike you just completed.

 

Craig Romano, is an award winning author of twenty hiking guidebooks, including 100 Classic Hikes Washington (Mountaineers Books) which spotlights the very best hikes capturing the full essence of the Evergreen State.

 

For information on where to stay and on other things to do in Yakima, check out

 

 

 

 

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