The Columbia River is one of the most interesting and beautiful geographic features of the Inland Northwest, from its headwaters in British Columbia to the dramatic Gorge just east of Portland. When you look at the river remember, as I do, that this was a major portion of the road Lewis and Clark took to the Pacific under President Jefferson’s sponsorship. While it lacks the dramatic forest of the coast, the Columbia River Gorge in Central Washington is still an impressive place to visit — or at least to stop on your journey east from Seattle. There are two locations on either bank that I’d driven by on I-90 dozens of times, traveling between the coast and my home in Spokane. I’d seen signs for both and kept telling myself,, “I gotta stop there there soon”. Finally one day while traveling with my older son, Bryan, to Yakima we decided to visit both locations.
Heading west from Spokane, you pass the small town of George (ie. George, Washington). You pass the Gorge Amphitheater, a popular summer time concert venue on the banks of the Columbia. The River in this area is dilated by the downriver Wanapum Dam which forms the Wanapum Reservoir. The area was the historic home of the Wanapum Indians which lived on the banks of the Columbia. As you cross over the Vantage Bridge, you need to get ready to exit for the Gingko Petrified Forest State Park which lies north of the small village of Vantage. Follow the signs.
The petrified trees in this area were discovered about a century ago but especially were unearthed when the old Vantage highway was being built in the 1930s. The petrified wood is of dozens of different species of trees including some no longer found in the region (such as the Gingko), and indicates a prior warm, probably swampy, environment rather than the desert conditions currently existing. Most of the trees were discovered when the old Vantage highway was being built and a preserve was created (which is now a National Natural Landmark).
Stop at the Gingko Petrified Park visitor center. This stop is a highlight in your visit to this State Park. The landscape contains dozens of samples of petrified wood collected from the park including some logs. The vistas of the Columbia River and the Gorge are phenomenal and there is a collection of dozens of petroglyphs (removed from the old river bank for their preservation when the dam was completed). The exhibits inside the center are worth a brief visit as well. The park includes camping and picnicking sites and boat launch facilities
There is a trail several miles inland which we hiked. It’s a fine desert walk but we’d hoped to see some petrified trees. We did, but these trees were all subterranean (partly dug out and secured with grates and concrete). Its nothing like the display of petrified logs in Petrified Forest National Park, where many of the petrified logs lie exposed on the surface. The ancient forest here is covered by volcanic ash and sage. We were treated to a nice wildflower display but felt a little disappointed that we’d not had a chance to see a petrified forest.
After you’ve completed your hike in Gingko Park return to I-90 and head east over the Vantage bridge. Very shortly you’ll come to an exit for Wild Horses Monument, which you can only access from the east-bound lanes. On a ridge immediately to the east you’ll see the horse monument. This is one of the best outdoor art exhibits I’ve seen. Situated up a moderately steep hill and stretching over 200 feet in length are over a dozen life-size statues of mustangs. The art, constructed in 1989 in celebration of Washington State’s centennial, is entitled “Grandfather cuts loose the ponies” and is based on an Indian legend about the creation of horses. Each statue is made of 1″ thick steel plates and each is in a unique pose (running, rearing, jumping), but the effect of the herd to me has more power than any individual statue. The artist — David Govedare of Chewelah (who also crafted the well known Bloomsday runner statues in Spokane) — has done a great job in creating the illusion of a herd of wild horses running across this mesa.
Explore the area around each of the horses. Vandals are prone to spraying them with graffiti, but hopefully you will encounter a fairly pristine exhibit. Continue walking up the trail that heads up the slope for as long as you want. Be sure to turn around and take in the view of the horses and Columbia River once in a while. Keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. When you feel you’ve walked far enough, double back to the car and enjoy the view as you descend.
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