Weekends: Juniper Dunes Wilderness, Washington

Choose your own adventure in this trailless, dune-covered wilderness.
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Choose your own adventure in this trailless, dune-covered wilderness.

The canine footprints are the closest thing to a trail I’ve seen all day, so I follow them. While the high country remains under a blanket of snow, this desert oasis is carpeted with brightly blooming wildflowers—which is why I’m tackling a 14.4-mile loop in this mostly trail-free wilderness in March. Crisp spring air surges into my lungs as I trace the coyote’s path over grass-topped sand dunes and through thickets of silvery sagebrush. The coyote tracks plunge into a grove of gnarled western juniper, one of the last stands in the Pacific Northwest, and I follow. A startled great horned owl takes flight as I arrive. Finally, I catch a glimpse of my quarry: a lone coyote perched high on a sandy ridge, his lithe form silhouetted against the golden light of the fading sun. As he trots out of sight below the horizon, I wonder what else I’ll discover in this hidden kingdom of sun and sand. BY PAUL CHISHOLM


Turn-by-turn
From the Juniper Road parking turnout
(1) 
Follow the sandy OHV road north for .5 mile.
(2) Just before the road passes beneath powerlines, make a right onto a lesser-defined OHV road and follow it .9 mile west to the wilderness boundary.
(3) Continue north on the OHV road, paralleling the wilderness boundary, until you reach a gate at mile 2.6.
(4) Cross into the wilderness and navigate 3.6 miles northeast (off-trail) to a large dune with expansive northward views at 46.416773, -118.837523.
(5) Make your way east and south to loop 5.2 miles back to the wilderness boundary at mile 11.4 (46.387290, -118.887820)
(6) Retrace your steps 3 miles to your car.

Campsite
Juniper grove (mile 9.3)
Pitch your tent in the largest juniper grove in the wilderness near 46.391677, -118.845315; it should be around mile 9.3 if you follow the writer’s route. There are no established camps, but the surrounding trees will protect your site from the strong winds that often blast the Juniper Dunes. Pack plenty of water; there are no sources within the wilderness. As the sun sets, climb to the nearby ridgetop and watch the dunes light up with day’s last rays.

Choose your own adventure
There are no paths in the Juniper Dunes Wilderness, but numerous game trails crisscross the area, and the land is open and easily navigable, meaning limitless potential for custom trips. Most of the juniper trees are in the central portion of the wilderness, while the largest dunes are in its northern reaches. Novice hikers wary of navigation challenges may still see many of the area’s scenic highlights by walking along the boundary fence on the west side of the wilderness.

A desert gem
The Juniper Dunes are home to a number of rare and endemic plant species such as gray cryptantha, which only grows on actively moving sand dunes in the inland Northwest. Look for this low-growing perennial forb in loose, unconsolidated sand on southwest-facing dune slopes; it has a fuzzy gray stem and white, quarter-size, daisy-like flowers, which bloom in late spring.

DO IT Trailhead Varies with road conditions. There is a parking area with a kiosk (46.360928, -118.904305; 17 miles northeast of Pasco on Juniper Rd.), though soft sand may require visitors to park farther away. Gear up REI in Kennewick; rei.com Season Year-round, though spring brings blooming foliage. Permits Required for overnight stays (free) through the Spokane BLM Custom-centered map bit.do/JuniperDunes ($15) Contact bit.do/BLMjuniper Trip data backpacker.com/JuniperDunes

Trail Facts

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