It's spring in the Northwest, you're trapped under overcast skies, and the trails in the Cascades are still thick with snow. But there's an escape hatch if you're longing to bail out of the soup: the desert oasis of the Juniper Dunes Wilderness in Washington.
Occupying 7,100 acres, Juniper Dunes is a vest-pocket wilderness where the sublime is in the details. Don't expect sapphirelike glacial tarns, high peaks, or old-growth rainforest. Instead, you'll find groves of western juniper, a camel of a tree that can survive on 8 inches of rain a year. This area supports the world's greatest concentration of this species found this far north.
And you'll find sand. Hiking through the gate (the entire wilderness is fenced), you'll feel as though you've been set free in an oversize sandbox. There are no established trails, so you'll get to test your map and compass skills. If you get turned around, no worries; you'll eventually hit a fence line.
Juniper Dunes can be brutally hot in summer, with temperatures topping the century mark, so visit in spring or fall. Regardless of the season, don't expect to find water. Pack in all you'll need; you'll be rewarded for the effort. The wilderness preserves a fascinating and rare ecosystem. Much of eastern Washington looked like this before the advent of irrigation, which turned wildlands into an agricultural breadbasket. Grasses, sagebrush, and wildflowers thrive in the dry conditions.
About 4 miles into the heart of the wilderness, we found a high dune and set up camp in the shade of a crooked juniper. Mule deer ambled by and snacked on grass. Western kingbirds fluttered in the juniper branches, squabbling over berrylike cones, pungent with the odor of gin. Looking out on the parade of dunes, you can imagine how this land looked 200 years ago, when Lewis and Clark cruised down the Snake River not far from here.
Eventually, I remembered that we, too, had to head back to the soggy lands west of the Cascades. Before hiking back to the car, I realized we'd packed in too much water. I lightened my load by pouring my imported rainwater on a juniper. For a weekend in the sun, it's a fair trade.
Juniper Dunes Wilderness, WA
DRIVE TIME: From Seattle, it's 234 miles (41/2 hours). From Portland, it's 225 miles
THE WAY: From Seattle, drive
I-90 west to Ellensburg and turn south on I-82 toward Richland. Exit at I-182/US 12 and continue 16 miles, turning northwest on Pasco-Kahlotus Road. After 5.5 miles, turn north on Peterson Road. Drive 4 miles and turn east onto a dirt road. The parking lot is 100 feet ahead. (Drive past the lot and your car will likely bog down in sand.) Hike the road 3.5 miles northeast to the gated wilderness boundary.
TRAILS: There are no established trails. Once inside the wilderness, you can hike an abandoned road west 1.5 miles to an old fence, then northeast
3 miles to the largest juniper groves.
ELEVATION: Peak elevation is 920 feet.
CROWD CONTROL: The area is open to hunters for 3 weeks in October and November. Wear bright colors. The Bureau of Land Management does not require permits, but you must cross private property to access the area. Stay on the main road and limit your activities until you reach BLM land.
GUIDES: USGS 7.5-minute quads Rye Grass Coulee, Levey, Levey SW, and Levey NE cover the wilderness (888-ask-usgs; http://mapping.usgs.gov/esic/to_order.html).
PIT STOP: Try Plutonium Porter at the Atomic Ale Brewpub in Richland.
WALK SOFTLY: Avoid delicate grasses and wildflowers.
CAN'T MISS: Stands of western juniper, which can survive on only 8 inches of rain a year.
MORE INFORMATION: Wenatchee BLM Field Office; (509) 665-2100.