Outdoor enthusiasts who find themselves in eastern Washington will want to plan a trek along the Umatilla Rock Trail, a short, relatively easy hike that rewards visitors with stunning scenery and unparalleled views of the arid, rocky desert that more closely resembles the Utah Canyonlands than the Evergreen State.
Exploring the Area: Grand Coulee, Umatilla Rock and Dry Falls
Umatilla Rock is located in a region of eastern Washington known as the “Channeled Scablands,” where the scrubby desert landscape is slashed with long channels called coulees carved into the bedrock. Geologists theorize that the coulees were formed by glacial flooding during the Ice Age, leaving behind gaping miles-long maws in the earth.
The largest of these, Grand Coulee, is roughly miles long; at its midpoint is the majestic Umatilla Rock, a narrow blade of rock that slices through the coulee and overlooks Dry Falls. Once a 400-foot-tall waterfall with a flow rate 10 times more powerful than all the rivers on Earth combined, the water at Dry Falls ceased flowing approximately 10,000 years ago, leaving a rocky, barren outcropping in its wake.
Today, the area is a recreational mecca, perfect for hiking, camping, fishing and water sports. It’s also home to an abundance of wildlife, including trumpeter swans, western bluebirds, river otters, badgers, elk and moose. This area has some of the best hikes in Washington as well.
Hiking Umatilla Rock Trail
The trailhead is located in Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park, a 3,774-acre camping park with more than 12 miles of freshwater shoreline at the bottom of Dry Falls. A Discover Pass is required for entry and parking. You can camp here overnight and spend several days exploring the other trails, lakes and amenities in addition to the Umatilla Rock Trail. From the campground, you’ll take Deep Lake Road, continuing right at the fork for approximately two miles until you reach the parking area and the gate leading to the trailhead.
The trail itself winds counterclockwise around the base of Umatilla Rock. The 2.7-mile loop is well-marked in red and takes between one and two hours to complete depending on your skill level. With an overall elevation gain of just 177 feet, the trek is accessible to both novice and veteran hikers.
As you plan your hike, keep in mind that temperatures in the region can reach triple digits in the summer, and even late spring and early fall can be dangerously warm. Additionally, there is no shade anywhere on the trail, so apply sunscreen liberally and wear a hat and other protective clothing. Hydrate well beforehand and bring plenty of water, and consider starting your hike at dawn: not only will you avoid the hottest part of the day, but you’ll also get to see the colors of the sunrise splashing over Umatilla Rock and the canyonlands below.
Starting out, the trail is dry and rocky, and you may see occasional splashes of green if the region has received any rainfall in recent days. Large rocks and boulders line the sides of the path. About a half-mile into your trek, be sure to look out for the basalt pillars torn from the face of the rock during its tumultuous Ice Age years. You’ll continue northeast for about a mile before taking a sharp left around the north end of Umatilla Rock, following the red markings back to the trailhead.
From the main trail, there are also a few branch trails of interest that will take you a bit further up the side of the mountain. These offshoots offer excellent views of the greener valleys below the rock, with the blue waters of Dry Falls Lake and Perch Lake shimmering like oases in the desert.
Once you’ve finished the hike, be sure to explore some of the other attractions in the park. The historic Vista House Overlook provides sweeping views of Dry Falls and the surrounding lakes, while the air-conditioned respite of the Dry Falls Visitor Center features a large bookstore and interpretive exhibits highlighting the region’s geological and early human history.
The arid desert climate of eastern Washington provides a striking contrast to the rainy, forested landscape along the state’s western coast, and nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than the area around Umatilla Rock. Hiking the Umatilla Rock Trail is a must for visitors to the area—just be sure to prepare your body sufficiently for the unforgiving sun and dry heat you’ll encounter on this short, scenic journey.