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4 Hikes in the West Plains to Experience Natural History & Wildlife

Posted on September 30, 2021 at 7:00 am

Photo: https://www.alltrails.com/members/ray-harrison-3

By Caitlin Wheeler

My first long solo hike (anything more than 6 miles is “long” to me) happened in the month of November. It was still early in my hiking career, and at the time, I thought conditions were probably suboptimal so late in the year. With greenery long past and even most of the bright fall foliage gone, I assumed the hike would be more of a physical challenge for me than anything else.

I was wrong. While spring may offer some of my favorite flowers and summer does lend long daylight hours for more opportunities to catch the outdoors, it’s fall that has my hiking heart.

Autumn and spring temperatures are far more tolerable to my sun-sensitive skin, and fall offers the added bonus of no snowmelt, so less mud. Days are still reasonably long (longer than winter at least), and as they shorten, I am especially eager to savor every bit of sunlight I can get. Those crepuscular hours of sunrise and sunset are great times to see deer, rabbits, owls, bats, and many other trail companions. And to top off those perfect conditions, fall is a great time to catch migratory birds you might not see the rest of the year.

If you’d like to seize the crisp weather and evening sightings, check out these easy to reach hiking trails in the West Plains of Spokane County. Or, head to a North Spokane or South Spokane trail from one of my previous blog posts. Also, don’t forget to review safe hiking tips before you head out.

West Plains Trails

Note: Travel times are an estimate and indicate travel by motor vehicle.

Palisades Park

This trail is close to the following libraries: Airway Heights (15 minutes); Cheney, Medical Lake, Moran Prairie, Spokane Valley, and The BookEnd (20 minutes); and North Spokane and Otis Orchards (25 minutes).

It’s hard to believe this beautiful expanse of forestland is a mere 15 minutes from the bustling center of downtown Spokane. Trails vary from steep and narrow to flat and broad, making this park great for casual walkers and intrepid explorers alike.

You can walk along the cliff edge for sunset views of the city and Mount Spokane. Or take trail 121, which follows a trickling creek down a narrow canyon (very marshy in springtime) to uncover the splendid Mystic Falls—a refreshing cool reprieve in summer and a stunning icy sight in winter.

Although popular among Spokane residents, the park offers enough secluded trails to easily find a bit of peace and moderate solitude for those who want it. This is one of my favorite places to take visitors to Spokane because you can easily loop it into dinner or shopping plans downtown.

Tips & technicalities

Parking for Palisades Park is free. Trails are not wheelchair accessible. Horses, leashed dogs, and cyclists are welcome.

Suggested reading

When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, edited by Joy Harjo

At a 2018 lecture at Whitworth University, poet Jericho Brown compared poetry to music. Many students were forced to read a handful of poets in high school and were told that these poems are what poetry is. Or better yet, imagine being handed a Lizzo CD and being told that it represented all music. Lizzo is a skilled artist, but she hardly represents the whole of music, or even the whole of a genre of music where her voice shines bright!

Just as you have to find your own personal music niche, you have to take the time to find the poetry that resonates for you.

Looking for your poetry niche is a great reason to pick up an anthology. Think of it like a Spotify recommended playlist. Browse liberally. Skip any songs that don’t grab you. Read something short and non-threatening, or something with formatting that catches your eye or something dense and rich and involved. When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through is just such an anthology you can jump into and try out.

I think this collection is a great choice for this particular park because Palisades offers both wide open meadows for sharing a book aloud among friends and quiet corners for reading silently while the birds sing around you. The collection features indigenous American writers and is split up into regions with each poet’s people-group listed alongside their name. I recommend starting with Gloria Bird’s featured poem to kick off your exploration with the Spokane tribe.

Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge

This trail is close to the following libraries: Cheney (5 minutes); Medical Lake and Airway Heights (25 minutes); and Moran Prairie (30 minutes).

Easy to navigate, well-paved for accessibility, and chock-full of beautiful wildlife, Turnbull is a perfect go-to destination for just about anyone who wants to spend some time in nature. Trek through wetland, forest, and fields of goldenrod in this lush, diverse preserve.

You can walk the super short quarter-mile Blackhorse Lake Boardwalk or go the distance on the leisurely 5.9-mile Stubblefield Lake loop. The Winslow Pool trail is well-suited to strollers and wheelchairs. On my last trek to this particular loop, we caught a magical sight of a squadron of pelicans as they took wing and soared through the sky.

Other wildlife to watch for at Turnbull include moose, muskrat, garter snakes, coyotes, beaver, porcupine, chipmunk, and all manner of marsh-loving birds. This natural wetland lies between the Snake River drainage system and the Spokane River drainage system.

Tips & technicalities

Parking is $3 per car from March to October. You can access the refuge office Monday-Friday from 7:30am–4pm. For more information, including information about group visits, check their website.

Some trails are wheelchair accessible. Wildlife observation blinds are scattered throughout the park. Please stay on the paths. Leashed dogs are welcome. Limited bicycling is allowed.

Restrooms and pavilion tables are available at the complex headquarters, with additional restrooms at some parking locations. No fishing, swimming, horseback riding, or collection of natural materials is allowed.

Suggested reading

Ice Age Floodscapes of the Pacific Northwest: A Photographic Exploration, by Bruce Norman Bjornstad

This title is more technical than the books I usually recommend. Ice Age Floodscapes of the Pacific Northwest is nevertheless a perfect companion for the West Plains because it uses maps, photos, and sketches to show you the history of the land you are traversing.

Skip to the Cheney-Palouse Tract chapter to learn how the channeled scablands were formed by prehistoric mega floods. Looking up from the book, you’ll begin to notice the signs of now-absent water in the ridges, pools, and gently rolling hills all around you.

Medical Lake Access Trail System

This trail is close to the following libraries: Medical Lake (less than 5 minutes); Airway Heights (15 minutes); Cheney (20 minutes); and Moran Prairie, Argonne, and Spokane Valley (30 minutes).

At the end of the last ice age, heavy flooding eroded much of the West Plains and the Palouse into what we now call the Channeled Scablands.

Medical Lake, which sits in one of the basalt trenches caused by this erosion, is one of the many oases left behind by this fascinating geological event. The trail links up a number of small grassy park areas, each with their own special features.

Coney Island Park is a tiny stretch of grass that’s close to my heart for being a mere ten-minute walk from the Medical Lake Library (my first library!). But many of these others offer great features, depending on what you are looking for: Pioneer Park and Wilcox Park provide playgrounds and restrooms; Peper Park is set up as a safe haven for wildlife; and Waterfront Park has sandy summery beach access.

The lake trail itself is a paved 3-mile loop that’s perfect for a quick, pleasant jaunt after work or on a long lunch. If you’re lucky, you may catch sight of deer, moose, bald eagles, red-winged blackbirds, and other native wildlife. In autumn, keep your eye out for apple trees too.

Tips & technicalities

Parking is free. The trail is wheelchair accessible. Restrooms and picnic benches are available at many stops along the way. Other amenities include a ball field, swimming, horseshoe pits, a boat launch, benches, and interpretive signs. In-season fishing access is available. Leashed dogs and cyclists are welcome.

Suggested reading

The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin

A book about apocalypses may not seem like the natural companion for a walk by the lake, but Jemisin’s gripping fantasy is so connected to the earth that it makes a perfect complement to a day spent in such a visible testament to a geological event.

I listened to the audio version of this book while walking a long flat trail like the one at Medical Lake. The sight of warm yellow grasses, the feel of sun on my neck, and the smell of earth anchored the rich storytelling in physical sensation, making both the hike and the book more memorable. If you are interested in the intersection of sweeping fantasy and intimate humanity, you’ll find this novel a great read.

Columbia Plateau Trail State Park: Cheney Trailhead

This trail is close to the following libraries: Cheney (less than 5 minutes); Medical Lake (20 minutes); Airway Heights and Moran Prairie (25 minutes); Argonne, Spokane Valley, The BookEnd, and Fairfield (35 minutes).

Columbia Plateau State Park Trail stretches 130 miles across West Plains and the Palouse, but I like the short 4-mile loop at this trailhead for its seclusion, ease of access, and the chance of seeing river otters.

It is tucked well away from the sights and sounds of town, yet it’s still just a 5-minute drive from Cheney Library. This flat gravel path quietly harbors a bald eagle reserve. Swans and swallows love to frequent the marshy wetland protected here, and the long low pond is the only place I’ve ever seen otters playing in the wild (so far!).

Make sure to take a picture of the map at the beginning of the trek because the loop can get a little confusing among the tall marsh reeds. And bring plenty of water, as a little less than half of this loop is forested. That said, it’s one of the best locations I know of for year-round hiking, as the flat, gravelly trail makes for fewer opportunities to slip in icy conditions. The marsh and bird boxes also ensure that wildlife is a likely sight regardless of the weather.

This is a perfect spot to bring a small picnic, or you can stop off in downtown Cheney after your hike for a bite to eat. If you want to extend your hike beyond the loop, follow the trail northeast to reach Fish Lake for a 7.5-mile, there-and-back hike that’s well worth the extra length.

Tips & technicalities

A Discover Pass is required for parking at this location. Restrooms and picnic tables are available. Wheelchair access is limited. Cyclists and leashed dogs are welcome. Please stay on the trail.

Suggested reading

Birdmania: A Remarkable Passion for Birds, by Bernd Brunner

Less a book about birding and more about birders themselves, Birdmania offers an enticing microhistory of ornithology. From Aristotle to Audobon and beyond, author Bernd Brunner offers insights into the quirky stories of a group of people as diverse as the birds they so enthusiastically watch.

Whether you’re a birder yourself or simply someone who enjoys experiencing history through a new and unique lens, this book has a lot to offer. Rich images appear every few pages to make any viewer’s heart sing, and they also effectively illustrate and amplify the stories. And if any particular story intrigues you, you can turn to the back of the book for a thorough bibliography of further reading.

Caitlin Wheeler

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