March 21, 2024

Gateway to the Blue Mountains

userBy Gwen Dildine user0 Comment

Southeast Washington is a vast landscape. In just one county the annual rainfall can vary at times by 30 inches. Natural springs bubble up throughout the Blue Mountains while sage brush anchors the dry, desert soils. Sprinkled throughout the region are numerous small towns that reflect this diverse landscape. Restaurants capture the local food scene; coffee shops provide a meeting place where big ideas are put into action; farmers blend traditions of generations past with new-age technology; and local agencies work fearlessly to build a thriving community.

While spirits are high, conversations are sometimes tough. At the core, there is compassion and dedication because the place is so special it is worth the challenge. One particular southeast Washington town calls itself the gateway to the Blue Mountains, a basecamp for adventure. Dayton, Washington is just that place.

Welcome to Dayton, Washington

Located along Highway 12, Dayton is centrally located with Pullman and Spokane to the north, Clarkston and Lewiston on the Washington and Idaho border to the east, Walla Walla just south, and Tri-Cities, its desert neighbor, to the west. Dayton’s central location is ideal for day trips and convenient for longer escapes into the wild. With four seasons of outdoor recreation from the sturgeon-filled bottom of the Snake River to the top of the ski lift at Bluewood, there is plenty in between to keep families and thrill-seekers alike exploring.

Like all good adventures, it is important to make camp before venturing out. Lewis & Clark Trail State Park is located conveniently off the highway but tucked just far enough away from the bustle. There are twenty-eight camp spots that provide quick access to both Waitsburg and Dayton. Fishing and birding are welcome activities, and the sound of the Touchet River helps drown out any residual road noise.

More remote options include the Tucannon River RV Park and Blue Mountain Base Camp RV Park and Campground, along the Tucannon and Touchet Rivers, respectfully. For in-town accommodations, hotels in downtown Dayton provide the perfect opportunity to balance rugged adventures and modern conveniences. There are unique and delicious dining options waiting in town, so you can rest and recharge.

Rock Hill Trail (Photo Credit: Gwen Dildine)

One of the underappreciated elements of outdoor recreation is signage. The Rock Hill Trail joins its industrial neighbors and provides an in-town option for a stroll. It is a mellow trail that can easily be accomplished with a coffee or smoothie in hand. A bench or two provide a prime spot to watch the sunset across the valley.

Explore Columbia County

The opportunity for outdoor recreation is equally as bountiful as the bushels of wheat the Walla Walla Valley produces each year. Taking a tour of the seasons, the dry eastern Washington snowpack is prime for gliding through on any number of toys, human-powered or horsepower.

Bluewood is the perfect mountain to take a few lessons and gain confidence if you’re new to the sport or just dive right in as an expert. This winter wonderland is great for the entire family. With recent development and more dreamy plans on the horizon, return trips are a must.

Depending on the snow level, several popular hiking routes turn into formidable snowshoeing trails. The Middle Point Ridge Trail and Touchet Tie Trail serve multiple purposes, including mountain biking or dirt bike rides for seasoned two-wheelers.

The Touchet Corral Sno-Park, which is a maintained winter parking area, provides a welcome off-road loading zone and gear up area. Popular with snowmobilers, the Touchet Corral Trail connects to the Wildcat/Cavalier Springs Trail, forming a robust web of remote access into the Blue Mountains.

Tucannon Lakes (Photo Credit: Gwen Dildine)

The Tucannon Lakes are an easily accessible and family-friendly fishing spot. With eight lakes to choose from, changing locations to hold the attention of the little ones keep the casts going. Camping opportunities are readily available throughout the area, so pack to cook the day’s catch over a campfire.

Fishing the Tucannon Lakes & Snake River

As the snow melts and the Blue Mountains turn green, the water eventually finds its way to either the Snake or Columbia Rivers. Those waterways return Chinook Salmon to the Columbia Basin. In addition to these iconic and culturally significant fish, Walleye are a delicious prize catch.

There are eight lakes that make up the Tucannon Lakes. Stocked with rainbow trout, these lakes are great for all. Nestled in the W.T. Wooten Wildlife Area, these lakes not only provide fishing opportunities, but also a chance to enjoy the outdoors. Visitors can easily wander the lakes in search of the big one, bird watch, or just enjoy the scenery and fresh air. With the longer days that spring promises, adding an evening cast or two, a jaunt up a trail, or an evening ride into the forest is the perfect way to shake off the fog of winter.

All Trails Lead to Summer

The Blue Mountains are a unique range. Unlike the dramatic peaks of the volcanic Cascade Mountain range, water shaped this landscape. Atop a ridge, the mountains meet the horizon, almost appearing like the ocean meeting the sky, somehow flat. Only the few thousand foot descent to a Wild & Scenic River can provide the appropriate reminder that there is definitely a significant elevation change.

The Middle Point Ridge Trail proves the efficiency of switch backing up a mountain. Climbing up from the Touchet River, the canopy gives way to wide open views. This trail is a perfect option for sticking close to town while making time for much needed outdoor recreation.

The Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests encompass 3.3 million acres and three wilderness areas. In Columbia County, the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness Area is remote, challenging, breathtaking, and worth the effort. The highest point in the northern Blues is Oregon Butte Lookout, a fire lookout that is staffed most of the summer by a dedicated volunteer. A few dispersed camp spots dot the ridge, but it is possible to make this adventure a day trip.

Tipping the grueling meter in difficulty is the Slick Ear Trail. What goes down, must come back up, and the ascent out of the Wenaha River drainage will test even the best winter workout routine. With the rugged landscape comes trail systems that are not as maintained as many hikers have come to expect. Bring a sense of adventure, come prepared, do the research, and embrace its remoteness, there are few opportunities to escape the constant bombardment our daily routines require.

Balancing the intensity of the mountain trails is the tranquility of a river. Lyons Ferry State Park sits at the confluence of the Palouse and Snake Rivers. Paddleboarding, kayaking, and fishing are welcome activities to beat the summer heat. There is also a boat launch at the state park and across the Snake River at the Lyons Ferry Marina KOA, which is a great place to camp and resupply. The Swim the Snake event in August provides a unique experience, and for those who accomplish the task, it garners instant life-long bragging rights.

Ski Bluewood (Photo Credit: Gwen Dildine)

Ski Bluewood is a phenomenal mountain resort. Long, varied runs keep any level of snow enthusiast busy all day. The lodge offers delicious food (even local BBQ) in an updated space. Stay tuned for summer access. Bluewood might just become the one-stop spot for outdoor recreation in the Blues.

Don’t Get Stuck in a Rut

It is hard to let summer go. The long days are easy to love with more time to explore and relax. More time to wander Dayton, meet new people, and be curious. Fall in love with Dayton all over again as the leaves change and the mountains collect the first dusting of snow, continuing the beautiful rhythm of recreation. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Things are just heating up!

Stories of elk camp planned months in advance have the valley bugling. Salmon start their journey home, and it’s time to find all the Chap-Stick left in jacket pockets last year. It is tempting to conclude outdoor excursions for the year, but likely the trails are still in good shape, and as Adventure Fit always professes, water sports are a year-round activity.

Sticking close to town is always a great option. The Rock Hill Trail is a simple yet rewarding walk that gains just enough elevation to show off the Touchet River Valley. Rising to eye level with the Jolly Green Giant on the adjacent hillside, the view is a reminder of just how grounded in agriculture the town is. Returning to street level, the Touchet River Levee Trail is another convenient option to stretch those travel legs.

At this point, town beckons for attention. The hard work and passion of community-building endeavors is showcased by places like the Blue Mountain Station, new restaurants and businesses, and mainstays that have anchored town for decades. Dayton is the gateway to the northern Blue Mountains, but it is also a destination worth exploring.

Outside Walla Walla, the Gateway to Outdoor Recreation Information

The mission of Outside Walla Walla remains to showcase outdoor recreation across the northern Blue Mountain region. So many activities fit into that category. There are over 100 places to explore listed on the site, but truly the opportunities are endless. The map helps illustrate where the adventure begins, and the depth of information presented is based on authentic, first-hand experience, not just crowd sourced from the internet or generated by AI.

Visiting Dayton, Washington is more than a singular attraction. A family can learn to ski together or make s’mores at a campground along a river. Backcountry enthusiasts can hike through overgrown and underutilized trails. The same spot on the Palouse River gives access to paddleboarding, fishing, kayaking, and boating. The menus are locally sourced, and the hospitality is small town. Are you ready to choose Columbia County?