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Ancient Lakes Backpack

Looking northwest into the Columbia River Gorge from the top of the wall

Ancient Lakes is a popular east-side backpacking destination in Washington State, especially early in the season when the Cascades and Olympics are snowed under. The area consists of two 1.5-mile-long coulees (box canyons formed by eroding basalt) separated by a 300-foot-tall “rib” or wall. The western ends of the coulees open to the Columbia River Gorge and the eastern ends are filled with lakes, specifically Ancient Lake and friends to the north and Dusty Lake (with its signature white bathtub ring) to the south.

I typically access the area from the west via the overnight parking lot at the end of Ancient Lake Road, which features a single portable toilet.

The waterfall at Ancient Lake
The waterfall at Ancient Lake

One of my favorite things about this area is the stark contrast to typical Pacific Northwest hiking. Often you find yourself confined to a view-less trail as it meanders through the woods. Here you’re free to wander wherever you like (although there are plenty of trails to follow) and the views stretch on for miles in every direction. The scenery looks like something straight out of a wild west movie, and the fact that the area is also quite popular with equestrians only adds to the feeling.

The northern coulee is the most popular by far, the rolling green hills near the lakes are frequently dotted with tents. The waterfall tucked into the northeast corner of Ancient Lake is of particular interest. The base of the falls is accessed by crossing the scree on the north side of the lake, and a steep footpath to the left of the falls allows you to reach the top as well.

Looking west as we head east into the southern coulee towards Dusty Lake
Looking west as we head east into the southern coulee towards Dusty Lake

Although it may not look like it from a distance, the peninsula on the north side of Dusty Lake can be reached from the eastern shore by following a footpath across the scree. A handful of established campsites are located near the tip of the peninsula. I suppose you could also cross the scree between the western shore and the peninsula although I haven’t tried this myself.

For this particular trip, I wanted to try something a bit different: I wanted to camp on top of the wall itself. I had explored the top of the wall on a previous trip but hadn’t tried pitching a tent so I wasn’t sure what to expect – it is, after all, a few hundred feet of solid basalt. However, it turned out that in many places the ground was covered in a very soft reddish-brown soil which was perfect for staking into.

A two-rainbow sunset over Dusty Lake
A two-rainbow sunset over Dusty Lake

At 2:45 AM I awoke to the yips and howls of the coyotes who inhabit the area as they ran up and down the length of the northern coulee for the next 10-15 minutes. The last time my wife and I were here we camped on the Dusty Lake peninsula and the coyotes were up around 5:30 AM so there was enough light to be able to watch them run along the scree slopes at the base of the wall.

The top of the wall is accessible from the northern coulee by taking a trail that begins at the base of the wall somewhat southwest of the lakes and ends in a gap overlooking Dusty Lake. From this gap head west along a faint trail to continue your ascent until you reach a very short but steep gully which you can then scramble up to reach the top.

From the southern coulee, the access is easier: about a third of the way along the wall from the tip is a wide “gap” or lower section in the top of the wall with a bowl-shaped depression at the west end – a faint trail follows the western edge of the scree here into the bowl. From the northwestern corner of the lower section, you can follow a trail up to the westernmost part of the wall where the prominent summit block resides.

The last rays of the setting sun on the northern coulee
The last rays of the setting sun on the northern coulee.

A word of warning: the area surrounding the lakes is farmland which means the water in the lakes is tainted by pesticides from farm runoff. Normal methods of water treatment are ineffective at removing pesticides which for most folks means you’ll need to carry in all of your water. However, the Sawyer Select S1 water filter removes both chemicals and pesticides so when I saw it was half-off at REI I snagged one to test out on this trip. On that note, let’s get to the good stuff:

Gear: What Worked

Sleep System/Shelter

  • First time taking out my new Therm-A-Rest compressible pillow and it was amazing. I finally decided to throw in the towel on inflatable pillows and get myself a nice heavy foam-filled pillow and I couldn’t be happier. It feels like a normal pillow, it compresses and supports like a normal pillow, and it doesn’t slide around like my pad is an ice skating rink.
  • Speaking of pads, this is also my first time taking out the Gossamer Gear Thinlight foam pad. I had heard that it was good for preventing pad slip and boy are the rumors true – this thing is like sleeping pad cement. I’ll write something more detailed later but the pad slip problem is now a solved problem in my world – that’s one less thing to be annoyed by. What didn’t:
  • Few things are worse than having to desperately rustle around in your tent at night looking for a light source so you don’t get eaten or wander off a cliff when you have to go pee. To avoid this I always wear my headlamp around my neck so that I don’t lose track of it. Then I read about the Gossamer Gear Photon Freedom LED Micro Light and I thought it might be a heck of a lot more comfortable, so I picked one up to try out on this trip. I’m happy to report that, yes, it was much more comfortable – I didn’t even notice it was there (except when it got caught up in my headphones while I was listening to audiobooks trying to fall asleep). It’s also easier to hang from the little clip at the top of my Six Moons Lunar Solo for use as a tent light.

Kitchen

  • My Trail Designs Kojin alcohol stove was fantastic. This is my first alcohol stove and my first time using it in the field. I paired it with an Evernew Ti Mug Pot 500 (a shade over two cups, the most water any of my dehydrated meals requires) and accompanying Evernew Ti DX stand, which perfectly matches the groove on the bottom of the mug-pot so it’s harder to knock over. My Trail Designs Caldera Cone kit (which also includes its own Kojin stove so now I have two – whoops) is sitting in a box on my kitchen table as I write this so I’ll play around with that on my next trip. I also picked up a square of carbon fiber felt as an alternative method of insulation while cooking, I’m going to see if I can make a cozy out of it.
  • The Gossamer Gear long-handle bamboo spoon doesn’t have a smooth finish so it feels weird in your mouth, and it also isn’t very deep so my dinner kept falling off of it. I imagine it would also be pretty tedious to eat liquid foods with. Maybe I’m just not used to wooden spoons but I think I’ll start looking for a replacement.
  • I “borrowed” a Wild Zora Mountain Beef Stew paleo meal from my wife’s stash for dinner. It was pretty good.
  • I forgot to weigh my food. Again.

Clothing

  • Once again, it was windy. I bumped into some fellow Mountaineers who were also camping on top of the wall and they had measured the wind speed in the low twenties (mph) via their WeatherHawk Skymate, which is a sort of portable fold-out wind meter. In any case, it didn’t matter – my Massdrop Veil wind shirt eats wind for breakfast and kept me perfectly warm with just my hiking shirt on underneath as long as I was even mildly active.

Water

  • The Sawyer S1 filter, but only because it also requires the included Sawyer Micro (which I had left at home) to properly filter. Apparently, the foam solves the chemical problem but not the microscopic baddie problem. I still used it to filter water just to go through the motions, and this is when I remembered that you’re supposed to use it a couple of times at home first so that all the loose foam bits are rinsed out of it – you could see the foam particles swirling like clouds of ink in the filtered water. Whoops. I don’t know if I’ll get out to Ancient Lakes again this year but for those less forgetful than myself, I think this would be a great filter for backpacking in farm country.

And that’s it, really. I’m pretty happy with everything in my gear list so my list of complaints seems to shrink after every trip.

Here’s a map of the route. This is a georeferenced PDF created using Caltopo. You can navigate with it using an app like Avenza (directions here) or just print it out. Ancient Lake Area (Map)

Future Trips

As I was gazing south across the southern coulee I noticed that the area on the plateau south of it looked pretty interesting but also pretty inaccessible, except for a scree slope where the power lines ascended the cliff at the southwest corner of the canyon. Checking maps online when I got home, I found out that not only is it also part of the Quincy Lakes Wildlife Area (the proper name for the managed land containing Ancient Lakes) but the area stretches another 2.5 miles south along the gorge all the way down to the Gorge Amphitheater. I think I’ll be heading that way next time I visit.

Finally, looking west at the rolling hills on the far side of the Columbia River Gorge got me wondering if you could go backpacking over there as well. Turns out that you can: it’s the 90,000 acre Colockum Wildlife Area which is run by the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (the same folks who manage Ancient Lakes). Another location to add to my list.

About the Author

Michael Montgomery is a Washington State native who has been exploring the wilds of the Pacific Northwest for almost 20 years. He’s a backpacking mentor and trip leader for the Mountaineers who also dabbles in photography, scrambling, kayaking, and caving. His noteworthy international trips include the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu as well as the last third of the Camino de Santiago (because there’s only so much vacation time to go around). He enjoys helping new folks get the most out of their outdoor experiences.
Disclosure: The author owns all of the products mentioned above.
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8 comments

  1. I spent my early childhood growing up in this area. I was born in Soap Lake. I can remember hunting and fishing around Colockum with my father. He’s passed away now and I’ve spent the subsequent years roaming the forests of New England, rather than the arid areas of the Columbia basin, but I still have the memories.

  2. A traverse of the Babcock Bench can be made between Ancient Lakes and the road at Frenchman’s Coulee (the road to the climbing crag). It follows a jeep trail parallel to the river, passing below the Amphitheater and the Cave B resort.

  3. It nice to see an entry from a place to hike out West. I love the hiking in the northeast, but having just returned from Tucson, where I did some day hiking, I have an interest in checking out some other landscapes such as this. Thanks for posting.

  4. So exciting to see a backpack report from my “neck of the woods”! Ancient Lakes is a classic early spring destination, but somehow I haven’t been yet. Will need to rectify this next year! Looking forward to more articles from Michael.

    • Michael Montgomery

      Thanks! As someone who grew up on the east side of the state I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t been to Ancient Lakes before just a few years ago, but it’s quickly become one of my favorite destinations pretty much all year round. My last trip there was an overnight on New Year’s Eve while there was still a dusting of snow on the ground and it was just as enjoyable.

      I’ve got another dozen trips scheduled for the year so even if wildfires are as bad as they were last summer I should have something interesting to share.

  5. It’s Ancient Lake (singular). It matters because pluralizing it shrouds the interesting geology/history of the place. The multiple “lakes” there today are mere pools that remain of what was once one big lake. Look at the bathtub ring in the second picture above.

    Good info at http://earthwards.blogspot.com/2017/09/potholes-coulee-what-happened-there.html

  6. Hi! Thank you for sharing. We will be heading there soon. Where do you think is ideal to store food overnight? Thanks!

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