Juniper Dunes


Why? Interesting hiking through sand dunes dotted with groves of western juniper and, in season, wildflowers. Animal tracks in profusion.

Season: All year

Ease: Moderate, given that the footing can be less than solid in the sand.

Sand dunes in Central Washington? You betcha.

Juniper Dunes near Pasco is as well named as any place I’ve ever visited. It’s a pocket wilderness, a beautiful place of small hills and valleys. Most of the sand dunes are covered with sagebrush, grass and other low growing vegetation. Junipers dot the landscape, either alone or in groves. One in particular caught our eyes. From a distance, it was so much bluer than the other trees that we thought it might be a different species. From close up we could see that it was covered in berries.

The wilderness is fenced off from the surrounding farmland and a rather extensive off wheel road vehicle playground. Once inside the fence, however, it’s relatively quiet.

If you enter from the west, there’s a trail into the wilderness that starts just inside the gate and lasts for 1½ miles or so. It ends at a couple of old fence posts.

Because there aren’t any trails beyond the 1½ mile point, keeping track of where you are is an important part of visiting this area. If you spend longer there or head into parts of the wilderness we didn’t see, a compass and USGS maps or a GPS might come in handy if you know how to use them.

We continued hiking for an hour or so past that point, toward a large grove of juniper and then south along what we hoped was an old fence line. At all times we could see the Cascade Mountains on the other side of the Columbia whenever we looked west. When we headed back, the overhead power lines above our truck were visible when we’d gotten about halfway.

The highlight – admittedly an odd one – of this trip was a wildlife sighting, sort of. Shortly before we entered Juniper Dunes, we paused to watch a group of birds soaring the warm air currents on the other side of a distant hill. I grabbed my binoculars, focused and for a change easily identified them. They were tumbleweeds. We saw lots more as the afternoon wore on. There were groups of them huddled in wind-free spots and groups of them galloping across the dunes.

So much for wildlife, though we saw evidence in the form of tracks that there actually were live animals there. Larger animals such as deer leave indistinct tracks in the sand, while those left by tiny animals are better.

Starting from the seasonally-open entrance on the north side of Juniper Dunes is another experience, indeed. There is no “one trail” to follow, rather a myriad of them that intersect in many, many places. When I hiked from this side, I chose one at random and tried to follow what looked like the main one. As long as you’re heading away from your car, that’s not an issue.

But I got lost on the way back and ended up on a different trail. Luckily it ended at the fence line on the north, so we just followed that fence back to the car. Besides actually getting somewhat lost but finding the car after all, the highlight of that trip was seeing a hillside of showy dock in bloom.

The bottom line: no matter which way you enter the dunes, it may well be one place where a GPS would come in handy. Certainly attention to your route and checking backwards (so as to see what you’ll see on the return trip to your car) are mandatory.

Note: Access to the area passes through private land. Check with the BLM in Spokane, (509) 536-1200, before going. They will let you know if there are any access problems.

Directions: Before you reach Pasco on Highway 12, turn right on the Pasco-Kahlotus Road. There’s a crop spraying airfield at the 6 mile marker. Turn left on the dirt road there, Peterson. Drive 4.3 miles and turn right on a dirt and sand road. It will take you to the entry road for Juniper Dunes on the right 3.3 miles later.  (If you pass the orange pole marking the pipeline, you’ve gone a few yards too far.) There is a signpost to mark that road, but the sign is missing. Its 1 mile to the wilderness gate. Use caution when driving in the sand if you don’t have 4-wheel drive, and maybe even if you do.

For northern trailhead:
Continue past Peterson Road and turn left on the Snake River Road. In 3 ½ miles, turn left on Blackman Ridge Road, 2+ miles later, left on Joy (formerly Rozinski). The entrance to the dunes is two miles later. As of this writing, this entrance is open March 1 to May 31.

Information: BLM Spokane, (509) 536-1200

Maps: The BLM maintains a web site, Under “Recreation,” click on “Recreation Sites,” then scroll down to “Juniper Dunes.” There’s also a map in Rich Lander’s 100 Hikes in the Inland Northwest. The old fences indicated on it are really old fence lines, sometimes consisting of just an isolated post or two. Though the area is small, it’s on the corner of four USGS maps: Rye Grass Coulee, Levy SW, Levy SE and Levy NE, Washington.