For a bit, it felt like I would never make it out to this trail! I had plans last spring, but then the pandemic hit. March had a fee-free day and a massive race (during said pandemic, which, just, buh?) pushing us back twice, and with temps predicted in the high 70s to low 80s, I was nervous it’d be too hot. But, we made it out!
Not for nothing is this a super popular destination for spring backpacking. Short, flat, and typically sunny and warm (enough) by March or April, this is a great place for kids, first time backpacking, testing out new gear, or just shaking off the winter cobwebs. And, we were able to keep within my make-it-there-on-a-half-tank of gas range I’ve been sticking to during the pandemic!
The lot was more than full when we arrived, but there’s ample shoulder parking. There’s tons of day-use hikers, bikers, and horseback riders here, and tons of room to spread out, so even if the lot is full, that doesn’t necessarily mean crowds. With 10 L of water, tons of sunscreen, hats, and an offline map of trails, we departed, giddy for our first backpacking trip of the year. Due to agricultural runoff (and the mass amount of horse poop we saw) the water in the lakes is not considered potable even after filtering, so you need to bring it all with you. Just in case, we stowed a 5 gallon jug in the trunk if we needed to run back for more, but turns out we could have gotten by with likely 7 L including for cooking.
Ancient Lakes is part of the Columbia River Basin. This area was carved out by passing glaciers during the Ice Age. You can see evidence of this in the surrounding stacks of columnar basalt which are especially gorgeous bathed in rising sunlight. There are also several waterfalls in the area that some brave folks were scrambling to in order to cool off. While we knew there was tons of room to spread out, we were focused on getting camp set up, so we pressed onward.
The main lake, Ancient Lake, is the largest of the ‘close’ lakes, reached in just under two miles from the trailhead. It also is by far the most popular. It was already growing clusters of tents around it by the time we showed up, so we stayed on our path to the right to push on for more privacy. But, when the lake here is the main draw, I won’t blame people for sticking around!
I knew this was an open area to choose from where to set up camp, but I was surprised the hearty scrub did not allow for any clear tent imprints like you’d see out west. There also was a lot of hard rocks and rolling hills, so finding a flat, rock-free, quiet space might take some time. We ended up going very far from the lakes, but higher up, to have a view of them all, even if from afar. While I was bummed to not be closer to the lakes, the crowds, including a cluster of 10+ tents for scouts, made me happy to be somewhere more private. Those very eager for privacy should plan their route to Dusty Lake, which we saw only three tents at (more on that later).
Once we set up our tent, the luxuries came out. With only two miles to go, you can pretty much bring everything but the kitchen sink. I brought my ubiquitous chair and a crowler of beer, but frankly a normal 12 oz can in my chilling can coozie, or even a six-pack in a soft chill bag or eco-friendly disposable cooler would have worked, as that was the warmest beer I’ve ever had! We also forwent the bear can for a lightweight rodent-proof critter sack instead, which is the greatest luxury of all in my eyes.
After we were situated, reapplied sunscreen, and had our beer, the boyfriendo suggested exploring the tall ridge behind us. This area offers loose rock for you to scramble up, but pays off with killer views. With just a Nalgene, this trek was more than doable, but with an overnight pack it might not come easily. We did see a few people with tents up here, but I’m guessing if the wind picked up, this area would be miserable. Nevertheless, the scramble paid off immensely, with views of Dusty Lake below.
The solitude of Dusty Lake intrigued us, with us filing this info away for next year. We could have explored tons more up here or at Ancient Lake (and again, I’ll advocate for having an offline map like Gaia ready to help you plan your routes!), but decided to return. For only two miles (well, more like 3 to reach our camp), the heat had taken a lot out of us! The boyfriend napped and I just basked in the warmth and enjoyed the scenery around me, wishing we had brought more beer.
Dinner came and went, the sun changing the light around us. I had prepared for a cold, relentlessly windy night, but other than a cacophony of frogs, the evening and night was pleasant. We did our best to stay awake for the stars, and were able to sleep with the rain fly doors open (we kept it on for shade and privacy) so we could look outside. The din of the frogs and later, owls, was not exactly peaceful, but at least temperatures were! As usual, I barely slept, but the morning glow bathing the gorge was a stunning sight.
We had breakfast and hit the trail far earlier than anticipated. As we planned a loop, the trek out was full of new sights, including some stacks of rock I thought had to have been man-made (the boyfriendo disagreed). The two miles to the car flew by! I had heard recommendations that there are some amazing breakfast sandwiches to be had just miles from the trailhead, but having already had breakfast, we pushed on to home.
I was kind of surprised at how sore and achey (but not sunburnt!) we were for such an easy trip. My feet, untouched by a professional in over a year, had hotspots and busted toenails like never before, which also didn’t help. But, isn’t that the point of taking it easy for your first trip of the year? While it might not become an annual trip, we’re eager to return here again for off-season trips, including to the more-effort-but-more-secluded Dusty Lake.
Distance: As short at 2.0 miles to Ancient Lakes, can choose-your-own-adventure though.
Elevation: Fairly flat, but I’d bring poles if you plan on getting closer to any falls or exploring.
Parking: Discover Pass required at the trailheads–there are several options.
Bathrooms: There was a pit toilet at our trailhead, the ‘Ancient & Dusty Lakes’ trailhead on Google Maps.
Food storage: No fancy storage needed, but we used a chew-proof critter sack stored away from our tent to keep rodents out.
Fires: Allowed, pending burn bans. While wood is heavy to carry in, if in a group you can easily share weight!