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Klickitat Trail: Swale Canyon Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

The first trestle west of Harms Road, Swale Creek; Stacker Butte in the background (The bridge has since been fully covered) (bobcat)
Rimrock above Swale Creek (bobcat)
Poet's shooting star (Dodecatheon poeticum), Swale Canyon (bobcat)
Mercury station wagon, Swale Canyon (bobcat)
Looking west down Swale Canyon (bobcat)
Anise swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon), Swale Canyon (bobcat)
Naked broomrape (Orobanche uniflora), Swale Canyon (bobcat)
Heading towards Warwick from Harms Road, Swale Creek (bobcat)
The Swale Canyon section of the Klickitat Rail Trail (bobcat) Courtesy: National Geographic Topo
  • Start point: Wahkiacus TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Warwick Trailhead
  • Trail Log:
  • Hike Type: In and out or car shuttle
  • Distance: 15.0 miles one-way
  • Elevation gain: 1010 feet
  • High Point: 1560 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Seasons: All year
  • Family Friendly: Yes
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: No
Poison Oak
Snakes
Ticks

Contents

Hike Description

The hike along Swale Creek is the most remote section of the Klickitat Trail and was also the area of greatest controversy when the railroad decommissioned its right-of-way. Hikers began using the old track, but local ranchers also strung fences across it. Eventually, three bodies, the Klickitat Trail Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service, and Washington State Parks, worked out a management agreement and local landowners and hikers reached a pact of sorts. In Swale Canyon, no longer are you accompanied by the wide, rushing Klickitat River; here, Swale Creek flows quietly between canyon rimrock and balsamroot-carpeted slopes to the cascading calls of canyon wrens. Beginning from either Wahkiacus or Harms Road takes you into the heart of the canyon, far from human settlement; the final section of the trail to Warwick is rarely hiked. Spring is the best time to visit here. Note that Swale Canyon is closed to hiking during the summer fire season; when the trail reopens in the fall, the creek has become just a series of tepid pools among the mineral-stained rocks.

This can be done as a car shuttle; the descriptions below are written as in and out hikes from the Wahkiacus Trailhead or the Harms Road Trailhead.

1. Lower Swale Canyon

  • Start point: Wahkiacus TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Swale Flats
  • Distance: 6.3 miles one way
  • Elevation gain: 550 feet
  • High Point: 1100 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Family Friendly: Yes


Directions: From the Wahkiacus Trailhead, the old rail bed leads into the depths of Swale Canyon but first the hiker needs to negotiate a fair distance rimmed by rural dwellings. Keep strictly to the trail in this section: the relationship between locals and trail hikers has not always been rosy.

Cross Schilling Road and then pass a closed gate. Note an oak-cloaked hillside up to the right. White alder rims Swale Creek on the left and there are patches of pungent desert-parsley in the spring: this plant harbors legions of ticks waiting to brush off on unsuspecting passers-by. Small cottonwoods also rustle above the stream. The hillside becomes more mixed, with ponderosas and Douglas-firs among the oaks. The track becomes dirt with some rain puddles and then you encounter your first trestle. The track becomes gravel again in more open oak/ponderosa parkland, with open hillsides up to the left and mixed forest on the slopes facing north. Pass through an area of shanties with a couple of log homes. A blue school bus with a clapboard extension is a unique dwelling. At a fence and open gate, a sign says "Closed to vehicle traffic by order of Washington State Parks." Cross the 19-7 trestle over alder-lined Swale Creek. Look up the slope to a couple of hunting cabins. Pass some old motor homes and trailers, mainly on the left. There’s a final little getaway in the form of a rain-soaked old loveseat in front of a wood stove before you hit the uninhabited nether regions of Swale country, but look for the ever-changing manifestations of rail trail art (combinations of rusting rail rivets, deer skulls, and wire fencing, for example) that may arouse your aesthetic sensibilities.

Pass over a high berm at a dripping, saxifrage-dotted basalt face. The creek bends and then you're looking at a west-facing Douglas-fir slope. Then you're at a washed-out trestle, partially buried by a slide. Listen for the canyon wrens that nest in the rimrock above; find them creeping in and out of crevices hunting for spiders and entertaining you mightily with their cascading set of notes. Next, there’s a basalt face across the creek with an overhang where the creek curves to the left. Pass through a ponderosa-oak fringed cutting and then pay your respects to a bullet-riddled white Mercury station wagon on the left. Then cross the 21-1 trestle over Swale Creek. A spring gushes down to the right before you have the chance to inspect a delightful shooting star/saxifrage seep on the right. Pass a gate labeled ‘Private Property’ to the left. A natural gas pipeline crosses here and is responsible for the scars on the hillside. Finally, you're at trestle 22-7. The flat rocks down in the creek beckon: this is an excellent turnaround spot. Sit and have lunch here watching the butterflies and skimmers on the pools.


2. Upper Swale Canyon

  • Start point: Harms Road TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Swale Flats
  • Distance: 6.7 miles one way
  • Elevation gain: 450 feet
  • High Point: 1550 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Family Friendly: Yes


Directions: The hike west from the Harms Road Trailhead is probably the most extolled section of the Klickitat Trail. You head in from a wide, flat landscape to the narrower confines of Swale Canyon and its rimrock walls. There are no roads or buildings that intrude here. Wildflowers (and ticks) abound, but the feeling of isolation is supreme. Do this walk under blue skies on a balmy spring day!

Hike west from Harms Road, crossing a trestle bridge. See the willow-choked creek to the right and a wetland to the left. The rangeland above the old rail track has blooming daggerpod, phlox, and lupine in the spring. Come to a gate, which you need to unlatch, and then another. Pungent desert-parsley, a great haven for ticks, blooms in the spring. Pass a camas meadow which sprouts grass widows in early spring. Just beyond here look across the creek to try a find members of a colony of yellow-bellied marmots, who may whistle at you in alarm. Cross a small trestle marked 27-4. The lichen-stained rimrock of the Wanapum formation of the Columbia Basalts begins to appear. Saxifrage blooms in these damp crevasses in mid-spring. Cross the 26-9 bridge, above which blooms brilliant Columbia Gorge desert-parsley. Willow and red osier dogwood brighten up the creekside landscape. A cacophony of frogs might accompany you in this area. A ponderosa, willow, oak, aspen draw descends down from the right. Rabbitbrush flourishes in the middle of the rail track. An oak copse appears to the right, sedge clusters in wet spots, and ponderosas loom on the left. Note a huge, fat-trunked elderberry just beginning to leaf out and an oak on a bench partially shades a field of blooming balsamroot.

Round the big bend and start heading north toward the Klickitat River into a lower realm of Grande Ronde basalts. You are now about three miles from the trailhead. See the Centerville Highway high above on a forested hill. Ponderosas and oaks proliferate now and white alder grows in the stream bed. Rubble berms block the trail to prevent vehicular trespass. Oak-clad hillsides line a long stretch, then there’s a bend to the right. Look for a small cascade on the creek. No Hunting signs are posted beside the track. Cross bridge 23-0 to the opposite bank of the creek and then the short bridge 22-7, which crosses an old channel. This section of the creek is a wide wash plain of rounded rocks and pebbles with shallow pools, an excellent turnaround point and lunch spot.


3. Centerville Valley section


Directions: This final section of the Klickitat Trail runs on the level in a wide big sky landscape and is ignored by most hikers. At the beginning or the end of the day, however, you may see coyotes, owls, rabbits, and grass-dwelling rodents making their twilight rounds.

Head east through a gate with Swale Creek down to the right. Listen for killdeer screeching down by the water. Low willows crowd the creek banks. The trail quickly crests the plateau and you will see barns across the way. Hike through a section of long grass with fences closing in on both sides. Looking back, Stacker Butte dominates the high ridge of the Columbia Hills. The sounds of frogs, blackbirds, sparrows and meadowlarks fill the air. The rail bed curves to the left. Bare-stem and gray-leaf desert parsley bloom all over the trail in the spring. Lupine blossoms emerge later. Reach a gate and the Klickitat Trail sign at the Centerville Highway where it crosses Swale Creek. A few buildings belong to the old siding of Warwick. This is the east end of the 31-mile Klickitat Trail. From here, the old rail bed runs parallel to the highway on the flat farmlands of High Prairie.


Maps

Fees, Regulations, etc.

  • Stay on the trail; respect all private property signs.
  • Dogs on leash.

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • Off the Beaten Trail by Matt Reeder
  • Rail-Trails: Washington & Oregon by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
  • Take a Hike Portland: Hikes Within Two Hours of the City by Barbara I. Bond
  • Day Hiking: Columbia River Gorge by Craig Romano
  • Day Hikes in the Columbia Gorge by Don J. Scarmuzzi
  • 100 Hikes in Northwest Oregon & Southwest Washington by William L. Sullivan
  • Curious Gorge by Scott Cook

More Links

Contributors

Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

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