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Sunset in the Desert: Backpacking Ancient Lakes in the Columbia Basin

Last updated May 27, 2021 | Published on May 29, 2018

4.6 miles roundtrip
222 feet elevation gain

Over Memorial Day weekend, I headed east of the mountains with my sweetie, Daniel. We planned to visit my aunt who lives on the easternmost side of Washington state. On the way, we stopped off at the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area for a quick overnight backpacking trip.

At the Ancient Lakes & Dusty Lakes Trailhead

I was already familiar with the area as I had recently day-hiked an 11-mile loop starting from the upper Ancient Lakes Trailhead as described in this blog post: Sandy Trails and Blue Skies: Exploring Ancient Lakes in the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area

This time, we chose a shorter route starting from the lower Ancient Lakes & Dusty Lakes Trailhead. The trip is fairly flat and it’s a good hike for beginners or families with children. Daniel is recovering from a torn meniscus in his knee so it seemed like the perfect route for us.

Daniel hits the trail

Hiking into the cataract canyon

We left Seattle around 12:45 pm on Friday and drove straight to the trailhead. This was our first backpacking trip together and I was particularly anxious that everything go well. The specter of holiday crowds loomed large in my mind and I was worried that we’d get stuck in traffic or wouldn’t find any parking at the trailhead. I need’t have worried. We hit a few slowdowns going over Snoqualmie Pass but traffic really wasn’t too bad.

It’s a snake! It’s two snakes!  Wait a minute… those snakes are getting it on…

Waterfall in the desert

The trailhead was less than half full when we arrived around 4:00 pm and hit the trail. We took our time ambling along the old Jeep tracks and arrived at Ancient Lakes about an hour later. I was happily surprised to see only a few other tents set up around the base of the lakes. We elected to stay up above the lakes on the floor of the canyon, as we had sweeping views of the cataract canyon and waterfalls in either direction.

Setting up the tent.  Photo by Daniel.

Daniel regards the horizon

Desert flowers at sunset

More desert flowers at sunset

After setting up our tent, we spent the rest of the evening watching the birds circle above the lakes and the sun slowly drop lower on the horizon. We found a makeshift bench made of rocks facing the canyon and watched the sunset together. It wasn’t forecast to rain so we left off the rainfly and had a great view of the moon lighting up the night sky.

It’s a bench!  Photo by Daniel.

Daniel chillin’ on the bench

Selfie on the bench

Sunset Part 1.  The wind was intense and created interesting wave lines across the lake.

Sunset Part 2.

Daniel brought his tripod and was looking forward to taking some night photos.  The moon was too full to take photos of the stars but he did get some interesting shots.

Daniel takes photos of the sunset

Night photo of our tent by moonlight.  Photo by Daniel.

When the sun arose the next morning, it got hot in a hurry and we put up the rainfly for some shade. A stiff breeze kept us cool and we took our time packing up. Only two tents popped up after we set ours up but there was plenty of room to spread out. That being said, we passed several large families with backpacks as we hiked out. It was going to be a lot more crowded tonight.

Sunrise from the tent

Daniel with his camera

Unicorn in blogger mode – with camera and taking pictures while hiking

This is the first time that I’ve slept outside since my return from hiking the Pacific Crest Trail last year. I’ve really missed my nights out of doors. And I’m so glad that I got to share the experience with Daniel.

Now that summer is finally here, I have lots of outdoor activities planned over the next few months…. stay tuned!

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Hi, I'm Unicorn!

I am an avid hiker, traveler, and adventurer who is on the mission to explore hiking trails around the world.  I’m also obsessed with National Parks, long-distance trails and other outdoorsy things.

I hope to share this knowledge with you and inspire you to explore new hiking trails too!


  1. Brian Lotze

    Thanks for sharing, looks like a lot of fun. Not sure about the snakes, I have a phobia, would have freaked me out.

    • Unicorn

      Yeah the snakes take a little bit of getting used to. I used to be more apprehensive but I got used to them after hiking the PCT last year. These snakes were so – uh – distracted that I almost walked right on top of them and they totally ignored me.

  2. mizipatty

    So excited to see that Daniel got out with you! Hope this is the first of many more trips to come! 🙂

    • Unicorn

      Me too! I have lots of plans for more backpacking together. Mwa ha ha!! 😊😊


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