A couple weekends ago we headed for the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains to check out the Ginkgo Petrified Forest – one of only six petrified forests in the United States – and some nearby hikes along the Columbia River Gorge.
After a snowy journey across Snoqualmie Pass, our first stop was the Ginkgo Petrified Forest Interpretive Center to learn more about the Ice Age floods and history behind this unusual geological landscape.
Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park, established in 1935, is home to a rare and vast petrified forest. The abundance of tree species discovered here make it one of the most diverse petrified forests in North America. The interpretive center was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression and was later expanded in 1951. The park contains 7,124 acres, including an interpretive trail, on which visitors can hike and see several of the species of petrified trees in the ancient lakebed where they were formed.According to Washington State Parks
We’ve driven right by it many times on our journey to other destinations on the eastern side of the state without even knowing it was there. There’s an ‘attraction’ sign along the highway that notes a gem shop, which never really piqued our interest, but otherwise I didn’t see much advertising to pull people off the highway to visit the center.
We were the only ones there when we arrived although another couple stopped in shortly thereafter. The center has been set up with a one-way flow due to COVID-19 and they aren’t showing any videos that would necessitate stopping/gathering in one area, but we were able to glean some information from the displays that were open.
In particular we enjoyed the mineralized samples of the various kinds of trees found in this petrified forest – some of the colors and designs were absolutely beautiful, in particular a blue agate that is only found in the Ellensburg area.
We also learned that Ginkgo is an ancient species that is extinct except for Ginkgo biloba, which can now only be found in the wild in a small area of southwest China. The fact that wild ginkgo trees and leaves were found petrified in this area helped make the case for setting it aside as a protected space.
The trailhead for the Ginkgo Petrified Forest Interpretive Trail is only a couple miles away from the interpretive center, and I would recommend experiencing both the center and the park if you have time. While there’s a small room with informational plaques at the trailhead, the center has more detailed information as well as the polished petrified wood on display.
There was ample parking at the trailhead and only one other car so we basically had the entire park to ourselves. We followed the paved trail up and away from the road where it quickly during to packed earth. Brian took a picture of a map at the interpretive center that we didn’t see posted at the park – I’m including it below as it might be helpful in deciding which loop of trails you want to explore.
We quickly came across the first batch of caged-in petrified trees and were surprised at the variability in how much of the tree was visible and whether or not it was labeled. Looking through our pictures, I see we didn’t capture this well – along the trail you can see metal cages. Parts of the petrified trees are in cleared areas several feet under ground and covered by metal bars so you can’t reach down and touch them. As you approach them along the trail, you can look down at the exposed remains and many of them had a small plaque with the type of tree labeled. If it doesn’t have a label, you might be able to deduce which type of tree it is using the map above.
It’s a shame people have tampered with and destroyed some of these ~16 million year old fossils, necessitating the caged displays, but it was still interesting to see the wide variety in species.
We wanted to hike the outer loop but somehow got off course and soon found ourselves walking what might have been a jeep trail along a barbed wire fence at the property line. Once we realized we were probably not on an actual trail, we backtracked until we met up with what we believed to be the true trail to continue our journey.
While I never recommend going off trail and potentially destroying the flora underfoot, our accidental off-road experience did afford us awesome views across the park to the Columbia River in the distance. Also, Brian spotted a ghost!
The wind picked up and it started to sprinkle as we concluded our loop. Given you are completely exposed to the elements, this is not the place to be in the midst of bad weather! We picked up the pace back to the car, took advantage of the trailhead amenities, and continued on our way.
We spent about an hour walking around the paths and checking out the trees, clocking in about three miles of hiking with only 200 feet of gain. Both the interpretive center and park were a great afternoon side trip to get us outdoors and exploring a different geographical area of Washington – I recommend you check them out!