Ginkgo Petrified Forest

Petrified logs, petroglyphs, and more.

On Saturday, I treated myself to an afternoon outing. My intended destination was the Wild Horse Wind Facility in Kittitas County. But I made a few stops along the way. One of them was the Interpretive Center for the Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park near Vantage, WA, on the Columbia River.

I’m familiar with petrified wood. Arizona is home of the Petrified Forest National Monument (on I-40, east of Winslow) and I’ve been there a few times. But this forest was different. In Arizona, the wood was petrified as it became part of sedimentary rock. Here, the wood was encased in lava. But the results are similar: wood that’s been turned to rock.

I’ll admit I did the lazy tourist routine. I didn’t take a hike on the 3 miles of trails. It was hot and the trails were hilly. And I did have another destination. Instead, I stopped at the Interpretive Center about a mile north of Vantage. The small building offered sweeping views of the Columbia River from a cliffside perch, as well as many samples of polished petrified wood, scientific exhibits for all ages, and a small movie theater with visitor’s choice of informational movies about the area.

Petrified WoodAfter studying the various displays, I went outside. There we numerous petrified logs between the building and the parking area. I had my good camera with me and tried to get some shots of the textures of these logs. Here’s one of them. What I find most interesting about petrified wood is the colors. While I’m sure there’s a good chemical and geological explanation for all the colors, it would probably be lost on me. I don’t really care how they got the colors. I just like the colors.

Ginkgo PetroglyphsAround the side of the building is a display, behind an iron fence, of some petroglyphs that were rescued from floodwaters when the Wanapum dam was completed downriver in 1963. But to understand why the rocks these drawing appear on look so uniform, I need to discuss the geology of the area a bit.

The entire area sits on layers of basalt from repeated lava flows in prehistoric times. With each flow, the land rose. Then, 15,000 to 13,000 years ago, a huge lake, Glacial Lake Missoula, formed in what is now Montana. It broke through the “dam” created by a finger of ice age glacier and quickly carved through the area. It did this at least 25 times over a period of 2,000 years, carving out canyons known as coulees. You can read more about the Missoula Floods on Wikipedia.

Because the basalt from lava flows forms as columns of rock — think Devils Tower (of Close Encounters of the Third Kind fame), which is similar — the force of the floodwaters carved away complete columns of rock, leaving behind other columns. The Columbia River flows in one of these canyons from Crescent Bar (west of Quincy and south of Wenatchee) to Vantage and beyond.

Ginkgo PetroglyphsFrom 1000 to 300 years ago, native people drew on these columns of dark rock near the river’s edge. There’s actually an impressive variety of petroglyph drawings. About 300 of them were physically moved from what would soon be Lake Wanapum to the side of the Interpretive Center at the park. That’s what I saw and what is pictured here. (And no, the building isn’t curved. I was using my silly fisheye lens in an effort to capture more petroglyphs in a tight space.)

I highly recommend a visit to the park, even if you’re just passing through the area. It’s not far from the Vantage exit on I-90, just west of the Columbia River. Vantage has fuel and a handful of restaurants. (I recommend a “Logger burger” at the burger joint on the corner closest to the highway.) There’s also camping in the area for RVs and tents. If you want to make it a quick stop, you can visit the Interpretive Center in less than an hour. But if you want a more in-depth look at the petrified logs and aren’t too lazy to walk, continue up the road to the park’s hiking trails. Be sure to bring plenty of water; I don’t think there’s much there.

For more info, check out the Ginkgo Petrified Forest/Wanapum Recreational Area Web site or give them a call at (509) 856-2700.

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