By Joanna Bastian
We have a small window of marvelous color now that the mud has retreated and before dust season settles in. This in-between season, some call it spring, is fleetingly magical. Sunlight illuminates each fold in topography, a dappled green landscape of lustrous light and shadow. Rainstorms fill a maze of hills and valleys before crashing into rocky crags of a high mountain peak. Flowers bloom in different hues and scents: the lupine, balsamroot, Indian paintbrush, wild rose, shooting stars, buttercups, blue bells and a myriad more cover hillsides in swaths of color.
This is the best time to enjoy many lower-elevation trails in the valley: before the heat of summer arrives, and rattlesnakes emerge. One such trail is Pipestone Canyon.
Most users access Pipestone Canyon and the Rim Trail near Campbell Lake from the Winthrop side. Unfortunately, Lester Road is filled with water and mud, easily eroded by wheels. I also have unconfirmed reports that the Rim Trail is forming new canyons with the seasonal runoff. Last year I noticed a whole section of the trail gave way to a fresh geological transformation.
A different approach is to hike Pipestone Canyon from the bottom up. To get to the lower trailhead, take Highway 20 towards the Loup. Travel 3 miles from the Highway 153/Highway 20 intersection before turning left onto Upper Beaver Creek Road. After 2.5 miles, take another left onto Balky Hill Road. Travel for half a mile and find a closed, unlocked gate on the right side of the road next to a “no parking” sign. Close the gate after driving through. The road is unmaintained and rocky. Travel along this road for another half mile to a wide parking area marked with a Discover Pass sign.
From the trailhead, you can see two distinct drainages — head towards the one on the right. The trail follows the curvature of a hill on the east side of a grassy meadow with pockets of wetland areas. I think this is one of the more dramatic approaches to Pipestone Canyon, as the steep canyon walls rise like sentries around the bend in the meadow.
It doesn’t take a geologist to see the dramatic storyline embedded in the walls of Pipestone Canyon. But it does take a geologist to decipher and translate the language of stone.
Starting in the summer of 1939, Dr. Julian Barksdale began studying the geography of the Methow Valley. At times, he worked as a cook for a packhorse outfit to gain transportation into the backcountry. Dr. Barksdale never published his work, stating that the remoteness and ruggedness of the Methow Valley, combined with the complex geology was too “enormous a project” to undertake. Still, his findings were deemed valuable knowledge and in 1975 the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) published a copy of his work.
The 1975 DNR report includes evidence of temporary periods of lake development, when fossils of plant life were preserved. Using Barksdale observations partnered with 1950s studies of fossilized plant life, the report dated the Pipestone Canyon formation to the Paleocene epoch, 66 to 56 million years ago — while at the same time noting that some formations contained evidence from the Cretaceous period, over 100 million years ago.
Over the years, geologists have studied the area in greater detail and found more samples dating to the late Cretaceous period. Geologists now know that the Pipestone Canyon Formation contains vast amounts of data showing tectonic plate movement, folding, fault lines and glacial carving. A simple Google search of “Pipestone Canyon Formation” yields a multitude of articles describing this geologic drama. Or, simply take a walk and enjoy the view for yourself.