Situated 12 miles west of Yakima, the Cowiche Conservancy’s Snow Mountain Ranch encompasses 2,000 acres with an elevation gain of over 1000 feet from the South Fork of Cowiche Creek to the summit of Cowiche Mountain (2,970 feet). Within the ranch the Conservancy maintains a system of approximately 14 miles of interconnected trails allowing access to the diverse habitat zones of the shrub-steppe.
The ranch was historically a cattle ranch owned by Elon & Joan Gilbert, friends of Yakima-born Supreme Court Justice William O Douglas, who would often sleep in their barn on visits to Yakima from Washington, DC. Since obtaining the ranch in 2005, the Conservancy has removed a barrier dam on the creek and restored the former alfalfa fields on the bottomlands to native grasses, primarily Great Basin Wild Rye.
The ranch is home to approximately 200 species of plants, 125 species of birds and wildlife, and 64 species of butterflies (more than the entire British Isles). In the spring and summer, the ranch offers excellent birding and puts on a spectacular wildflower display. In fall the riparian zone is a riot of fall color as the oaks, aspens, cottonwoods, wild rose, and willows turn brilliant shades of yellow, red, and orange.
In the warmer months you’ll need good sun protection and plenty of water, as shade and water are sparse along the trails. You’ll also need to be alert for rattlesnakes and ticks. Winter snows can make this an excellent snowshoeing destination, though snowshoes and traction devices are seldom required.
From the parking lot on Cowiche Mill Road a short trail leads down to a bridge crossing Cowiche Creek and the main kiosk. From here the trail system provides a wide range of trails in varying length and elevation gain. All of the trails can be combined to make an out-and-back hike or a loop of your choosing.
The most strenuous, but most scenic, hike is the approximately 7-mile loop ascent of Cowiche Mtn, combining the Cowiche Mtn Trail West and the Cowiche Mtn Trail East. For those that want a shorter loop, combine the Wildflower, Bench, and Cowiche Mtn Trail East. A third option is to combine the Riparian Trails East & West and the Ditch Bank Trail for a mostly level loop around the perimeter of the bottomlands.
Also note that, due to deed restrictions, mountain bikes are not allowed on trails above the bottomlands and that the ranch is often closed for a few days in the early spring when the trails are muddy to protect the landscape. Please respect these closures. For current trail conditions, check the Conservancy’s website.
Trails at Snow Mountain Ranch
Cowiche Mountain Trail East
This trail starts near the east end of the Ditch Bank Trail and ascends a broad ravine to the benchlands above. It then continues south to a junction with the Bench Trail. From here the trail descends north into a deep ravine, turns south again, ascends out of the ravine to a broad ridge, winds its way up the ridge, then traverses the head of the next ravine to the east and continues on to the summit of Cowiche Mountain (2,970 feet) and a junction with both the Cowiche Mountain Trail West and the trail coming up from Rocky Top. Views include Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, and (on a clear day) the top of Mount Hood.
2.14 miles, steady and sometimes steep uphill grade) Mountain biking is prohibited on this trail.
Cowiche Mountain Trail West
The Cowiche Mountain Trail West begins at the main kiosk and crosses the bottomlands to the mouth of a broad ravine where it meets both the Balanced Rock Trail and the Riparian Trail West. The trail proceeds south up the ravine, eventually curving east and climbing out of the ravine to the bench lands above and a junction with the Wildflower Trail. The trail then curves south and proceeds past an old corral, climbs a broad ridge, then curves east again and traverses to a shallow saddle at the top of the ridge and on to the summit of Cowiche Mountain (2,970 feet) and a junction with both the Cowiche Mountain Trail East and the trail coming up from Rocky Top. Views include Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, and (on a clear day) the top of Mount Hood.
3.24 miles, flat, then steady and sometimes steep uphill grade, Mountain biking is prohibited on this trail.
This aptly named trail starts from the Balanced Rock Trail and climbs the benchlands above the ravine to a junction with the Bench Trail and then the Cowiche Mountain Trail West. Along the way you’ll pass two old bathtubs used as stock watering troughs when this was a working ranch. The views of the surrounding area and the seasonal wildflowers are spectacular. This trail is often used as an alternative to the lower portion of the Cowiche Mountain Trail West.
0.94 miles, moderate uphill grade Note: Mountain biking is prohibited on this trail.
Riparian Trail East
The Riparian Trail East starts at the main kiosk and heads east along the north edge of the old pasture lands. It follows the creek for a short ways, goes through a tunnel of shrubs, passes an old pond, then continues along the edge of the trees, eventually curving southeast and connecting with the east end of the Ditch Bank Trail.
0.73 miles, mostly flat terrain
Riparian Trail West Trail
This trail heads west from the main kiosk along the north (creek) side of the old pasture lands to the Children’s Butterfly Garden and a junction with the Swallowtail Trail. It then continues through an oak and cottonwood grove and across a large dry streambed to the elk fence at the boundary between Snow Mountain Ranach and the Cowiche Unit of the Oak Creek Wildlife Area. It then follows the fence to the bottom of the hill and a junction with the other end of the Swallowtail Trail. From here the trail goes east along the bottom of the hill to junctions with the Riparian Overlook Trail and the Cowiche Mountain Trail West at the mouth of the ravine.
0.72 miles, mostly flat terrain
Balanced Rock Trail
This trail starts at an intersection with the Cowiche Mountain Trail West at the mouth of the ravine, climbs out of the ravine to a junction with the Wildflower Trail, then heads southeast, passing by the balanced rock and along the top of the basalt columns and providing a spectacular view of the bottomlands. At the end of the hillside traverse the trail drops steeply down to meet the Ditch Bank Trail.
0.35 miles, gently rolling terrain, steep in places. Mountain biking is prohibited on this trail.
Garry Oak Trail
This trail starts at the parking lot and goes west, paralleling the parking lot fence and Cowiche Mill Road, turning south and east past a large grove of cottonwoods, aspens, and Garry oaks, then follows a wide corridor with aspens, willows, and wild rose on the right and a row of oaks on the left to a junction with the Entry Trail at the crossing of the small irrigation ditch. In the fall this trail has a brilliant display of color.
0.4 miles, mostly flat terrain