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Hikers relish Little Spokane River Natural Area, new trail additions

EDITOR’S NOTE: The access to the Little Spokane River near St. George’s School is temporarily closed for flood damage repairs. It’s scheduled to reopen on June 23.

The Little Spokane River Natural Area has been a haven for flora, fauna and people who appreciate them for decades, and a vastly improved hiking trail system is enhancing the experience.

The river continues to be popular with paddlers who launch between the Spokane Fish Hatchery and St. George’s School and float to Painted Rocks access on Rutter Parkway or continue a total of six miles to the takeout between SR 291 and the Spokane River confluence.

Hiking trails – no bikes or dogs allowed – also run along the river from St. George’s to SR 291 managed by Washington State Parks and volunteers who have made spectacular additions in the past few years.

Few places in the United States have such a diversity of bird species, according to birding surveys. The spring-fed river is flourishing with reptiles, waterfowl, furbearers, fish and more. Woodpeckers in particular are feasting on the trees killed by wildfire two years ago, scattering bark thick is landscaping mulch along the ground below.

The grass and vegetation along some of the river’s banks are exceptionally tall and lush from this year’s abundant precipitation. Paddlers in particular commonly see moose along the river, but even the largest member of the deer family can stand fully obscured a foot from a clearing this spring.

Early June is greeted each year with a spectacular bloom of yellow water iris. This import from Europe, sold for decades in garden stores, washed down from upstream landscaping and has outcompeted native plants to take over vast stretches of the Little Spokane River wetlands.

The perennial iris has crowded out riparian vegetation, including cattails, sedges and rushes. It degrades native fish habitat as well as bird nesting and rearing sites.

But it’s pretty, at least in early June.

Developers continue to circle the natural area boundaries like vultures. Future generations should always be thankful to former Spokane County Parks Director Sam Angove, along with the late river residents Morey and Margaret Haggin and others, who ended 15 years of buying, swapping and negotiating in 1985 to secure a 1,500-acre preserve along the river that otherwise would have been largely privatized and closed to the public.

In 1900, the Washington Supreme Court ruled the Little Spokane River to be non-navigable – in legal terms, at least. The ruling gave property owners the right to stop public use of the river where it flows through their land. Public ownership was critical to public use.

The county eventually transferred management authority to Riverside State Park. A Washington Discover Pass is required in vehicles parking at Little Spokane River access sites.

The most popular trail segment is the 1.7-mile stretch between Painted Rocks and the skimpy SR 291 access, which is downstream from Nine Mile Falls. The Painted Rocks access has a privy; the SR 291 trailhead does not.

Last weekend, the river trail was busy with an assortment of birders, runners, serious hikers and families with babies, enthusiastic kids and grandparents.

Hikers willing to gain some altitude in return for spectacular views should check out the trail segment between SR 291 and the high point at Knothead. Built and improved over the past four years, a spur trail from this segment leads to three successively higher granite overlooks above the Little Spokane River. The views alone are worth the hike.

The spur trail is one of several projects coordinated by State Parks with help from the Washington Trails Association, Spokane Mountaineers and REI.

Lupine and iris were particularly lush along the trails last weekend and, unfortunately, noxious weeds such as Dalmatian toadflax and knapweed were sprouting robustly, too.

The hike along the Little Spokane River and the hike to Knothead, which overlooks the Little Spokane River confluence with the Spokane River, can be linked. A third trail segment leads down from Knothead to Painted Rocks forming an 8.2-mile triangular loop with 1,533 feet of total elevation gain.

A few savvy hikers have learned that setting out on this trek very early in the morning or early evening – allow at least three hours – leads to one of the best day-hikes in the Spokane area.