I’d barely put the car in park at the first stop on our father-son field trip when Alex made a beeline for a series of basalt columns known as “The Feathers.”
About a mile away Interstate 90 enters a long stretch of rolling farmland, but here in Frenchman Coulee the brown earth felt like a desert.
“Wow,” Alex said. “It feels like we’re in Arizona.”
This, I figured, was my chance. I was here looking for places to hike and recreate in lesser known parts of Washington’s channeled scablands. But I pulled Alex, 10, out of school in hopes that a little firsthand experience might spark an interest in geology, the subject that bored me so much it almost single-handedly obliterated my college grade-point average.
Having just read John Soennichsen’s new book “Washington’s Channeled Scablands Guide,” I quickly morphed into geology professor mode. I told Alex how the basalt rock he was touching was caused by volcanic eruptions about 17 million years ago and was covered by thick layers of silt about six million years ago.
I told him how the land became rich with nutrients ideal for farming before ice age floods 15,000-18,000 year ago violently scoured Eastern Washington leaving potholes, deep channels called coulees and basalt columns like the one he was eyeing.
“OK,” he said. “Can I climb it?”
CRUISING THE COULEES
Alex: “Does my teacher know you took me out of school to look at cliffs?”
Me: “We’ll just tell her you are too coulee for school.”
Me: “Get it?”
Alex: “Yeah. You’re not funny.”
To call what we did at Frenchman Coulee “climbing,” would be generous. We scrambled part way up The Feathers and on boulders, but we left the real climbing to the experts.
While most people zip past Exit 143 on I-90 without a second thought, it’s a destination for rock climbers. The routes range from challenging to easy.
We spent about an hour watching Erynn Hart and Darin Allen of Seattle rope up and climb one of the basalt columns. They made scurrying up the sheer walls easy.
Frenchman Coulee isn’t just for climbers, however. A 4-mile hike among the sage and scattered wildflowers on the coulee floor takes you to the base of a waterfall.
The variety of activities is indicative of the rest of the scablands.
“There is a little bit for everybody,” Soennichsen said in a phone interview from his Cheney home. “There are places that require a hike and amazing features you can see from your car.”
Our second stop was Moses Coulee, a smaller and drier (only two small lakes on the canyon floor) version of it famous neighbor, Grand Coulee.
Here the high cliffs hold farmland to the south and Grimes and Jameson Lake to the north. Soennichsen recommends paddling the river-like Jameson Lake for a secluded recreation experience. A short hike south of the lake will take you to Dutch Henry Falls.
North of Moses Coulee on the side of state Route 172 we found another colossal opportunity for a geology lesson – Yeager Rock.
Yeager Rock is a 400-ton, two-story erratic, a rock moved by nature from a different location. The scablands are adorned by these out-of-place rocks that were deposited from hundreds of miles away by ice ages floods or carried to their new homes by floating ice bergs.
But in Yeager Rock’s case, I explain to Alex, it was transported to the Waterville Plateau by a glacier where it has become a roadside attraction for the few people who use this highway and a canvas for local spray paint artists.
“OK,” he said. “Can I climb it?”
Alex: “Does this mean I can say ‘dam’ on this trip?”
Me: “Only if you say it without the ‘N.’”
We didn’t climb Yeager Rock, of course. But from there we headed east into the heart of channeled scabland recreation: Grand Coulee.
We cruised along state Route 155 admiring Banks Lake, contained by the coulee’s walls. Alex marveled when I told him Steven Spielberg used the cliffs to shoot six seconds of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”
We stopped to look at Steamboat Rock, in a state park also a popular camping and hiking destination, but because we were here to play off the beaten path, we chose instead to hike in nearby Northrup Canyon.
The canyon is also pretty popular with visitors, especially those on horseback, but the traffic is hardly noticeable compared to Steamboat Rock State Park.
While exploring the Scabland back roads is fun enough, it seemed like the tour would be incomplete without visiting the region’s most famous manmade structure, the Grand Coulee Dam.
One of the best views of the dam is from the top of Candy Point Trail, which climbs from town to Crown Point Vista. The hike is short but steep.
Most people simply drive to the top.
BANDITS AND SEA SERPENTS
Me: “So what did you learn about the channeled scablands on this trip?”
Alex: “If it wasn’t for those floods Eastern Washington would be boring.”
While Grand Coulee and Potholes reservoir are the most popular recreation destination in the channeled scablands, smaller coulees and recreation opportunities lie farther east.
And some of these areas have interesting history.
We stopped briefly to explore Telford Recreation Area, where Soennichsen recommends camping, fishing and hiking to see the small basalt knobs left exposed by the ice age floods. This area is hardly scenic, but what Alex and I found most interesting was the tale of Henry Tracy Soennichsen tells in his book.
Tracy, an outlaw friend of Butch Cassidy, was killed near here in 1902 after using the scabland features to avoid authorities for a month.
“He’s a pretty interesting antihero,” Soennichsen said. “You’ll still find places with signs that say ‘Harry Tracy stayed here.’”
Our last stop on the trip was Rock Lake, southwest of Cheney, where our GPS took us way off course and deposited us in a farmer’s driveway. While he appeared to have a stunning view of the lake over a flood-carved cliff, we decided to explore elsewhere.
Farther south we found a handful of fishermen trying their luck. The lake is too cold for swimming but a fun spot for paddling, Soennichsen said. Although, he warns, this place is creepy.
Local Native American legend claims a sea serpent patrols the lake. Another story claims several railroad cars filled with Model T cars lay on the lake bottom.
The lake is so interesting, Soennichsen said, he says it might be a candidate for his next book. “I keep hearing that the stories I tell in this book only scratched the surface.”
Judging by his book, which lists almost 50 destinations, we barely scratched the surface of scabland recreation. I told Alex about places like Palouse Falls and Dry Falls that we didn’t have time to see.
“We can always do another field trip,” he said. “I’d be willing to miss another day of school.”
Washington’s channeled scablands were created when glacial dams holding back 500 cubic miles of waters broke and the water rushed across Eastern Washington at 70 mph. Geologists believe these floods occurred repeatedly between 15,000-18,000 years ago.
More info: Get an in-depth look at scabland recreation opportunities in John Soennichsen’s new book “Washington’s Channeled Scablands Guide” (The Mountaineers Books, $17.95). Soennichsen’s 2008 book “Bretz’s Flood” (Sasquatch Books, $22), tells the story of how geologist J. Harlen Bretz unlocked the mystery behind the scabland’s creation.
SCABLAND HOT SPOTS
Five of the most popular destinations in Eastern Washington’s Channeled Scablands:
1. Grand Coulee Dam: This 550-foot engineering marvel has harnessed the Columbia River for power for 70 years. An information center at the center offers exhibits, tours and souvenirs. A nightly laser light show is projected on the dam face Memorial Day weekend-Sept. 30. USBR.gov/pn/grandcoulee
2. Potholes Reservoir: A popular fishing destination but also a good place to hike, boat and swim. Parks.wa.gov
3. Steamboat Rock: One of Washington’s most popular state parks, it’s tough to score a campsite here. However, anybody can make the steep four-mile roundtrip hike to the top of 700-foot Steamboat Rock. Parks.wa.gov
4. Dry Falls: An easy stop on state Route 17, the view of Dry Falls is breathtaking. The 400-foot-high cliffs were once the biggest waterfall in the world. The area is packed with trails to explore around Sun Lakes. Parks.wa.gov
5. Palouse Falls: These falls aren’t dry, in fact, this dramatic 198-foot plunge in the Palouse River is one of the most dramatic sites in Eastern Washington. The state park offers camping and a short hiking trail. Parks.wa.gov