Eastern Washington's Channeled Scablands might not have a pretty name, but the coulees and cliffs scoured by ice-age floods are well worth exploring on a geology-lesson road trip.
I’d barely put the car in park at the first stop on our father-son field trip last spring 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, in Central Washington, 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.
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Having just read John Soennichsen’s new “Washington’s Channeled Scablands Guide” (The Mountaineers Books, 2012), 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 6 million years ago.
I told him how the land became rich with nutrients ideal for farming before ice-age floods 15,000 to 18,000 years 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
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 its 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 riverlike 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 Highway 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-age floods or carried to their new homes by floating icebergs.
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”
Grand Coulee Dam
We headed on east into the heart of channeled scabland recreation: Grand Coulee.
Cruising along state Highway 155, we admired 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.”
Steamboat Rock (in a state park) is 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 man-made 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.
The trip continued east to lesser-known coulees and lakes, but judging by Soennichsen’s book, which lists almost 50 destinations, we barely scratched the surface of Scabland recreation.
“We can always do another field trip,” Alex said. “I’d be willing to miss another day of school.”