For an upcoming weekend, plan to travel the lesser-known Coulee Corridor National Scenic Byway. The 150-mile corridor taking you past human- and nature-made wonders is far off Washington’s most heavily touristed maps. Mostly made of quiet two-lane roads, the byway explores a region where cataclysmic megafloods of lava and water created bizarre rock formations, sheared mesalike plateaus, carved deep channels (known as coulees) and still emit a formidable, quiet power. Indeed, many stops are on the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail.

Coulee Corridor National Scenic Byway road trip

Take the North Cascades National Scenic Byway to Winthrop, then navigate to Omak. Omak is one of the last places to fuel your car (or yourself) for almost 60 miles. Then motor south on State Highway 155, which enters the massive 1.4-million-acre Colville Indian Reservation, managed by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

You’ll pass by the entrance to Omak Lake, one of the Colville Reservation’s 420 lakes and ponds, and open to nontribal members. The reservation prides itself on its uniquely preserved areas, perfect for those who’d like to see wildlife and plants in a more natural state. But some parks offer camping, bathrooms, picnic tables and even RV sites and cabin resorts for nonmembers (check the reservation’s website for more information). 

Moving south, your car may be the only one on the road as you leave crowds far behind. Immense terracelike structures rise alongside the route, resembling staircases for giants. Sagebrush gives away to lonely Ponderosa pine forests, then firs, at the remote Disautel Pass at around 3,500 feet, where clouds may still gather, even on otherwise sunny days.

Descending from the pass takes you into shrub-steppe landscape and scablands scattered with countless “irregulars,” or giant boulders, ranging from the size of a fridge to two-story houses. Tens of thousands of years ago, glaciers deposited these monstrosities where they still sit today, much like a river might move a small pebble. The most famous is the precariously balanced Omak Rock to the north near Omak Lake, Washington’s largest saline lake — but you’ll see plenty from the car, too.

The shrub-steppe gives way to cattail and lily-covered marshes, where birds flit. The Audubon Society notes that the Coulee Corridor is home to more than half of Washington’s 346 bird species. Order a map or download the organization’s app to identify the brightly colored avian friends you see en route, including the numerous birds of prey soaring overhead.

Grand Coulee Dam and Sun Lakes road trip

The Coulee Corridor Byway amps the drama as you approach the Grand Coulee Dam, a stunning place to stop for a bathroom, picnic or photo break. The recently reopened visitor center explains the dam’s innards, and the facility also presents guided tours, an evening laser light show, and a geocaching challenge. Nearby, the Colville Tribal Museum showcases traditional and contemporary history and art.

The dam’s almost incomprehensible torrents make sense — the dam is one of the world’s largest. The surge can also help you get an inkling of the force and power of the ancient ice age floods that dramatically altered the upcoming vistas. The Amazon River flows at 6 million cubic feet per second, but great floods washed through this part of Washington at 386 million cubic feet per second.

Take WA-155 as it winds south, and Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area reflects spectacularly shaped clouds overhead. You’ve entered Grand Coulee — an ancient riverbed carved out by floodwaters — where human-made lakes now offer RV and site camping, fishing and boating. The vivid blue-green reservoir of Banks Lake may look familiar; the color rivals the North Cascades’ well-known, dam-created reservoirs Diablo and Ross Lakes. En route, look for Steamboat Rock State Park. From a distance, the 650-foot butte looks like an old-timey steamboat — but closer up, it reveals colonnades of basalt (cooled lava).

Follow WA-155 south then continue on Highway 2/17 to Sun Lake-Dry Falls State Park’s excellent visitor center, which explains the prehistoric landscape formation process with photos and provides an immersive experience. Long ago, a raging waterfall four times the size of Niagara Falls once roared into Dry Falls’ giant basin. Today, just a few potholelike freshwater lakes sit within the bowl, which soars 400 feet. Experience Dry Falls from above, where informative placards and photo opportunities abound. Then drive down into the bowl for an otherworldly experience.

Just a few miles further, pull off at Lake Lenore Caves to hike a short sagebrush-scented trail to narrow, shallow basalt caves used as shelters as long as 5,000 years ago. Stand inside the cave for an eye-like peek of the surrounding scenery and Lake Lenore.   

Road trip to Soap Lake

More than 100 years ago, Soap Lake’s mineral content gave the alkaline-rich water a slick, soapy feel and the black-sand shores would often collect foam. In the early 20th century, Soap Lake’s heyday arrived as a “Sanitarium Lake,” and the Veterans Administration approved it as a healing destination for Buerger’s disease (resulting from smoking, so of debatable effectiveness). In recent years, the mineral content shifted due to the development of canals and other water systems.

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As a result, much of the froth is gone. But the town’s quirkiness and mud-slathering rituals may earn it a comeback. The curious visitor looking beyond the empty storefronts will be rewarded with surprising delights — a community theater, roller rink, and the few restaurants set the table for excellent, diverse dining.  

La Cucina Di Sophia’s Brazilian-Italian restaurant presents fresh salads, steaks, and wood-fired pizza that could best most Seattle restaurants (make reservations). Mom’s European Foods and Deli closes on the earlier side but serves deli meats, cheeses, desserts, and housemade borscht, pierogies and sandwiches. Mi Cocinita Mexican Grill & Cantina offers fresh-cut chips and an extensive menu of favorite dishes.

Sleep at one of the local AirBnBs or Soap Lake Resort. Made up of several acquired buildings, Soap Lake Resort includes themed rooms recently built from giant Canadian logs (cowboy, Vegas, fishing, etc.); cottage rooms — some in an Art Deco-style historic building; and smaller inn rooms. Some suites come with kitchenettes. Call to ensure you know what you’re getting.

The resort’s exclusive lakefront access makes for easy trips into the clear waters, along providing picnic tables, a hot tub, beachfront chairs and swings, and a family-friendly game room. Don’t miss the resort’s eccentric pleasures, including two tiny barrel-shaped saunas and a 1929 jail, repurposed as the ice dispenser room.

The following day, pick up excellent breakfast and top-notch pastries within the charming plant-filled interior of Cloudview Kitchen. The cafe is run by local young adults who’ve worked in some of Seattle’s best bakeries, then returned home. Only open Friday-Sunday, the kitchen’s rotating menu may offer American, Turkish or Korean takes for breakfast and lunch options alongside strong coffee and cases filled with dozens of muffins, croissants, hand pies and other treats.

From Soap Lake, head back to Seattle — or extend your geologic exploration by visiting the Drumheller Channels National Natural Landmark or Palouse Falls State Park. Either way, be sure to pass through the Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park right off I-90 to see the fossilized remains of the ginkgo tree in its natural habitat. And be glad you didn’t live here 12,000 years ago.

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