As the summer winds down and temperatures cool a bit in the Pacific Northwest USA, a fascinating geographical area to visit is the Scablands of eastern Washington. This area was scoured by the great Missoula Floods of eons past that repeatedly flowed with enormous velocity over a large swath of eastern Washington and the Columbia River Plateau. What was left behind is a Martian-like landscape with its channeled coulees. This desert-like area is dry and very warm in the summer with temperatures soaring into the 90’s and sometimes 100’s…quite a desolate place.
If traveling from western Washington, the best way to start your trip is to drive east along I-90 for quite a distance. An alternative route is Hwy 2, but is much slower. One can’t help but be fascinated by the changes in topography along the way…from evergreen forests, mountains, scrub lands and farmlands, to deep canyons and rocky desert scenery. You’d think you had driven to a completely different state! Make sure you have a good roadmap.
There’s plenty to see along your journey. For instance, just before you cross the Columbia River, stop in Vantage to fuel up and visit Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park. Here you’ll find an interpretive center, along with excellent exhibits of petrified wood and an outdoor exhibit of native indian petroglyphs.
Petrified wood exhibit at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park
Just after crossing the Columbia River via I-90, there is a steep hill with a metal, wild horse sculpture that gets your attention. There is a pull-off on the interstate with a small parking area to view the river and also if you wish to climb the hill to the sculpture. It’s quite a hike! There’s also a pull-off on the opposite side of the interstate with a short trail to a spectacular overlook of the Columbia River Gorge. This is well worth the stop!
Overlook of the Columbia River Interstate Crossing
After a few more miles of interstate travel, you will need to exit onto side roads to make your way towards the Scablands. This is where you will need your road map to decide which roads you want to take. You ultimately want to end up going north to Hwy 2 and then to Hwy 17 in northcentral Washington. This is where the landscape starts to change dramatically. But first, stop at Soap Lake known for its rich mineral content and healing properties. You will see lots of white, powdery stuff along the banks of the lake. No, it’s not snow! It’s the lake’s minerals!
Mineral deposits on the shores of Soap Lake
Past Soap Lake, you will start to get into no-man’s land with lots of high, rocky, volcanic cliffs, plateaus, and other strange looking land formations with coulee lakes. The coulees are the channeled areas that the Missoula Floods carved out. The largest of them is called the Grand Coulee, and here you will find the Grand Coulee Dam, one of the largest concrete structures in the world. You may want to end your trip here at Electric City, as the dam is the ultimate highlight along this route.
There is another spectacular highlight along Hwy 17 before you get to the dam. You can choose to see it either before or on your way back from the dam. I am speaking of Dry Falls. This is thought to have been the largest falls in the world once-upon-a-time formed by the roaring waters of the Missoula Floods. Now, of course, it is a dried up remnant except for the few lakes that still remain in its state park and a spectacular land formation for travelers to marvel at. This is a must stop for photographers!
One other major attraction along this highway is Steamboat Rock State Park. I would strongly suggest making this a separate day trip. There is just too much travel time involved to really enjoy all the wonders of the coulee area at a leisurely speed. There are not many hotels around, but there is camping at the state parks. For overnight stays at larger motels/hotels, the city of Ephrata would be a good choice.
As one can see, there are a lot of geological wonders in the state of Washington. The Scablands isn’t exactly a name to entice one to come visit this particular area, but once there, you’ll get to appreciate and marvel at it’s ancient geological history. Below is a short video of one of my trips to eastern Washington and the Scablands that combines both geological and native cultural history of the state. Enjoy!