Central Washington Road Trip

Geology Rocks

By Allison Williams March 23, 2012 Published in the April 2012 issue of Seattle Met

Lake Lenore Caves

2 Days | 455 Miles Round Trip *

Let's get one thing out of the way: “The Scablands” is a terrible name. Central Washington’s most dramatic geology got the short end of the nomenclature stick when it was dubbed the Channeled Scablands by some unpoetic scientist. The nasty name labels an area of flood discharge routes carved by a post–ice age flood some 14,000 years ago. “They are channeled, and they look like scabs,” shrugs University of Washington earth scientist Mike Harrell. “It’s not the most attractive name, but it’s descriptive.”

Good thing these scabs are gorgeous.

Just after I-90 crosses the Columbia River and before it hits the plains for Moses Lake, take an unassuming exit at George and head northeast on a quintessential country highway—you can hit 80 miles per hour, but keep an eye out for anything John Deere green on the shoulder. When you’ve hit the town of Soap Lake, you’re at the beginning of the state’s best-kept geologic secret.

In the early 1900s, ailing pilgrims came to Soap Lake’s mineral waters for their healing properties. Frothy white suds gather on the lake’s shoreline like snowdrifts—the water itself has sodium, bicarbonate, sulfate, and ichthyol—but it was the goopy black mud that worked wonders on circulatory diseases. Mineral waters are pumped directly to in-room bathtubs at the hundred-year-old Inn at Soap Lake. To bring tourists back to Soap Lake, the town has undergone a decade-long campaign to erect a 50-foot lava lamp—no progress as yet.

From here the land speaks louder than anything groovy that humans could build. Crumbly cliffs line a valley heading northeast, with lakes or brushy land in between. There are few trees and fewer buildings to block the rocky shelf walls, which glow ochre in the sun. A partially paved trail climbs up one side to the Lake Lenore caves, a series of shallow indentations that dent the cliffs like thumbprints. People occupied them 5,000 years ago; envy their Scabland view.

Grand Coulee Dam

Image: Andre Mora

Between geologic wonders are small collections of retiree homes, farms, and small towns like Coulee City that sell farm threshers but no Big Macs. Weather-beaten roadside motels would be at home in an Eagles song or have been abandoned altogether. Eventually the land gives way to acre-wide rocks the shape of Southwestern mesas: Squint at the ravines at Dry Falls State Park and you’ll see a miniature Grand Canyon. This used to be a massive waterfall that put Niagara to shame; it wore down the basalt beneath itself, eroding a 20-mile indentation called a coulee.

A few miles north is the biggest coulee of them all, Grand Coulee, close to the state’s hydroelectric power-house. Webs of electric cable spread from the aptly named Electric City, but the Sunbanks Lake Resort is smartly positioned to get an unobstructed vista of flat-topped Steamboat Rock. Its tiny resort homes are the rare local accommodation above the level of RV park.

Finally you’re at the Grand Coulee Dam itself, a wide concrete wall squatting on the Columbia River. It’s a different kind of cliff, smoother than the dimpled surfaces of the Scablands. It’s wetter, too, with orderly lines of river water trickling down its face. The country’s largest single power generator is a mile wide and 550 feet high, and is one of the biggest things we humans have ever made out of concrete. Funny, then, that even this monumental achievement is dwarfed by geology. And it’s geology hardly anyone has even heard of, with a cruddy-sounding name like the Scablands.

Sun Lakes–Dry Falls State Park

Image: Andre Mora


Inn at Soap Lake
226 Main Ave E, Soap Lake, Washington,

Sunbanks Lake Resort
57662 Hwy 155 N, Electric City, Washington,


Grand Coulee Dam
1 Stevens Ave, Coulee Dam, Washington,

Steamboat Rock State Park
51052 Hwy 155, Electric City, Washington,

Sun Lakes–Dry Falls State Park
34875 Park Lake Rd NE, Coulee City, Washington,

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Central Washington Side Trips

Gingko Petrified Forest State Park Besides the basalt walls of the Columbia Gorge, the view includes petrified wood and petroglyphs that are hundreds of years old. The peace sign is probably relatively new, though. 4511 Huntzinger Rd, Vantage, 888-226-7688;

Gorge Amphitheatre The hills are alive with the sound of Dave Matthews and other rock acts. The outdoor concert venue and its spectacular river views host the annual Sasquatch! festival, among others. 754 Silica Rd, Quincy, 509-785-6262;

*All distances measured from Seattle.

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