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Crazy fun and a history lesson

By on April 23, 2018 in Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments

Mountain biking along the Caribou Trail in Sun Lakes State Park. The Caribou Trail was a historic north-south route extending over 800 miles that was first used by Native Americans, then fur traders, then gold seekers headed to Barkersville, British Columbia. A new brand of rovers still use it.





by Andy Dappen

Hiking, biking, canoeing, swimming, fishing… and cliff jumping?

Sun Lakes – Dry Falls State Park near Coulee City offers a menu of relatively tame outdoor outings highlighted with a few dashes of craziness.

That seems appropriate given that most of the region’s geologic history has been relatively tame, except for the occasional dash of extreme craziness.

The first dash of craziness was the fissure flows and eruptions during the Cenozoic Era about 16 million years ago that laid down the many layers of basalt that cover this landscape.

Then, between 13,000 and 15,000 years ago, came the real craziness — the catastrophic Ice Age Floods that raged through here between 40 and 100 times during a 2,000-year period. These floods sculpted and scoured large portions of Central Washington, including the cliffs and lakes of this state park.

The floods were caused by the Cordilleran Ice Sheet that dammed rivers in western Montana and backed up Lake Missoula, a Great-Lake-sized body of water.

When the rising lake level would reach a depth of about 2,000 feet, it would eventually float the ice dam enough to cause a catastrophic release of water. Then floods that were hundreds of feet high, with volumes of an estimated 9.4 cubic miles of water per hour, would rage at speeds of 50 to 60 miles per hour toward the Pacific Ocean.

Much of the water generally followed the course of the Columbia River but, 15,000 years ago, the Okanogan Lobe of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet had also dammed the Columbia River and that had diverted the Columbia through the Grand Coulee, which was a far less conspicuous drainage then.

All this water from the draining Lake Missoula, however, greatly accelerated the sculpting of the coulee we see today.

Deep Lake, sculpted by the colossal ice cream scooper of the Ice Age Floods. A trail bordering the south shore provides an easy, scenic hike for 0.75 miles. Farther on, a much more “exciting” non-maintained path wanders onward. The continuation is not for the inexperienced, the faint of heart, or young children — in places a misstep can plunge you over a 50-foot claiff.

At Sun Lakes – Dry Falls State Park, the biggest cataract in the world formed as water that was hundreds of feet high, flowed over basalt cliffs that were also hundreds of feet high.

Great plunge pools formed below the cliffs and, with so much water flowing so violently, the maelstrom of currents below the falls would cut into the cliffs, undercutting them.

This cutting action might move the cliffs, forming the waterfall upstream as much as a 100 feet per day during these great floods. This same process lengthened the lakes forming below the falls at the same rate. This was geology taking place at light speed.

In this quiet, desert landscape, the juxtaposition of so much water flowing with such violence is nearly impossible to visualize now.

Deep Lake, about 1.6 miles long, formed quickly during these floods as the cliffs at the eastern end of the coulee containing the lake were undercut by these periodic floods that might rage for five or six days every 50 years.

In the same manner, the carving of the horseshoe-shaped cliffs that now contain Dry Falls Lake and Green Lake was greatly accelerated by these short, periodic floods.

These cliffs have a 4-mile perimeter and are 350 feet high. What terrifying sight it must have been when water, hundreds of feet deep and flowing at 50 miles per hour, plunged into this colossal toilet bowl.

Regardless of your recreational proclivity — whether you’re a boater with beer coming for obliteration or a poet with pen coming for alliteration — take some time to visualize the chaotic, aquatic cataclysm that created these scars in the crust of this basaltic landscape.

Activities: Hiking, swimming, mountain biking, canoeing, kayaking, and fishing. Also, while not officially sanctioned and definitely qualifying as stupid fun, people come here to cliff jump along the northwest end of Deep Lake.

Access: Whether driving south from Coulee City or north from Soap Lake, follow State Highway 17 to milepost 92.5 and turn east into Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park. Drive 1.3 miles (about 0.15 miles past the Sun Lakes-Dry Falls Campground) and turn left on a paved road signed for such destinations as Dry Falls Lake, Perch Lake, Delaney Springs, and Deep Lake.

In another mile you’ll reach a Y in the road. A left turn will take you to Dry Falls Lake in 1.75 miles, while a right turn will take you to Deep Lake in 1.5 miles. At Deep Lake there are toilets and a boat launch for small boats (no motors larger than five horsepower).

A Discover Pass is required for all parking areas.

This story also appears on Wenatcheeoutdoors.org — the site covers such topics as hiking, biking, climbing, paddling, trail running and skiing in the region. Specific trip options for hikers, mountain bikers, paddlers, and fishermen are listed in the WenatcheeOutdoors guidebooks.

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