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Dry Falls and the Great Missoula Flood

(Warning: if you are adverse to viewing photos of breathtaking scenery, avoid this post.)

Ever heard of the Great Missoula Flood?

It’s one of the most amazing stories and has fascinated me since I first watched a PBS documentary on it, years ago when we were still living in Virginia, before we moved to Japan and eventually to the Pacific Northwest. You can (and should!) watch that documentary HERE on YouTube.

But, if you don’t have time for that, here it is in a nutshell: Millions of years ago, most of Washington State was covered with boiling volcanic lava. This lava eventually cooled into layers of basalt, which makes up the bedrock for most of the area east of the Cascades. Then, 15,000 years ago, during the last ice age, a river in what is now Montana got plugged with ice and a huge—and I mean HUGE—lake began to form behind it. And, one day, the ice broke and this colossal amount of water burst through and rolled across the entire state of Washington and down the Columbia River basin. All told, it took about 48 hours to rush 65 miles per hour across Idaho and Washington, down into Oregon, and into the Pacific.

And in that 48 hours a relatively flat plain of basalt was carved into a geographic wonderland. The flood changed the course of the Palouse River and created Palouse Falls. It roared down the Columbia River and gouged out most of the Columbia River Gorge. And it created the biggest waterfall in the world—what we call Dry Falls, as well as all the canyons and coulees that surround it.

Driving to Dry Falls from the west side of the Cascades is amazing because you pass from the wet, green side of Washington, over the Cascades to the dry, chapparal covered desert of the east. You’ll find fields of lush grass throughout this desert because the Grand Coulee Dam provides irrigation for all the farms, but the rest is technically desert. And it looks it. The first time we travelled up to Dry Falls, we thought we’d been transported to Arizona or something.

My painting of Dry Falls Lake. The Visitor Center is on the ridge there somewhere, but I didn't paint it in. I'm not sure how that hawk got into my painting either.

Sun Lakes Dry Falls State Park

Our main reason for taking this particular trip to Sun Lakes Dry Falls State Park was to kayak Deep Lake, a 1.5-mile-long lake situated at the base of Dry Falls. I was planning to film the trip but had issues with our new Go-Pro type camera, and the wind was so bad that day that we decided not to kayak the whole thing anyway. I will still discuss that trip in my next post though, because Deep Lake is a really cool place to kayak (if you can avoid the wind). In this post, I want to talk about the State Park itself.

It's my favorite park in Washington. The camping spots are nice and shady (except ours—it was the last spot available so of course it was the one with no trees or shade, but luckily it wasn’t hot the day we went). The restrooms are clean and were equipped for the disabled. The roads through the campsite are paved and in good condition so if you have to make a run to the restroom in the middle of the night, at least the going isn't too trecharous. There is a huge lake for swimming and boating, as well as several smaller lakes (Deep Lake is one of the smaller ones). They have programs on certain nights for star gazing. There are plenty of picnic and play areas scattered about, as well as miles of roads cutting through the beautiful valley—some are paved, some aren’t. Great for horseback riding, 4-wheeling, etc., but our SUV also took the roads just fine.

A picnic table in the lake? Say whaaat?!!

The other really cool place to check out is the Visitor Center, which is only about a mile up the road and has a fantastic overlook of the entire area as well as lots of free maps of the area and a yummy food stand with really good ice cream. The only problem with the visitor center is the accessibility: it has some steep steps going up to it. There is one of those lifts that can haul up a wheelchair, but I wasn't sure how to ask for it so I took the steps (which I really needed to do because I need to build my leg muscles back up. But I still didn't wanna do it. :P)

If you can climb up to it, the visitor center has an exhibit that explains the geography of the region, some videos on a playback loop talking about the geology and the flood, and, of course, the obligatory gift shop.

A view from the visitor's center - Credit to Steve Bennett for the photo!

Also from the state park, it's about an hour's spectacularly gorgeous drive up to the Grand Coulee dam, a little over an hour to Wenatchee (which is where the nearest hospital is, if you are concerned about those types of things like I now am), and a half-hour drive to Soap Lake, which, according to Wikipedia, has "the highest diverse mineral content of any body of water on the planet." So if you need to soak in something therapeutic, that's apparently the place to go. We've driven by Soap Lake lots but haven't stayed there--gonna add that to the bucket list.

My Disability Rating for Sun Lakes State Park:

Restrooms: Excellent, although I didn't check to see if they had automatic doors for folks in wheelchairs.

Walkability: Excellent. All the roads around the campgrounds are paved and flat and easy to get around, probably even in a wheelchair. The road to Deep Lake is also fully paved and pretty flat. The road to Dry Falls Lake isn't paved but is well graveled. Steep in places, though.

Access to Medical Facilities: Fair. The nearest hospital is in Wenatchee, which is one hour and fifteen minutes away from the park. There is also an emergency center in Coulee City, which is only 15 minutes away from the park, but the center is not open 24-hours.

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