Take a Scenic Drive to Old Caves, Dry Falls, Hiking Trails and More
The tour continues northeast from Ephrata along S.R. 28. Just over five miles from town, turn left to head north on State Route 17, which bisects the town of Soap Lake. The town and its eponymous lake get their name from a formation of sudsy foam that gives the water its soap-like appearance.
S.R. 17 forms a portion of the Coulee Corridor National Scenic Byway, a road tracing an ancient riverbed cleaved over thousands of years from the basalt plateau. Soap Lake sits at the southern end of a string of lakes formed by the Grand Coulee riverbed. Just 2.5 miles north of the end of Soap Lake is Lake Lenore, a 5.5-mile-long body of water popular with anglers.
Across the highway from the lake is a signed parking area leading to Lake Lenore Caves, a series of seven caves used by Native Americans for shelter over millennia. Summertime visitors should keep an eye out for rattlesnakes and other reptiles which prefer the caves to cool themselves during the heat of midday.
As the highway continues north, several small RV parks, resorts and boat launches come into view, especially along Blue and Park lakes. This is where Washingtonians come to play in the water; speed boats, skiers and kids on inner tubes are a common sight during the summer. Gravel pullouts along the road’s edge provide ample access to the lakes.
Just past the northern edge of Park Lake sits Park Lake Road NE — where a sign directs visitors to Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park (Discover Pass required). Turn right to follow the sign and head toward the park, which sits on the site of Dry Falls, a former waterfall that was once four times the size of Niagara Falls. Today basalt outcrops, deep gorges and the expansive Deep Lake all attract road-trippers and overnight campers alike. On-site attractions include a playground, docks, boat launches, mountain biking trails, a nine-hole golf course and miniature golf.
Return to S.R. 17, and turn right to continue heading northeast. After two miles, pull into the parking lot for the Dry Falls Visitor Center (Discover Pass required) on the right for a panoramic view of the onetime Dry Falls. The visitor center here hosts indoor exhibits that explore the Ice Age and early human history in the region.
The highway reaches its junction with U.S. 2 two miles north of the Dry Falls Visitor Center. Turn right to head east on U.S. 2 across Dry Falls Dam, an earthen structure that marks the south shore of Banks Lake. This 27-mile-long reservoir is a key component of the Columbia Basin Project’s network of irrigation across Grant and Adams counties.
Overlooking the east edge of the dam is Coulee City, a spot where canyons and farmlands merge into small-town America. At the northern edge of town, sandwiched between US-2 and Banks Lake, is the popular Coulee City Community Park. The park hosts tent and RV sites, docks and boat launches, a swimming area and a playground for the little ones.
Two miles east of Coulee City, our auto tour joins State Route 155. The highway descends to the shore of Banks Lake for five miles before approaching the Million Dollar Mile — a stretch blasted straight through basalt rock by dynamite force. Finished in the 1940s to complete the highway link to Grand Coulee Dam, the project cost nearly $1 million — a fantastic sum at the time.
Roughly 18 miles beyond Coulee City sits Steamboat Rock — a massive stone monolith towering 800 feet above its surroundings. Steamboat Rock State Park (Discover Pass required) is a desert oasis and a favorite for boaters, rock climbers, horse enthusiasts, campers, hikers and day-trippers. A hiking trail ascends 650 feet to the summit of the park’s eponymous rock, while other attractions include more than 150 campsites, fishing piers and boat launches in Banks Lake, rock climbing, and (in winter) cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails. Access the park from S.R. 155 by turning left at a signed intersection onto the entrance road; the park follows in about two miles.
Return to the highway, and turn left to continue heading northeast on S.R. 155 as the highway climbs back toward civilization; after nearly nine miles, the tour passes through Electric City), named for its close proximity to the Grand Coulee Dam.
The highway ascends from Electric City and arrives, in just one mile, at the (admission-free) Gehrke Windmill Garden; the eclectic blend of sight and sound includes more than 120 windmills created by Emil Albert and Stella Veva Gehrke — all from scrap metal and other discarded materials.
Heading east from the Gehrke Windmill Garden on S.R. 155, visitors arrive almost immediately in the town of Grand Coulee. Follow S.R. 155 through town, teeming with grocery stores, restaurants and lodgings, and begin descending toward a view of the Grand Coulee Dam.
The 550-foot-tall Grand Coulee Dam is one of the largest concrete structures ever made; in all, the dam is just less than a mile long and contains enough concrete to build a highway between Seattle and Miami. Its reservoir, Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake, stretches north for a whopping 150 miles.
Visitors wanting a closer look and better understanding of the sweeping dam need only continue two miles north of Grand Coulee (the city) along S.R. 155 — where they arrive at the Grand Coulee Dam Visitor Center. The center hosts exhibits on the dam’s role in irrigation and flood control, as well as hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River. In summer, a laser-light show details the history of the dam via images and animations on the dam’s spillway.
Less than a mile beyond the visitor center, S.R. 155 enters the town of Coulee Dam and the Colville Indian Reservation. A casino, motel and restaurants all cater to visitors here, and Freedom Park (immediately east of the Grand Coulee Bridge) affords opportunities to view the dam’s laser light shows in summer. A few blocks inland sits the Colville Tribal Museum, which details the history of the twelve bands of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation; from the Grand Coulee Bridge, head east for 0.1 mile on Roosevelt Way, turn left onto Fir Street and take an immediate right onto Mead Way. The museum is about 0.1 mile ahead on the left.
– Written by John King. Updated by Matthew Wastradowski in September 2020
– Top image of Grand Coulee Dam by J. Back32661/Getty Images.