Exploring the geology of the Lower Grand Coulee

Central Washington has so much to offer geologically. The entire region will make any landscape photographer, historian, geologist, or rock climber happy. As for me, I have little to no experience in all four of those categories, but I remain spellbound to this day by Dry Falls, Frenchman’s Coulee, and the giant current ripples.

panorama photography of dry falls in central washington state

What is a coulee?

I already knew that the Lower Grand Coulee area was formed by at least one ancient mega-flood, but that’s all I knew. The geologic effect, however, wasn’t really put in perspective for me until we first got near Dry Falls. Here’s a photo of the first coulee I saw. Little did I realize just how many more I would see on this trip…

I now understand what a coulee is, how the Grand Coulee is different from the Grand Coulee Dam, and what makes the coulee grand in the first place. (That’s right, the dam is NOT a coulee!) Basically, a coulee is a square-shaped valley, or canyon, if you will. A coulee is formed by immense water movement forming this rectangular shape. From the visitor center in the lower grand coulee today, you can see what is left of what has been named the world’s largest waterfall. So Dry Falls is quite literally named for the waterless waterfall that it is today.

Interestingly, famous photographer Asahel Curtis attempted to depict how the falls may have looked when the water was still flowing. His slide is on display at the interpretive center.

backroad road trip in dry falls in lower grand couleeBackroading and swimming

My second photo shows the view from the interpretive center. But that’s nothing. If you visit Dry Falls Interpretive Center and can spy out those little roads far below in the coulee, try to GO THERE for the best views. We found access to the backroads from the Sun Lakes recreation area, down in the coulee. And we drove far. The views were thrilling!

If it’s a boiling hot day for you (as it was for us), I’m happy to say that Sun Lakes swimming beach looked very inviting. You may wish to bring a sun-protective umbrella, sunscreen, and an air mattress. Honestly, it was near torture just to walk around very long.

This was a great place for a picnic. We had our dinner here. The day wasn’t over yet, though. We had a sunset date with the giant ripples at Trinidad.

Note: You’ll need a Discover Pass both to park at the interpretive center and for access to the Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park.

Giant Ripples near Trinidad WAGiant ripples near Trinidad

The giant current ripples were also carved into the landscape by the massive water movement that formed the Grand Coulee. These can be seen across the Columbia River from Crescent Bar Road just outside the town of Trinidad.

Going at sunrise or sunset is highly recommended–less sun in your face, but all the more shadows to show off the textures of the ripples in any photograph. Also, stay high for the best possible view.

The left turn for the overlook will sneak up on you a bit, but don’t worry. There will be a very clear turn-off to the left with plenty of room. There, we turned around to go back to the overlook point further left. We just preferred the view since the shadows seemed a little more pronounced from a different angle.

Don’t try to tackle the hill of dirt in between the two overlook points unless you are driving an SUV or other high-clearance vehicle. Otherwise, you’ll be fine in any vehicle.

Quincy is a bigger town near Trinidad. Plenty of restaurants and motels are available there. Moses Lake, however, was where our hotel reservation was, so that’s why we backtracked. We drove down to Ephrata from Quincy and hopped on I-90 from there. The drive between Ephrata and Trinidad, by the way, is very pleasant, with so many stops for peaches, corn, and wine along the way. Not to mention more landscape shots!

No Discover Pass required to see the ripples! Yay!

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