As the name suggests, Dry Falls no longer carries water, but is the remnant of what was once the world’s largest (in water volume) waterfall known to have existed on earth, but that was during the Great Missoula Floods at the end of the last Ice Age.
Today the falls is a massive cirque of basalt: Dry Falls Lake. The site is designated a National Natural Landmark.
Viewing the 3.5 miles of sheer cliffs that drop 400 feet, it is easy to imagine the roar of water pouring over them. Niagara Falls by comparison, is one mile wide with a drop of 165 feet.
The falls were created following the catastrophic collapse of an enormous ice-dam holding back the waters of Glacier Lake Missoula. Water covering three thousand square miles of northwest Montana, about the volume of Lake Ontario, was locked behind this glacial dam until the rising lake penetrated, lifted, and then blew out the ice dam. This massive torrent known as the Missoula Flood ran wild through the Idaho panhandle, the Spokane River Valley, much of eastern Washington, and into Oregon, flooding the area that is now the city of Portland under 400 feet of water.
Reaching the Dry Falls area, this tremendous force swept away earth and rock from a precipice 15 miles south of the falls near Soap Lake, causing the falls to retreat to its present position, now known as Dry Falls. The falls is considered a spectacular example of “headward erosion”. If this is confusing, given the present topography, it also helps to know the falls are on an ancient course of the Columbia River. The river had been diverted this way by the encroaching glaciers. It returned to its present course as the ice retreated.
Today, the former waterfall overlooks a desert oasis filled with lakes and abundant wildlife. It is now dry as a bone but water is still present in the Sun Lakes, a haven for fishing, swimming, and boating in this otherwise arid desert landscape.
Dry water channels from the Banks Lake area slide south to the lip of the falls, and then the land falls away in great basaltic cliffs. What was once an ancient splash pool at the base of the falls is now a broad desert meadow dotted with lakes and ponds, swarming with birds and animals of all kinds, shapes, and sizes. This is a uniquely beautiful area to explore, both to delve into the geologic history of the area and to reach out and touch the native flora and fauna of the Washington desert.
Umatilla Rock towers like a giant fin in the middle of Grand Coulee in the basin below Dry Falls. This rock would have been an island in the midst of swirling waters during the great floods.
Today it offers a clear look at the multiple layers of geologic soils and rock that make up these lands. At the junction where the road splits (left to Dry Falls Lake, right to Camp Delany), head left along the gravel road at the southwestern base of Umatilla Rock. Stray off the road and hike cross-country through the open sage prairie and you might spot a few pheasant or quail. In the first mile or so, you’ll pass Perch Lake and climb a small rise for views of the lake basin.
Camping is very popular in the park, which offers over 150 campsites for RVs and tents. There are also boat rentals in the summer.
The best views of Dry Falls are from the Vista House Overlook. The Dry Falls visitor centre features displays about the geology and natural history of the area and tells the story of this amazing geological phenomenon. From lava flows to the Ice Age floods, and from the Native American legacy to the modern discovery of how Dry Falls was created, the Dry Falls story is revealed to tens of thousands of visitors each year.
A gift shop in the visitor center has a wide selection of books, maps, guides, videos, postcards, film, and other merchandise about Dry Falls and the surrounding area.
Now, that is really climate change. Man made? I don’t think so!
Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park
Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park is a 4,027-acre camping park with 73,640 feet of freshwater shoreline at the foot of Dry Falls. The Dry Falls Interpretive Center is located two miles north of the main park on Highway 17.
Location: 7 miles southwest of Coulee City in northeast Washington. It is a feature of Grand Coulee Canyon, which is itself part of the Channeled Scablands that cover three-quarters of eastern Washington.
Directions: South of US-2 onto WA-17, and drive to the visitor center which is in sight of the highway, on the east side.
Address: 34875 Park Lake Road NE, Coulee City, WA 99115
Phone: (509) 632-5583
Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.