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“The Columbia Basin” Chapter 5 – The Basin

Wenatchee, WA, to Clarkston, WA (US 2 to Coulee City, Hwy 155 to Grand Coulee, Hwy 174 to Wilbur, US 2 to Reardan, Hwy 231 to Sprague, Hwy 23 to Steptoe, Hwy 195 to Clarkston)

Wenatchee to Grand Coulee
Leaving Wenatchee and heading east, US 2 crosses the Columbia River, giving stunning views up the river before climbing out of the canyon to the plateau above.

The heart of the Columbia Basin is the large interior plateau encircled by the Columbia River to the west and south and the Rocky Mountains on the north and east. The prehistoric Missoula Floods repeatedly swept through this area, wiping the landscape clear and leaving a land of rolling hills cut by coulees (a French word meaning “to flow” and applied throughout the West to valleys large and small where water has or had been flowing). The Columbia Basin lies within the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains to the west and in some places is desert. Naturally bare of trees, exceptions today denote windbreaks around farm houses or small towns that serve the surround wheat fields.

Suddenly an enormous scar slashes the rolling plains. I had no idea that the two large “coulees” in central Washington were in fact enormous geological anomalies in the plateau that stretch for more than 50 miles in a north/south orientation. Moses Coulee is the first of the two and not as well-known as the larger Grand Coulee to the east. The view is quietly stunning as the highway quickly descends to the coulee floor of Moses Coulee before climbing up to the plateau and continuing east. This view is on the floor of the Moses Coulee looking north. The floor of the coulee is virtually flat, clad in grass and sagebrush, bordered by sheer basalt cliffs on both sides.

While I had some general knowledge of the topography of the basin, I had no idea how large these two coulees are nor how stunning the views. After rising out of Moses Coulee and traveling through wheat fields of the plateau the road again descends to a coulee floor, this time it is the Grand Coulee.

Grand Coulee
Grand Coulee stretches for 60 miles from Grand Coulee Dam in the north to Soap Lake in the south. US 2 crosses the Coulee on a low dam at Coulee City. South of the dam the coulee floor is the same arid landscape as seen in Moses Coulee, north of the dam is Banks Lake, which stretches north for 27 miles. At Coulee City our path turns north along the east side of Banks Lake on Hwy 155, which turns out to be the highlight of this trip. The 27 miles between Coulee City and Grand Coulee are simply stunning, with views unfolding all along the way.

In my ignorance, I assumed that Banks Lake is part of the reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam but that is not the case. Grand Coulee Dam is located across the Columbia River at the northern end of the Grand Coulee but it does not back up water into the Grand Coulee. Instead, the lake behind the dam (Lake Roosevelt) stretches up the Columbia River Canyon northeast of Grand Coulee towards Canada. Banks Lake was formed by building low dams at both ends of an approximately 30 stretch of Grand Coulee and then filling the land in-between with water pumped out of Lake Roosevelt in order to form another place to store water that then could be used for the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project that has enabled the desert to bloom along the lower Columbia. Here is a striking “before and after” sequence showing roughly the same spot in the Grand Coulee before and after the creation of Banks Lake.

At the northern end of Banks Lake are two small towns, Electric City and Grand Coulee. A couple of miles north of Grand Coulee is the canyon of the Columbia River and Grand Coulee Dam.

Grand Coulee Dam
Grand Coulee Dam was built in the years between 1933 and 1942 (with an additional powerhouse built in 1974) and designed to bring water and hydroelectric power to the Columbia Basin. At nearly a mile long, the dam is one of the largest cement structures in the world. As one approaches the dam from the south the view to the north is over the dam and into the Columbia River Canyon below to the city of Grand Coulee Dam, originally built to house the workers for the dam.

The highway hugs the west canyon wall and just below the dam is a visitor’s center. This is the view of the dam from the upper visitor center parking lot.

The visitor center documents the history of the construction of the dam. This picture is of the Columbia River Canyon prior to construction of the dam.

My next picture is of the construction in process. This view is looking towards the south with Grand Coulee Dam city in the foreground, the Grand Coulee and future Banks Lake can barely be seen in the upper right.

Interestingly enough, the housing built was somewhat segregated by economic status. The “fan-shaped” area on the west bank (right) housed the engineers and administrators; the complex on the east bank (lower center) housed the workers and small commercial center. Even today one can see the economic divide that remains between the two sides of the town.  The west side consists of tidy little bungalows under a dense canopy of trees, the east side, not so much, with a small bedraggled commercial area and residential area…

Climbing out of the canyon and heading southeast on Hwy 174 back into the heart of the Columbia Basin, the rolling view is of a treeless plateau cloaked in bands of green and brown as the alternating rows of wheat fields stripe the land. Finally in the distance a cluster of trees denotes the small town of Wilbur, where we will rejoin Hwy 2 as it stretches across the north basin.

Turning east Hwy 2 traverses the northern edge of the Columbia Basin. To the north mountains frame the plateau and as we near Reardan a few trees creep down to decorate the plateau.

At Reardan we turn south on Hwy 231 to begin a drive southeast on a crescent through the Columbia Basin to the rolling hills of the Palouse. Sparsely populated, there are few towns in this region and those that do hang on are a decayed remnant of times gone by. A cluster of trees in the endless wheat fields is the little town of Edwall, home to a church, school, grain elevator and a few houses…

Hwy 231 ends at the town of Sprague on I-94 about 60 miles southwest of Spokane. Sprague is typical of a town with a prosperous past that has been eclipsed by modern times. Traffic flows by on the interstate, residents probably go to Spokane for most of their business needs, and in the few small blocks vestiges of a more lively past peek out from midst the decay…

The next 45 miles of road along Hwy 23 proves to be the most challenging stretch of highway that I have traveled in the Lunch Box for quite some time. The landscape starts out with a maze of coulees that eventually transition to the rolling hills of the Palouse. The highway is narrow, twists and turns through the coulees, and the howling wind characteristic of this land is present. Not much fun as I wrestle the Lunch Box down the narrow highway…

Finally we reach Hwy 195, which is a much better road as it is the main highway between Spokane to the north and Pullman to the south. The Rocky Mountains of Idaho loom in the distance.

Hwy 195 crosses the rolling hills of the Palouse and bypasses the major town of the area, Pullman by running above the narrow valley on hills to the west.

Pullman, WA
Pullman may well be a much more interesting destination than I was able to discover but the topography of the town simply is not conducive to exploration by motorhome, even one that is only 24” long. The town sprawls across four hills with the very compact downtown area snuggled in a narrow strip in the valley below. Streets are narrow and in the central area and climb the very steep hills at sharp angles. Originally important as a center of the rich agricultural lands around it, Pullman really is all about Washington State University. The university, with an enrollment of around 29,000 students, dwarfs the non-university population and dominates the town from a hill to the east.

I was able to travel through on Grand Avenue, the main street of the older part of town, but my one foray into a side street was not good as I had to back up to get out of a bind. Grand Ave is lined with small businesses in older, mostly non-descript buildings.

Again, I know I didn’t do Pullman justice. I suspect that most of the newer commercial activity lies on the highway east between Pullman and its sister city, Moscow, Idaho, (home to the University of Idaho) 8 miles to the east. Just past Pullman the Palouse country of windy, rolling hills continues to the south towards the Snake River Canyon.  On the horizon the Blue Mountains rise across the hidden canyon of the Snake River.

I descend into the Snake River Canyon and am rewarded with canyon views from the north bank as I complete my “circle” of the Columbia Basin and return to Clarkston, WA.

This completes my little journey exploring the Columbia Basin and now I am headed home to Montana. As always, thanks for coming along with me on my adventures. I hope to be heading out on the road again in late August, 2017 for another adventure.

Hope to see you then!