Scouring the Scablands

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Scouring the Scablands

Exploring Washington's drier side

15,000 years ago, the Cordilleran ice sheet was retreating as the planet warmed. And as it did, the ice walls around Glacial Lake Missoula would rupture several times over a 2,000-year period. Massive floods would ensue and roar across the landscape southwest to the Pacific Ocean, tearing away and changing the shape of the land forever.

Photo: Overnighting in state park cabins at Potholes

During one of the later events, the entire course of the Columbia River was changed when a torrential flood broke a large rock wall in the Grand Coulee area, leaving America's largest waterfall to go dry along with all the areas north and south of it. Washington's scablands were born.

Photo: Looking east across Lake Roosevelt from Grand Coulee Hill Road

Today, this area east of the Cascades mountain range is a vast agricultural region in the state, but much of what was caused geologically still stands and makes for some excellent motorcycle riding, both on and off the pavement. Roads work their way around glacial deposits like haystack rocks, through a collection of coulees, and the scenery changes throughout the day as the sun lights up formations in different ways. The multiple lakes left behind are now part of a large recreational playground suitable for water skiing, fishing and hunting. From spring through fall, this area is a perfect weekend destination for riders to explore.

Pavement Wonders

The best roads have names, not numbers, and that's certainly true in this region. For riders approaching from the west, the best way in is to drop into Wenatchee and ride Badger Mountain Road up above the Columbia River and take in the striking view west across to the Cascades. The road was recently paved all the way through, so don't get tripped up by an old map with mismarkings.

Photo: Passing through Moses Coulee

As Highway 2 travels east across the Waterville Plateau, the road drops into the Moses Coulee. At the bottom, ride south along Coulee Meadows Road which later becomes Rimrock and Sagebrush Flat roads and deposits you into the small town of Ephrata. This road is best experienced in the morning as the sun illuminates the walls of the coulee.

If you find yourself at the north end of this area around the city of Grand Coulee or the Coulee Dam, the best way out isn't on the highway. Instead, ride south up Grand Coulee Hill Road and ride any number of the farming roads south back into the area. The view east up the Columbia River makes for an awesome backdrop if you're photographing other riders in your group.

Photo: Mid-morning blast along Banks Lake

Continuing south toward the Potholes area from Coulee City, a nice detour is to use Pinto Ridge Road. You won't be passing trucks pulling trailers or boats, but you may see some farm machinery as you twist through the corners.

No trip into the Potholes region is complete without a ride along McManamon Road. Westbound from Othello in the morning hours illuminates the rocky banks that dot the landscape, but afternoons can reveal a multitude of birds and land critters who take up residence here in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge. H Rd SE takes you down into the Pothole Reservoir area.

Dirt and Gravel

A dual-purpose bike is a great way to get beyond the pavement and see what else is out there. There's plenty more to see here in the Scablands. Entering the area from the west, the Rock Island Grade will pull you up from the Columbia River and work you along the grasslands ridgeline that crosses over Badger Mountain.

Photo: Ascending the Rock Island Grade

You can explore the south end of the Moses Coulee using Palisades Road and the unpaved Road 24NW, or connect with Douglas Creek Road that features a water crossing.

Explore the Lynch Coulee riding Baird Springs Road, which will take you through a tunnel underpass for the nearby railway above. On the east side lies the town of Ephrata.

For a look at how farmland can bump right up against a geologic wonder, ride the Dry Coulee Road. Doing so in the late morning will have the light just right on the walls of this awesome land feature, while illuminating the grass fields at the same time.

Dry Coulee: Peering across the grass fields at the base of Dry Coulee

Southward in the Potholes area lies the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge. From Soda Lake Road to the north and Morgan Lake Road to the south, you could spend the better part of a day exploring all the tentacles that lead to numerous water and land features in the area.

See and Do

When it's time to take a break from the bike, there are plenty of ways to do it. To the North lies the Coulee Dam. The high dam design allows for several power houses and the ability to pump some of the water up to Banks Lake, which then becomes a storage system for all the agricultural activity around the area. Here you'll find a well-done visitors center open during the day and at night there's a laser light show presented on the outer wall of the dam itself.

At the beginning of the article, I mentioned the world's largest waterfall that went dry. Dry Falls has a 3-mile span in comparison to the 1 mile width of Niagara Falls. From the Dry Falls Visitors Center you can look across at the entire expanse and imagine what it must have been like when it was running. Inside, they roll a 20-minute history of the Missoula Floods throughout the day in the attached theater. Highly recommended.

Photo: Two-up touring along the north end of the Moses Coulee

You haven't been to the Dead Sea yet? Never fear - Soap Lake has the highest diverse mineral content of any body of water on the planet. It's the perfect place for a soak, or should we say - float, since the high mineral content makes the water very buoyant.

To the south, you can sit atop Road H SE and watch for the commonly seen Sandhill Cranes to be gliding over the Potholes area. They are most frequent in March and April, and the Othello Sandhill Crane Festival coincides with this time of year. This is the closest you'll ever get to seeing a pterodactyl.

Do you like fast boats? Play your cards right and you may be able to catch the hydroplane boat races that occur annually on Moses Lake. With so many lakes around, there's always the opportunity to watch others waterskiing from several roadside pullouts on the main highways.

Where to stay?

Hotels and motels are in the larger cities of Wenatchee, Moses Lake and Othello. RV and tent camping is available up and down the region in places like Steamboat Rock, Sun Lakes and at Potholes Reservoir. Simple cabin rentals are available at Potholes State Park and advanced reservations are highly recommended.

Photo: Tee-pees along Soap Lake. Image courtesy of Smokiam Resort.

You want to try something a little different? Spend the night in a tee-pee at the Smokiam Resort along the north shore of Soap Lake. Just know, you'll be parking your bike in the adjacent parking area, not in the tee-pee.


A copy of the Benchmark Atlas for Washington State is invaluable in providing the most up-to-date map and recreational information of any atlas on the market. It also does a nice job of delineating between paved and dirt roads. Use the internet to research attractions and accommodations further.

Text and photos by Tom Mehren, except where noted. September 2018

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