Washington Rocks!

Washington is a state of dramatic landscapes: beautiful farmlands, orchards, vineyards, and scenic mountains, rivers and lakes. There are the scablands, lava flows, canyons and coulees, buttes, dry cataracts, boulder fields and gravel bars too.

These latter landscapes were puzzling to geologists.

In 1923 geologist Harlen Bretz sparked one of the biggest debates in geologic history when he proposed his Ice Age Floods theory. He spent decades tramping across the state meticulously documenting evidence to support his theory that massive Ice Age floods carved the Channeled Scabland of eastern Washington.

“Science is human observation and human reason coming to conclusions based on educated guesses.”

The geologic community only ridiculed and scorned his work…until they saw the evidence themselves.”

This satellite map shows the flat area of the Columbia Plateau of Washington surrounded by forested mountains and the route of a perfect itinerary. Noticeable in this satellite image are the darker gray shadings of the water route carved by the Ice Age Floods.

I am more history oriented than science oriented, but I like a good mystery and the flood story intrigued me. For years I have wanted to follow the path of the floods to see the evidence for myself.

Accompanying us on our road trip was Washington Rocks! A Guide to Geologic Sites in the Evergreen Site by Eugene Kiver, Chad Pritchard, and Richard Orndorff. It was a really helpful resource with great photos and explanations to make sense of the sites we visited.

We drove through the rolling wheat fields of the Palouse working our way down to a canyon where we came upon the distinctive colossal landforms – the scablands – that early geologists believed had been formed my massive flows of fast moving glacial waters.

Palouse Falls State Park: “The Palouse River once flowed through Washtucna Coulee, a massive valley carved by floodwaters, until it wasn’t large enough to hold them all. Floodwaters followed a fracture in the basalt bedrock to the nearby Snake River forever abandoning its former channel.” The Snake River flows into the Columbia River.

Today it is a puny trickle compared to the 8-mile-wide stream of water that roared down the canyon 50-65 miles per hour during a large outburst flood from Glacial Lake Missoula.” (Adapted from Washington Rocks!)

Palouse Falls is Washington State’s official waterfall. One of Bretz’s most vocal critics visited Palouse Falls and said, “How could anyone have been so wrong?”
Palouse Canyon looking south from the falls toward the Snake River 6 miles away. The zigzag pattern was formed as the Missoula Floods carved out preexisting fractures in the basalt.

It has now been universally established that cataclysmic Ice Age Floods swept across the Northwest. First, glacial ice lobes advancing from Canada formed an ice dam. With drainage blocked, enormous lakes formed: Glacial Lake Columbia and Glacial Lake Missoula. With the ice dam’s sudden collapse, a towering mass of water and ice over 2000-feet-deep would burst forth across the Columbia Basin at speeds up to 75 miles per hour emptying the lake within two or three days. Finally, the thundering torrent of water, icebergs, and mud raged across eastern Washington, taking the path of least resistance, on its way to the sea. (Credit: “Ice Age Floods of the Pacific Northwest” Eastern Washington Vacation & Travel Planner, Grant County Tourism Commission, 2020)

The red line shows the wandering route of the 1200-mile long Columbia River originating in Canada. The river has the largest volume of discharge of all rivers that flow into the Pacific.

Grand Coulee Dam: The concrete structure of Grand Coulee Dam is one of the largest concrete structures in the world and contains nearly 12 million cubic yards of concrete. That’s enough concrete to build a 4-foot wide sidewalk around the world at the equator twice.

Grand Coulee Dam is relatively insignificant in comparison to the former ice dam that existed here damming the river and forming Lake Columbia.

Grand Coulee Dam, one of 14 dams on the Columbia River, is the largest hydropower producer in the U.S. generating enough power for 4.2 million households in 11 states. Constructed from 1933 – 1940 at a cost of $300 million, a third power plant was erected from 1967-1980 at the cost of $700 million. The total price tag in 2016 dollars would be $8.26 billion.

East of here, the ice dam holding in Glacial Lake Missoula collapsed and sent catastrophic flood waters through the Grand Coulee.

Atop the high canyon walls at Grand Coulee Dam are large boulders randomly scattered about. As the glacial lakes drained these boulders, encased in chunks of glacial ice, ice-rafted down the river and were left in place wherever the ice melted. Geologists call them “glacial erratics.”

Steamboat Rock: A 900-foot-tall monolith of basalt in the Upper Grand Coulee was named Steamboat Rock by early settlers when the coulee was dry! Banks Lake was formed due to the construction of Dry Falls Dam at Coulee City, and the rock now actually looks like a huge ship on water.

Steamboat Rock, Banks Lake on the Columbia River

Dry Falls: Standing atop the sheer cliffs at Dry Falls, the signboards say one is standing in the pathway of some of the largest floods ever known and that this once was the site of the world’s greatest waterfall, over 3 1/2 miles long and 350 feet high! With the end of the Ice Age, floodwaters no longer swept through Grand Coulee, leaving the waterfall high and dry.

Raging flood waters, perhaps 300 feet higher than the existing top of the canyon today, once rushed over these cliffs carving out deep, steep-walled canyons, called coulees. The largest of them all is Grand Coulee: 800 feet deep and more than one mile wide in some places.
The force of water dropping hundreds of feet eroded deep hollows, called plunge pools, and carried away chunks of basalt. Eventually, the overhanging cliffs collapsed into the plunge pool. With each collapse, the falls edged further upstream carving out the Lower Grand Coulee and moving the waterfall 15 miles up river. This is the same process that created Palouse Falls.
Looking “down river” from the waterfall is the 15-mile Lower Grand Coulee.

The Waterville Plateau is elevated hundreds of feet above the Grand Coulee. The northern half of the plateau was covered by a continental ice sheet during the ice age. The basaltic bedrock is covered with a layer of glacial sediment that supports agriculture.

The Waterville Plateau was perfect for humming “O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesties, Above the fruited plain! America! America! God shed His grace on thee, And Crown thy good with brotherhood, From sea to shining sea!”
We drove through acres of wheat fields dotted by huge glacial erratics some of them are larger than a house. For centuries farmers have plowed around them.
From Wenatchee looking east across the Columbia River towards the Waterville Plateau.

Gingko Petrified Forest State Park: Ice Age floods stripped away surface material exposing petrified logs of semi-tropical trees that had previously been covered by molten lava.

Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park was rather disappointing to visit because the petrified logs are just old stumps in protective boxes along a hot trail. Petrified wood is the state gem.

Frenchman Coulee: “Water pouring out of Grand Coulee and other flood channels quickly filled the nearby Quincy Basin, and water escaped through three outlets, the southernmost which is Frenchman Coulee. The ravaging floodwater spilled into the Columbia River valley far below and formed a group of waterfalls that receded upstream to form Frenchman Coulee. The vertical canyon walls in the main coulee expose layer upon layer of Columbia River Basalt.” (Washington Rocks, page 48)

It’s hard to see, but a few feet behind Steve is a sheer drop off just like the vertical columnar basaltic canyon wall on the opposite side of the now dry Frenchman Coulee.
“The Feathers” in Frenchman Coulee are giant columns of columnar basalt standing about 75′ tall and measuring up to 25′ in diameter.
Rock climbers at Frenchman Coulee.

What Is Columnar Basalt? “The lower part of a thick lava flow is well insulated from the cooling effects of the atmosphere and cools very slowly compared to the upper part of the flow. The slowly cooling lava changes from a molten liquid into a very hot, mushy solid. Further cooling starting at the base of the flow caused the still hot, but now brittle, lava rock to contract and form regularly spaced contraction centers and radiating cracks that tend toward six-sided polygons.” (Washington Rocks! page 48)

Looking into the agricultural valley and city of Ellensburg, Washington.
Hells Gate State Park on the Snake River at Lewiston, Idaho near its confluence with the Columbia River. Dark basaltic outcroppings were left exposed due to the great ice age floods.
Beautiful colored hills are reflected in the river water at Clarkston, Washington.
From Lewiston Hill we could see where the Snake River flowed into the Columbia.

Wallula Gap: When Glacial Lake Missoula drained hundreds of cubic miles of floodwater across eastern Washington, all routes led to the Columbia River and through a 1-mile-wide gorge about 6 miles north of Oregon named Wallula Gap. When the angry rushing waters reached this bottleneck, the waters slowed down and backed up to form a temporary lake, Lake Lewis, which required a week or more to slowly drain.

The 1-mile wide Wallula Gap on the Columbia River is just visible behind the train.

As we travel home from east to west down the Columbia River take notice of the changing landscape in the following series of photos.

Exposed basaltic Columbia Plateau lava flow in Washington as seen from Helix, Oregon.
The south side of the Columbia River basalt as seen through the windshield at Helix.
McNary Dam at Umatilla, Oregon.
A tug pushing barges upriver as seen from I-84 at Irrigon, Oregon.
Washington wind turbines as seen from Arlington, Oregon.
The Columbia River Gorge was sculpted by floods. Rowena Crest, The Dalles, Oregon.
Looking north over the Columbia River near The Dalles, the rock does something very strange.
Almost Home! On the west side of The Cascade Mountain Range we view The Columbia River Gorge (looking east) from the Portland Women’s Forum State Park at Corbett, Oregon. The Ice Age flood waters reached Crown Point sitting atop a 800-foot tall basaltic cliff (right foreground). Also visible is the “stetson hat” shape of Beacon Rock, a 850-foot-tall basaltic plug of an ancient volcano (center rear), the result of Ice Age floods scouring away soil.

Interested in Additional Information?

In 2009 Congress passed legislation authorizing an Ice Age Floods Trail to be managed by the National Park Service. The trail will consist of a four-state system of marked highway routes featuring significant landforms created by the floods. Visit the Webpage for the Ice Age Flood National Geologic Trail.

Ice Age Floods Institute webpage

YouTube: Is Genesis History? The Full Movie. There are two science paradigms: one requiring billions of years and one much less. Fascinating explanations by PhDs that believe in a young earth.

YouTube: Nick on the Rocks and Nick at Home series by Nick Zentner, a geology professor at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. His storytelling makes geology interesting and entertaining.

Credits: Much of the information I’ve shared in this post is taken from the signboards at the parks we visited. Thank you Washington State Parks.

Excerpts quoted from Washington Rocks! A Guide to Geologic Sites in the Evergreen State by Kiver, Pritchard and Orndorff. (Other titles include: Arizona Rocks! California Rocks! and Ohio Rocks!)

Links to related posts: Oregon: King of the Roads, Portland and Beyond, Eagle Creek Fire: One Year Anniversary, Day Trip to Stonehenge, “A Sight So Nobly Grand” in Oregon, Traveling the Great Glen Way

We have come across basaltic columns before! Read Traveling the Great Glen Way and see our photos of a 2015 visit to Fingal’s Cave in Scotland.

Next time, Meet You in the Morning will share The Cost of Travel: Eastern Washington Road Trip as well as additional photos of historic sites.

It is ironic that due to COVID-19, all travel plans to intriguing places abroad were canceled and people the world-over had to vacation close to home thereby discovering – or rediscovering – amazing sites in the back yards of their own countries!

Happy Travels wherever they may be! Thanks for following along!

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