As the name suggests, Dry Falls no longer carries water, but is the remnant of what was once the largest waterfall known to have existed on earth. 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 what has been named "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. The 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 actually 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 said to be 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.
The Channeled Scablands were created in the Columbia Plateau by cataclysmic Ice Age Floods, including the one described above, between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago. The floods occurred about every 50 years and lasted a few days to a few weeks, leaving a deeply scarred plateau. This explanation for the strange land formations we see today was first put forward by J. Harlen Bretz in the 1920s. It took more than 40 years for the geological community to accept that such dramatic changes could take place in a matter of days or weeks.
The landscape we see today is one with hundreds of small lakes, flat-top mountains, and canyons known as "coulees" (ravines and ancient basins of waterfalls, some still holding water). All have been left several hundred feet above the present course of the Columbia River. Grand Coulee Canyon, at 50 miles in length, and 1 to 5 miles across, is the largest of the channels gouged by a deluge.
The raw material so ferociously sculpted by the floodwaters is basalt. It is actually a black rock, yet you are presented with a landscape of rusty browns, as a result of the iron oxidizing in the exposed rock. In places the browns are highlighted by yellow lichen. The geometrical basalt shapes, in the form of blocks and pinnacles and columns were exposed but not carved by the flood waters. Rather, they formed as basalt lava cooled into rock.
Prior to the floods, between about 17- and 6 million years ago, the basalt was laid down in successive lava flows that engulfed parts of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, gradually filling valleys and covering hills. In places it became more than two miles thick. Some even streamed all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Nature certainly wasn't restrained in this region! The lava field became the second biggest in the world, covering over one hundred thousand square miles, and is now known as the Columbia Plateau. The "high desert" plateau with its exposed lava formations dominates central, inland Pacific Northwest.
Located 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.
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. Visitor Center summer hours are Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Friday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. through August 31. The Visitor Center is closed from Nov 1, 2013, to February 28, 2014.
Getting to Dry Falls
Turn south of US-2 onto WA-17, and drive to the visitor center which is in sight of the highway, on the east side.
The Missoula Floods
Nicely designed and very informative site describing the awesome process by which the Scablands were formed by the Missoula Floods. Visuals include a video animation of the flood. (Produced by Jim Newman for Oregon Public Broadcasting.)
Best selection of books on the Northwest.
Washington's Channeled Scablands Guide: Explore and Recreate Along the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail (Mountaineers Book) by John Soennichsen . Discover the rich history, outdoor recreation featuring great trails, camping and more. Order now...
On the Trail of the Ice Age Floods by Bruce Bjornstad. Written by a geologist, this guide explores landforms scoured out by the Ice Age floods the Mid Columbia Basin. Discover over 70 flood formed features, driving and aerial tours and trails for hiking and biking, maps, photos and illustrations. Order now...
On the Trail of the Ice Age Floods - Northern Reaches by Bruce Bjornstad and Eugene Kiver. This book explores ancient cataclysmic floods of the Mid Columbia Basin. Geological guide to 60-plus flood features, hiking and biking trails, driving tours and aerial tours. Included are maps, photos and illustrations. Order now...
Cataclysms on the Columbia: The Great Missoula Floods, 2nd Edition by John Eliot Allen, Marjorie Burns and Scott Burns. Learn about the prehistoric floods that shaped the Pacific Northwest and the buttes, dry falls and rocky gorges left behind. Order now...
1000 Places Washington: 1000 Things to Do, See, and Experience in Washington State for the Intrepid Adventurer by April Borbon. Written by a freelance writer born and raised in Washington, this book shows one thousand things to see and do from museums to tourist attractions to food experiences. Learn some history and find new adventures. Order now...
The Seven Wonders of Washington State: Your guide to exploring the natural wonders of the Evergreen State by Howard Frisk. This guide is compiled by a local native. Each of the seven iconic natural wonders have a description of what makes it amazing plus useful tidbits of information accompanied with beautiful colored photographs. Order now...
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