The Grand Coulee Dam is 4 hours from Seattle and 5 1/2 hours away from Portland. It’s a drive, but a beautiful one. It’s a perfect road trip for listening to music, dramatic scenery, and flotation devices with beer if the weather is hot, which it can be. The best part about this trip is that it’s cheap, easy, and not crowded. Here’s a guide on how to do it and where to stay. You’re gonna want to book soon!
If you’re coming from Western Washington, once over the mountains and off Interstate 90 (take exit #151 at Ephrata) you’ll enter the Coulee Corridor and the super scenic state highways that will lead you to Grand Coulee Dam (don’t worry, lots of road signs). You may also notice that you are entering the Columbia Basin Project, the massive irrigation system diverting Columbia River water from the dam site all through the basin by canals (which is a whole ‘nother story!).
This dramatic stretch of road is where you’ll unwind and see the big sky and open highway of route 17 which turns into 155, hugging the many bodies of water on the way to the Grand Coulee. The desert vibe is a bit like the American Southwest with dramatic basalt rock cliffs and wide vistas. It’s one of my favorite drives and pairs well with Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Collection (Rounder, 1987).
You can stay overnight anywhere in the Coulee area and be no more than an 60+ minutes from the dam site. Directions: Traveling East on I-90, take Exit 151 (after George), turn slight right towards WA-283 / Ephrata-Soap Lake. This becomes WA-28. Then left onto WA-17, turn right onto US-2, stay straight to WA-155, follow the Grand Coulee directions from here.
Some of The Sights:
SOAP LAKE: The first point of interest is Soap Lake, just past Ephrata. This meromictic soda lake was formed by the Missoula Floods at the foot of the Grand Coulee and gets its name from the naturally occurring foam that gives its water a soapy appearance. This heavy mineral lake has long been thought to have medicinal value and Native Americans would often spend the long summer days along the banks benefiting from the “healing waters”. To this day, people seek these waters for their health benefits and several of the local motels pump the lake water into their bathtubs. Soap Lake has a slight loner feel, a time gone by, which is part of the charm. It’s also has a parked police car with a dummy decoy in the driver seat. Drive around to the far West side of the lake and hike a short trial to the best swimming and rock diving. Grand Coulee is about an hour from Soap Lake
LENORE LAKE CAVES: No camping but great hiking and it’s possible to spend the better part of a day exploring the caves and the coulee country surrounding Lenore Lake. With 12,000 years of history, this landscape has plenty to discover. The caves themselves are shallow, created during the Great Missoula flood as water pulled chunks of basalt from the walls of the coulee. After the waters retreated and the caves had been created, early native people used these areas as shelters. The area is still used by Native Americans as a sacred area and a gathering ground. Hikers share this area as well, and can explore this geologically fascinating place, whether it’s just for a leg-stretch or an all day visit. From the parking lot, head up a staircase carved into the rock, complete with handrail! The trail becomes more trail-like at the top of the staircase, where you are faced with a decision. The most developed and well-maintained trails are to your right. You can camp at near by Sun Lakes State Park. Watch out for bats at dusk!
DRY FALLS: No camping here, but it’s a roadside attraction overlooking a huge gorge and once mammoth water fall during the ice age floods called the Missoula Floods. This huge torrent of water is what carved out the large dry canyons during a month long series of ice-age floods. Once the water, held back by an ice age dam in Montana, broke through and raged across the landscape, it left behind huge scars and canyons, which are now large reservoirs holding diverted columbia river water used in the massive irrigation system, called the Columbia Basin Project.
NORTHRUP CANYON: Across highway 155 from Steamboat Rock State Park, this narrow canyon is the only native forest in Grant County with a large bald-eagle population. It’s great for easy hiking and horseback riding can be arranged. There’s interesting human history here as well, with three families who lived in this canyon dating back to the late 1800’s. Their housing ruins are interesting artifacts and information on posted signs explains their “canning” gatherings from a long, lost time. There’s a lake way back if you hike long enough. No camping.
COULEE PLAYLAND & RESORT: Located in Electric City 15 minutes from the dam site, this is where you’ll get all your boating needs- from pontoons to jet skis. There’s also camping and other lodging, a general store, laundry, and boat moorage if you’re bring your own. If ya wanna fish, this is a good place to start.
Where to Stay: MOTELS & CAMPGROUNDS
Advertised as “Luxury In Logs”, these log cabins are not high-end, but totally nice, clean, and each room has a “theme”. I love this place which is across the street from Don’s restaurant.
COLUMBIA RIVER INN / GRAND COULEE DAM: Literally across the street from the dam’s Visitor Center, this super clean, well-run establishment has two floors of rooms with balconies. It’s the only motel that allows you to walk back and forth from to the dam. Swimming pool is a bonus if it’s hot.
GRAND COULEE MOTEL (CENTER LODGE) : The best neon sing in town, this classic motor lodge has been recently remodeled and now is a clean, and tight. Popular with boaters, it’s walking distance to Flo’s Cafe which has basic breakfast and lunch.
SPRING CANYON PARK & CAMPGROUND: An immaculate Federal park and campground on the shores of Lake Roosevelt with green lush lawns (that irrigation project!), sandy beaches, and swimming. The campground is a bit tight, but some spots are nicer than others (when looking at the map, the camp spots to left are better and more private. About 15 minutes from the Grand Coulee Dam off Hwy 174 East.
SUN LAKES STATE PARK: This is a large State park and campground which also has other cabin-like accommodations referred to as Sun Lakes Resort. Other park features include boat rentals, a nine-hole golf course, a swimming pool, and a miniature golf course. At the north end parking lot there’s trails to amazing narrow, deep lakes where local teenagers cliff dive. Grand Coulee is about 45 mins from Sun Lakes.
STEAMBOAT ROCK STATE PARK: Another large state park surrounded by Banks Lake. Once a traditional Native American trading post pre-irrigation and named Steamboat Rock due to unique and dramatic landscape and basalt rock cliffs.
SUN BANKS RESORT: There’s mixed reviews about this place, located on Banks Lake about 20 minutes from the dam site near Electric City. A fantastic setting with many levels of accommodation from tent sites near the waters edge, to cabins, villas, RV sites, and full size houses. There’s bar and restaurant, but management seems to be lacking. There’s also a trash and poop problem. But, hopefully by May 28th, they will be fully staffed and ready for the summer season. Call ahead. Ask questions!
Where To Eat:
DON’S RESTAURANT / SOAP LAKE: Eat like it’s 1973 with steak and baked potato wrapped in silver tin foil.
MOM’S EUROPEAN FOODS AND DELI / SOAP LAKE: The other spot in Soap Lake for lunch or To-Go deli stuff . Who knows how this “euro” establishment ended up in Soap Lake, but’s it’s really good.
ELECTRIC CITY BAR & GRILL: A roadside tavern with good food, including breakfast. Can’t miss it.
FLO’S / GRAND COULEE: Not the best, but not bad considering there’s not many breakfast options in Grand Coulee. You can’t get more “local” than this.
LA PRESA / GRAND COULEE (Off Hwy 174): This mainstay serves respectable Mexican with good charcoal steak options. Lots of room and cold beer. Good service. Recommended.
There’s not a lot of dining options in the Columbia Basin. It’s an entirely different economy than the cities of Washington state, and it’s hard to keep a business running 12 months of the year. I recommend packing your own food, especially if you’re camping. There’s always the Grand Coulee Casino, across the bridge and operated by The Colville Tribe if you need late night services or solid action.