Many years past, but just a moment ago in the story of our planet, vast floods were repeatedly unleashed from a lake with a volume as great as Lakes Erie and Ontario combined!! The torrents scoured the landscape and created massive waterfalls, ten times greater than Niagara. The destruction to the landscape was so massive that it was not understood until the 1930’s , despite the fact that The Yellowstone Trail and the National Parks Highway wound across and through the enormous canyons, sheer cliffs, and vast scab lands.
I refer to the Ice Age Floods of about 13-15,0000 years ago, which left their mark across three states (Montana, Idaho, and Washington) on a scale so large its full extent can only really be seen from 30,000 feet in the air or from a satellite.. But you can get up close and personal on our two lane roads, and marvel at land forms so awe inspiring you will be astounded that water could be the cause.
In fact it took most of 100 years of speculation and study for humans to understand and appreciate what they were seeing. That is one of the stories I want to tell here later, but for now I want to simply introduce you to some of the roadside scenery to peak your interest. Understanding will follow.
This example is little known today, but was a familiar sight in my youth. Turn off at exit 143 (Silica Road) on Interstate 90 in my home state of Washington. You will either make the turn while heading east after climbing out of the sheer walled Columbia River canyon filled side to side with water backed up by the Wanapum Dam, or headed west past George, Washington (clever name ?!) after crossing miles of rich irrigated farmland. From the interstate travel northward on Silica and then turn west on the old Vantage Road. (See map below)
For old roadies like myself, this is a road with a great history. Again I will elaborate on that later. But now lets visit the site of a cataclysm.
Almost immediately you start to drop into a deep and massive canyon with sheer cliffs on each side. Note the weathered wooden safety guards with their steel cables, typical of the 1940’s when my family first wound our way down this cliff face in our two tone green 1941 Chevrolet Coupe.
The road is almost abandoned today except for rock climbers and boaters headed for the River You are dropping into Frenchman Coulee. Stop at a pullout. If you are squeamish about heights, park below the cliff face on the left. Walk to the edge of the canyon on the right, just a few feet away.
Now imagine this in your mind’s eye if you can. A torrent of water 300 feet deep and traveling at 80 miles an hour is bearing down on you and over the cliffs you see across the canyon. Deeper than the height of the cliffs you see, as it rushes toward the west it erodes the cliff face toward the upstream side, clawing out massive blocks of solid rock and creating the canyon below. Rocks bigger than houses are tumbling in the torrent. Your perch on the pullout isn’t safe, and in a few moments you are swept away in that flood. Sorry, I should have warned you. But what a view!!
The old road followed this paved track, and I remember it well. I even have a photo of myself and my sister taken where the road overlooks the Columbia. In those golden days of yore there was a bridge about a 1.2 miles north of the modern bridge that crossed a much narrower Columbia River. It had massive sand dunes on each side, now buried under water.
As a small aside my wife and I ventured down the old road on the other side of the Columbia River where as a boy we had crossed on the old bridge. The old two lane road leads all the way from Ellensburg 29 miles and through a large wind farm with its massive windmills growning in the sky, down to a dead end at the Columbia’s edge. And there to greet us were two Big Horn Sheep! Have you seen any lately on the interstate?
Believe it or not, Frenchman Coulee is not the most impressive of the Floods creations, but it is easy to reach from the interstate. Most sites will require ending your dance with 18 wheelers and the charm of rest stops, and leaving behind the beauty of scenery rushing past in a 70 mph blur. Get on the two lane roads.
1. Frenchman Coulee looking west at 47.030393, -119.958240°. Can you spot the pickup truck on the road? Right green dot on # 2 below.
2. Old Vantage Road and Frenchman Coulee. Green dots represent photo sites.
3. The Feathers in Frenchman Coulee. A Flood remnant. 47.028642°, -119.965373° Left green dot on # 2 above.
5. A Big Horn at the old Vantage crossing of the Columbia. 46.957175°, -119.987799°
6. The Extent of the Ice Age Floods
If we get some interest, I will continue this tale of the massive Ice Age Floods. And for those who love videos, here are some fantastic aerial views by the pros from the Ice Age Flood Institute
Some excellent aerial views from the pros on You Tube. HERE. The books shown at the end are a terrific source of information and road trips. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUyxRWSYTgM