Escapes: Steamboat Rock State Park

July 13, 2015

Hiking and Kayaking a Geological Wonder

By Rebecca Agiewich

Photo at right: A hiker takes in the gorgeous view of Banks Lake from the top of Steamboat Rock near Grand Coulee Dam. Photo by Andrew Bertino


The first time my husband Dave and I pulled into Steamboat Rock State Park, it was about 1 a.m. and we couldn’t see much except for clusters of tents and cars. There didn’t seem to be many trees or much privacy, only millions of stars shining in the dark desert sky.

I couldn’t immediately figure out why a co-worker of mine had raved about this park, or why it was one of her family’s favorite places. It became largely apparent, however, when we awoke the next morning.

Author hikes through wildflowers on her way to climbing to the top of Steamboat Rock, in background. Photo by David Taylor

To one side of the campground we were impressed with Steamboat Rock, an 800-foot columnar basalt tower ascending into the bright blue sky. On the other side of the campground was 27 miles of Banks Lake stretching to infinity in either direction.

Before my first cup of coffee, I was smitten by the view. By the end of the day—after hours of wildflower-filled-wandering—I was a complete convert.

Wildflowers galore and more

There is much to love about this sprawling lakeside park in the heart of central Washington’s Grand Coulee basin. Among many activities the area offers fantastic hiking, paddling, fishing, biking and wildflower viewing.

Perhaps the very best thing about it, though, is that once you pitch your tent, you’re only steps away from it all.

The park is open year-round but we chose May when the Seattle weather is fickle. We were rewarded with wildflowers in full bloom.

Ah, the wildflowers! Purple lupine and yellow larkspur blossom in abundance on the slopes just below Steamboat Rock. On the airy, wind-swept desert plateau at the top, we found wildflowers growing in the crevices of the rocks, carpeting the grass and framing the views of Banks Lake with bursts of bright colors and hues.

Once home to nomadic tribes and early settlers, the view from the top of Steamboat Rock is world-class. It’s a short but steep hike to get there. Gaining about 600 feet in a mile, hikers would benefit from using trekking poles when ascending and descending over the hard scrabble and cobblestones. Once over the steep section, you are greeted by acres of wide open, flat, sagebrush-scented space.

The Northern Loop at the top of Steamboat Rock is my favorite trail. It meanders north along the sheer cliffs, through pockets of lupine, larkspur and phlox, with great vistas of Banks Lake and its sculpted rock formations.

Missoula floods shape area

Mountain biking through wildflowers at the base of Steamboat Rock. Photo by Rebecca Agiewich

When you’re at the top of Steamboat Rock gazing down on the Grand Coulee basin, imagine the dramatic geologic events that had an impact on forming this area.

The cataclysmic Missoula Floods at the end of the last ice age—between 12,000 to 110,000 years ago—carved the deep canyons and the unique landscape of southeastern Washington. This landscape is called the “Channeled Scablands” and is a result of multiple glacier-fed mega-floods scouring channels through the landscape over the millennia leaving scabs of wide potholes, now dry waterfalls, coulees and mile-long ripple marks.

The Grand Coulee, before the dam, was one of the larger landmarks formed by these floods. Deriving from the French word, coulee—which means to flow—the term is loosely associated with landscapes altered by drainage areas from floods and glaciers.

Steamboat Rock is another large landmark that defines this region. Originally a basalt island in the ancient Columbia River, the origins of its name were referred to as a “stubbornly eroded piece of volcanic plateau,” by Pacific Northwest writer William Dietrich in his 1995 book, Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River. He reports that settlers described it as “a sternwheeler grounded by a departed tide, silent and evocative as an old wreck.”

Modern-day landscape

Banks Lake was created on the west up-stream side of Coulee Dam as an irrigation reservoir for eastern and central Washington agriculture. Harnessing the power of the Columbia River, the Grand Coulee Dam was constructed between 1933 and 1942 to provide hydropower to eastern Washington and needed water to regional farmlands.

The Grand Coulee Dam was the largest construction project on the North American continent at the time it was built and is still the largest hydropower producer in the United States.

Banks Lake by kayak

Author kayaks in Devil's Punchbowl on Banks Lake in Steamboat Rock State Park. Photo by David Taylor

The 50,000 feet of freshwater shoreline of Banks Lake provides an even deeper glimpse of geologic history.

On our visit, Dave and I launched our kayak a few yards from our campsite and paddled north through “Devil’s Punchbowl,” the area of water between Steamboat Rock and the east shoreline of Banks Lake.

In calm waters, we explored small, rocky islands and gaped at Steamboat Rock towering to the west above us. But the best was yet to come.

Continuing to paddle to the north end of Devil’s Punchbowl, we found ourselves in a narrow canyon with striking rock walls that protruded in weird and wonderful shapes. Dave, a geologist, told me that we were looking at the original cretaceous granite bedrock of the Grand Coulee Basin, about 50–60 million years old.

We floated around in here for a while, enjoying the tranquility of this ancient corridor and our luck in finding it. Then, with a pang of disappointment, we turned around to avoid the afternoon winds we’d been warned about.

However, plenty of great kayaking lies just to the north of Devil’s Punchbowl, including the Eagle Pass area, and we are excitedly saving that adventure for the next visit.

Other gems of the Grand Coulee

Though you could spend long days happily wandering Steamboat Rock State Park, it’s worth venturing out for other jaunts in this geologically unique area.

Northrup Canyon provides miles of gorgeous hiking and mountain biking; the Grand Coulee Dam offers daily tours and a fantastic visitor’s center, and Dry Falls State Park showcases a 400-foot cliff thought to be the greatest known waterfall during the Missoula Floods; it’s estimated that the flow of the falls was 10 times the current flow of all the rivers in the world combined.

Enjoy your visit—take it from me, you won’t be disappointed!


Steamboat Rock State Park:
Grand Coulee Dam:
Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park:
Grand Coulee Dam Chamber of Commerce:

Seattle writer Rebecca Agiewich is a frequent contributor to OutdoorsNW.