Coulee Corridor National Scenic Byway
About this byway
What’s a coulee? In this part of the country, it refers to the dry canyons gouged out by the Glacial Lake Missoula floods that roared through here several times up until around 13,000 years ago. This breathtaking landscape will leave you wondering if the rest of the world really exists. It might happen when you gaze up at the expansive blue skyline or after you wind through a coulee and its shadow withdraws from your windshield. Or it might happen when the clean smell of sagebrush hits you like a tonic after a dusty hike to a desert plateau. It could happen when you jump off a boulder into a deep blue lake and are shocked by how warm it is.
Find fishing lakes, desert hikes, little shops, dusty museums, willow-shaded parks and the fields that grow your food. Take a boat to a lakeshore campsite, or stay the night in a cowboy town. Once you experience the world of the Coulee Corridor, you will never forget it and always want to return.
A rich wildlife and agricultural center
The Coulee Corridor is such an important birding area, the whole byway is an Audubon Birding Loop. It is also home to large concentrations of both wildlife and wildflowers.
Dozens of field crops thrive in this agricultural area. Grant County is the largest grower in the state of apples and potatoes, with major acreage also dedicated to hay, corn, green peas, onions and wheat. The town of Ephrata is the state’s mint capital. Look for signs hung on fences along the byway that explain what’s growing in the fields beyond.
In the towns in this area it is not uncommon to attend a parade in which the “floats” are farm implements decked out in Christmas lights or boxes of produce. This is small-town America on full, proud display.
There are also museums, state parks, a national recreation area, festivals and historic reminders of the region’s indigenous culture, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville.
There is something for everyone to enjoy on this dynamic trip.
From Seattle, take I-90 east across the Columbia River at Vantage, then head south to SR-26 east to Othello (178 miles / 2.75 hours). The byway begins in Othello and winds its way north through lakes, farmland and basalt coulees, ending in Omak. Depending on the season, you may want to continue via the North Cascades Scenic Byway (SR-20), which is closed in the winter. Check www.dot.wa.gov for road conditions and seasonal closures.
Columbia National Wildlife Refuge
Located north of Othello on Morgan Lake Road (gravel much of the way), the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge is full of rich and varied habitats, from ponds and marshes to farm fields and shrub-steppe desert. This refuge protects more than 230 species of birds: Sandhill cranes, avocets, long-billed curlews, great horned owls and prairie falcons are just some of the birds you may encounter. Coyotes, bobcats and badgers live here, and yellow-bellied marmot sightings are practically guaranteed. A 22-mile birding loop includes an interpretive overlook at Royal Lake.
Check at refuge headquarters in Othello for maps and regulations on camping, boating, hunting and hiking. Most of the refuge is closed during fall and winter.
From the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, continue to SR-262, then head east and take SR-17 north to get back to the byway. Along this route you’ll find Potholes State Park, a 640-acre camping park with 6,000 feet of freshwater shoreline on Potholes Reservoir.
The park is in an area known as the “scablands"—desert terrain formed by a combination of lava flows, huge floods and strong winds. Massive sand dunes, coulees and lava fields characterize the landscape.
There are four boat ramps and 100 feet of dock for year-round water recreation. Boating, fishing (bass, bullhead, crappie, perch), use of personal watercraft, water skiing, kayaking and swimming are all permitted.
Moses Lake, located at the SR-17/I-90 intersection, is a sparkling reservoir along Crab Creek. Originally a shallow natural lake, Moses Lake was dammed for irrigation. It remains a welcoming body of water for year-round visitors who come to camp, boat, fish and enjoy water skiing and parasailing.
The city of Moses Lake is one of the biggest along the Coulee Corridor and hosts a huge farmers’ market with over 150 vendors from May to October. Since this is some of the finest agricultural land in the world, the fresh, seasonal offerings here are simply unsurpassable. See www.moseslakefarmersmarket.com.
Ephrata and Soap Lake
A slight detour onto SR-282 will take you to Ephrata, where you can see some good examples of early twentieth-century architecture and check out the Grant County Historical Museum. Shops, restaurants and gas are available here. Head north on SR-28 to get back to the byway at Soap Lake.
Located at the southern end of a chain of lakes at the Lower Grand Coulee, Soap Lake is a tiny inland sea historically famous for its mineral-rich water and creamy black mud. For decades, Soap Lake was a spa destination for people seeking treatment for illness and injury. Stop at the in-town beach and soak in the “healing waters.”
Dry Falls State Park
Slightly west of Coulee City is Dry Falls State Park, the site of what was once the world’s largest waterfall—four times the size of Niagara Falls. The falls were created near the end of the last Ice Age, when the Missoula floods diverted 500 cubic miles of water over this region in multiple thunderous and epic rampages.
Where once there was the drama of falling water, there are now 3.5 miles of bare ravine carved out by the repeated flooding, with a 400-foot drop to the placid Dry Falls Lake. The Dry Falls visitor center paints a vivid picture of the cataclysmic floods that carved out Coulee country.
Banks Lake and Steamboat Rock State Park
From US-2, head north on SR-155, and you’ll be hugging the eastern edge of Banks Lake as the road threads between staggering basalt monoliths. A reservoir created by the Grand Coulee Dam, Banks Lake has 91 miles of shoreline and is popular for fishing and water sports.
Access Banks Lake at Steamboat Rock State Park. This grand 3,522-acre park is named for the 800-foot basalt butte that towers above it. This state park has waterfront camping for tents and RVs, a day-use area with multiple swimming beaches, boat ramps, sweeping green lawns and sand dunes. Whether you travel with a fishing pole or a wakeboard, you’ll find paradise here. Just be sure to reserve a site if you plan on spending the night during the summer; this is one of Washington’s most popular campgrounds.
Once traversed by wagon trains, Northrup Canyon, part of the Steamboat Rock State Park Recreation Area, is a sanctuary for wildlife, with a forest (the only one in Grant County) and meadows full of wildflowers in spring. Visit this valley on horseback (tours are available) or on foot.
Grand Coulee Dam
At the northern tip of Banks Lake on SR-155, you’ll reach Grand Coulee Dam, the third-largest producer of electricity in the world and, at 550 feet, the largest concrete structure in the U.S. It is larger than the great pyramids of Egypt and generates more power than a million locomotives. A visit should include a stop at the visitor center to learn the dam’s history, and tours of the awe-inspiring structure are available. In addition, the dam’s smooth concrete face serves as a projection screen for laser light shows that have been entertaining audiences since the 1980s.
Colville Confederated Tribes Museum
Grand Coulee Dam is located on the Colville Indian Reservation, home to a dozen tribes (Moses, Columbia, Wenatchee, Okanogan, Entiat-Chelan, Methow, Nez Perce, Palus, Nespelem, Colville, San Poil and Lake) and the resting place of the legendary Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Find the tall marble monument that marks his grave at the Colville tribal cemetery in Nespelem.
The history of these Native peoples is the subject of the Colville Confederated Tribes Museum, located in an A-frame in the town of Coulee Dam, on the reservation across from the Grand Coulee Dam.
The museum features murals depicting the Nez Perce trail and pre-dam Kettle Falls, a collection of vintage photographs of tribal members and the land before development, plus displays of basketry, beadwork, clothing and tools.
As you travel the last leg of this byway from Grand Coulee Dam to Omak, don’t miss the Sasquatch at the top of Disautel Pass between Nespelem and Omak. It’s a sculpture, of course, but many have reported Sasquatch sightings in this area.
Omak: end of the trail
From Grand Coulee Dam, continue west on SR-155 toward the town of Omak. Located in the heart of Okanogan country, Omak is a year-round playground featuring recreational activities from camping and fishing to cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.
The main street has a small-town feel, with great shops to browse and locally owned restaurants. One eclectic café worth a try has been featured several times in “Northwest Best Places.” Housed in Omak's own historic bottling plant, previously the home of Omak Beverages, it features daily baked breads and fresh stock gravies, real mashers and locally sourced ingredients.
Annual cultural events include the Omak Stampede, Indian Encampment & Pow Wow and, thanks to a rich Hispanic influence, one of the best Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the state.
Gas, food and lodging
There are motels, resorts and other accommodations, including camping and RV parks, as well as small, locally owned restaurants spread across this 100-mile byway. Gas is also readily available, except between Sun Lakes State Park and Grand Coulee.
A Savor Washington “Farm to Fork” itinerary for the area is available at www.watraveltrade.com/itineraries/savor-washington; see Itinerary 02: Chelan & Manson: Hands-On Family Farming Experience.
Driving Distance: 100 miles from Othello to Omak.
Driving Time: 2.5 hours, not including stops or scenic detours.
Actual Time: Plan one or two days for exploring, hiking, fishing, boating and sightseeing.
Best Time to Travel: The route is open year-round, but spring, summer and fall are best. Check www.dot.wa.gov for road conditions and seasonal closures.
Nearby or connected scenic byways