The Blue Lake Rhino & Channeled Scablands

August 1, 2021

Washington State Three-Day Weekends: Part 1

Potholes Reservoir

The first of our four-part series, Washington State Three Day Weekends, will feature the Blue Lake Rhino and Channeled Scablands in Eastern Washington. We have included most of the driving directions courtesy of google maps. Click any blue links for additional information. These adventures are prepared with time allotted destinations that will keep you moving, so please adapt them at your leisure.

One of the great stories of Washington is the cataclysmic flooding that took place 15,000 years ago.  The Cordilleran Ice Sheet pushed south from Canada to about the middle of our state during the last ice age.  Over in Missoula, Montana the ice formed a dam 2500’ tall in the Clark Fork River valley.  It was the largest ice dam known to have ever occurred.  

The river backed up against the dam until it submerged the Missoula valley up to 200 miles eastward, which created a massive, glacial lake roughly the size of Lake Eerie and Lake Ontario combined. 

Channeled Scablands

The ice dam eventually gave way, unleashing a torrent of water equivalent to the force of the world’s rivers combined — TIMES TEN.  This hellacious waterflow tore across the Idaho panhandle into Washington state, eventually depositing into the Pacific Ocean.  The entire lake emptied in several days.

Much of Washington’s central region, known as the Columbia Basin, was ravaged by the water.  It’s loess and soft basalt layers were easily peeled off and carried downstream.  Huge river valleys were dug into the basalt, some with walls 400’ high.  The area most affected by this process – a process that happened as many as forty times – is now known as the Channeled Scablands. 

Despite the clues are all around us, most Washingtonians have no idea why the landscape of Eastern Washington looks the way it does.  The region is dismissed mainly because the loess (similar to soil) was stripped away in the flooding, which prevents much from growing in these parts.  When one understands the history of the channeled scablands, they becomes more meaningful and beautiful.

Map of the Lake Missoula flood path

We want to show you some of the more incredible clues:  glacial erratics; gigantic coulees, channels and potholes; an ancient waterfall that makes Niagara Falls look like a bath faucet; as well as a visit to the second largest concrete structure in the world, the Grand Coulee Dam, itself a modern marvel.

But the highlight of this trip is a prehistoric rhino-shaped cave that defies all probability.

Imagine this: Millions of years before the last ice age, this region experienced an extensive series of lava flows that layered the landscape in molton basalt. Each lava flow put down about 10 feet of rock, adding up to hundreds of feet over millions of years.

Shortly before one of these lava flows a young rhinoceros died in a pool of water and became water-logged. As lava covered the rhino carcass, because the beast was water-logged the lava formed a cast of the rhino rather than incinerating it.

Millions of years and many lava flows later, the rhino was buried deep in the basalt rock layers. It was but a flea in a cinderblock, and the odds were incredibly long that it would ever be found. Something utterly cataclysmic would be required to unearth this buried treasure.

Enter the Lake Missoula Floods. With an brawler’s pugnacity, the raging waters carved into the basalt three hundred feet deep, yet with an artist’s precision the current nicked the rear-end of the rhino cave, creating an opening just large enough for a human to pass.

In the 1930’s, a group of hikers in the Sun Lakes area noticed a hole in the cliffside of an ancient river valley.  They scampered up the nearby talus hill, scooted out onto a 300’ high ledge, and scaled ten feet up a wall to the cave opening.  In the furthest reaches of the small, rhino-shaped cave they found a jaw and other bone fragments. Those fragments are available for viewing at the Dry Falls Visitor Center.

Here is the Full Weekend Itinerary:

Fri 7 AM: Ginko Petrified Forest State Park (135 mi).  

Fri 10 AM: Roza Columns (10 mi).  Have lunch.

Fri 12 PM: Blue Lake Rhino (60 mi).

Fri 6 PM: Sun Lakes State Park.  Explore Deep Lake and Lava tubes. Stay in Sun Lakes area.

Sat 9 AM: Dry Falls Visitor’s Center.  

Sat 11 AM: Yaeger Rock on Mansfield Loop (80 mi).  

Sat 1 PM: Steamboat Rock State Park (20 mi).  Hike the rock or rent a paddle board.

Sat 6 PM: Grand Coulee Dam (15 mi).  Enjoy the visitor’s center.  Dinner.

Sat 10 PM: Watch laser show at night.

Sat 11 PM: Drive back to Sun Lakes State Park or other resort.

Sun 9 AM: Lake Lenore Caves (7 mi).

Sun 12 PM: Potholes Coulee and Ancient Lake (43 mi.)

Sun 2 PM: Catch a concert at George, or drive to Seattle (170 mi).

Total Miles: 590

Drive Time: 10 hours

Travel Notes for Friday

Ginko Petrified Forest State Park

Drive from Seattle to Ginko Petrified Forest State Park. You can spend upwards of an hour perusing the museum. The river view out back is your first incredible look at the Columbia River Valley. A short walk makes it easy to check out the petrified wood.

After you drive across the I-90 bridge and turn left, a few miles ahead on the right will be the Wild Horse Monument. You can hike to the horses if you want. It’s a pretty sweet view up top and makes a great pic.

Wild Horse Memorial
Wild Horse Memorial

Our next stop will be a row of basalt columns referred to as the Roza Columns, or The Feathers.  This is an excellent place to rock climb, if that’s your thing. Map.

Roza Columns

Roza Columns

If Glacial Lake Missoula had drained one more time the Roza Columns would have gone down.

If you walk around the backside of the columns, you will find access that allows you to climb to the top of them.  The views from the top are extraordinary as you look down Frenchman Coulee to the west, an ancient river valley of mind-boggling size.

Grand Coulee

Across the street you can get an even better look at Frenchman Coulee.  If you have the guts to peek over the edge – don’t feel bad if you don’t – there are cars at the bottom.

Sun Lakes Area

Your next stop is the Blue Lake Rhino of Washington. To get there you will drive inside Grand Coulee, the largest of all the ancient riverbeds.  You can tell by the scalloped appearance of the cliffs on your left and right.  Believe it or not, this is one of the more verdant places you will find in all the Channeled Scablands.

There are five major lakes along this coulee:  Soap, Lenore, Alkalie, Blue, and Park.  This region is called the Sun Lakes.

When you reach Laurent’s Sun Village Resort behind Blue Lake turn right into the resort. Park in the very back corner. You may feel like you don’t belong here, but it is ok. This is the access point for the Blue Lake Rhino Hike.

Laurent’s: 33575 Park Lake Rd. NE. Coulee City, WA 99115

Blue Lake Rhino

The Blue Lake Rhino experience is challenging, even dangerous.  It is not for the faint of heart, the lead of foot, the fragile, and those with intense fear of heights.  You could potentially be subjected to unforeseen disaster, as rocks could give way in crucial moments which could result in unmitigated death.  If you have small children, or are elderly, this might not be the best experience for you.

Here’s a simple map:

Map to the Blue Lake Rhino

And this is where you’re ultimately headed, where the Blue Lake Rhino cave is located:

The location of the Blue Lake Rhino

If you walk down the small but clear path that leads toward the corner of the lake you will be on your way to the Blue Lake Rhino. We’re told it is possible to rent a rowboat from Laurent’s Resort and row to the destination.

There are a few challenges along the trail.  The first is a fork in the path. Take the higher route to the left and not the one that heads out toward the cliffside.

The next challenge is a climb-down cliff about ten feet high that can be maneuvered by the nimble.  We once did this with a group of unathletic, mixed company 16-year-olds.  If you cannot find a way down here your only bet is to rent a boat and traverse the lake.

Hiking to the Blue Lake Rhino

Hug the wall of the cliff while walking along the lake. The third challenge is the descending, talus hillside that leads to the far shore of the lake. Be sure to arrive at the end of the lake before you descend.

Talus hillside near the Blue Lake Rhino

The Rhino cave is on the far wall of the coulee — past the lake — about halfway up.  Walk along the beach and straight up the talus hill on the other side. If you look closely on the rock wall of the coulee, you will see the words “Rhino Cave Here” next to a small, dark hole.  You will notice the ledge below the cave — this is where you need to get.

The way to the Blue Lake Rhino

Scamper up the talus hill to access the ledge. It’s a tricky climb around some large boulders.

Hiking up the Blue Lake Rhino

Next, work up the nerve to walk out on, and linger on, the 300’ high ledge. The Blue Lake Rhino Cave requires an eight foot climb to get up into the cave. It helps if someone can give a boost and support the climber.

Inside the Blue Lake Rhino

The cave is small, but it can fit an above-average sized human. You’ll have to slither a little.  I’m 5’11, 200 lbs and I fit inside just fine.

The rhino is situated upside-down with it’s legs extended upward.  The rhino’s head is to the back of the cave, therefore it’s horn extends down.  You can reach into the space where the rhino’s horn would have been.

Please be careful climbing down out of the cave.  The ramifications of a misstep are apparent.

We once had a dozen young men up here.  Everyone had to keep their back against the wall.  The mantra was reinforced every couple of minutes because t’s a long way down and we didn’t want to face their parents.

Cliffside at the Blue Lake Rhino

When leaving Laurent’s, take Park Lake Rd. to the right and drive along the lake for two miles. You will arrive at the entrance to Sun Lakes State Park on Park Lake.

Sun Lakes State Park campground, or the nearby resorts, is where we recommend you spend the next two nights. There is plenty of lodging along this string of lakes. We recommend you book far in advance.

Deep Lake

State Park Road is between Sun Lakes State Park and Laurents, but much closer to the state park. Turn here and drive 2.5 miles to arrive at Deep Lake.

Deep Lake near the Blue Lake Rhino

At the west end of the lake (near the parking lot), there are some picnic tables and a boat launch.  To the left is a trail that meanders along the north side of the lake.  A sign reads “Warning:  People die jumping off these basalt cliffs”.  This is where you say, “But that’s why I’m here!  Not to die, but to live!”

The cliffs start small and get real big real fast.  There is a 10’ jump, then a 25’ jump, and most people stick to these two places.  If you push further down the path the jumps get into the 40’-50’ range. 

Everyone likes to talk about Sugarloaf, the 180’ cliff visible further down the way. 

Deep Lake near the Blue Lake Rhino

On the south side of the lake, opposite the cliffs, are lava pots.  From the picnic tables, take the trail to the right until you see a hole in the rock wall off to your right. Climb through the hole (it is big and not scary at all). This leads to an elaborate network of large holes in the ground known as lava pots. 

This is a fun place to explore, but be careful back here. Heck, be careful everywhere. This would be a fine place to mention that rattlesnakes are indigenous to the area.

Travel Notes for Saturday:

Potholes Reservoir

Imagine a waterfall five times the width of Niagara Falls and twice as high.  Now imagine all the rivers of the world combined times ten pouring over that waterfall.  Imagine the sound it would make. 

Our first stop of the day is the Dry Falls Visitor Center which opens at 09:00. Feel free to arrive a little early to take in the incredible views. Remember, these are not just rock walls and lakes, they are the remains of the largest waterfall the world has ever known. Those lakes are ancient plunge pools.

Spend an hour perusing the Visitor Center. There is some good stuff in there.

Potholes Reservoir

Mansfield Loop and Yaeger Rock

Next we will drive a 72-mile rectangular path to see remarkable evidence of the last ice age.

Just beyond the tiny town of Winthrow, Washington you will notice large rocks in the fields.  These boulders are glacial erratics carried from Canada on the Cordilleran Ice Sheet.  The further you drive, the more erratics you will see.

Notice how the farmers plant and plow around these massive boulders.  Notice how quickly and dramatically the landscape changes. The Cordilleran Ice Sheet stopped advancing exactly here.

Twelve miles after Hwy 172 bends to the right and heads east you will arrive at Yaeger Rock. This is the best accessible glacial erratic to be found in these parts.

Yaeger Rock

Yaeger Rock is a three-story, Canadian chunk of basalt the Cordilleran Ice sheet pushed down into Washington 15,000 years ago.  The rock has been tagged by Mansfield graduating classes for years, which clearly classes up the place.

Feel free to climb around on the rock. There is a large crack in the middle of it to help you get to the top. Please be careful!

This is an excellent place to get the perfect “roadkill” photo. You can see miles down the road in either direction.

Yaeger Rock

Steamboat Rock State Park

Our next stop is Steamboat Rock, a 3500-acre park named after an 800’ high basalt butte in the river.  The plateau atop the massive rocky table is 600 acres by itself.  The top of the rock is accessed by a moderate hike that requires some skill.

During the ice age floods, Banks Lake was part of the raging river that hurried down Grand Coulee.  The Columbia River now routes in a different direction, leaving behind Steamboat Rock as a protuberant feature of bygone time.

Steamboat Rocks

The state park has trails for hiking, biking, and equestrian use.  Water activities including boating, swimming, waterskiing, and fishing. Stay long as you want at Steamboat Rock State Park.  Hike to the top and take in the views.  Spend the afternoon fishing or paddle-boarding.  

Grand Coulee Dam

Our goal for you is to have you arrive at the Grand Coulee Dam Visitor Center by 8:30 PM at the latest.  That will give you time to learn about the history of the dam before the laser show, One River Many Voices. The show begins around 10:00 pm and lasts 30 minutes.

Grand Coulee Dam

The drive from Steamboat Rock to Grand Coulee Dam is 15 miles.  Electric City and Grand Coulee are along the way and offer plenty of places to eat.

Grand Coulee back to Sun Lakes is 40 miles.  

Travel Notes for Sunday:

Lake Lenora Caves

We will start the day with a short drive to the Lake Lenore Caves.

The hike features more than a dozen caves.  Ancient Native Americans once dwelled in these caves. It is still a sacred gathering place for them to this day.

From the parking lot, take the staircase up.  When the path parts take the path to the right (south) for a safer hiking experience.

Potholes Coulee and Ancient Lake

Now we are heading to Potholes Coulee and Ancient Lake. 

From the trailhead, hike for 0.7 miles then turn left into the coulee.  The lakes are about a mile from here.

This is a beautiful coulee with multiple lakes.  In the background is a waterfall.  Hike above the waterfall to find more beautiful lakes and even better views.

Potholes Coulee was one of three major channels the water took before it plunged into the Columbia River.

This coulee is an amazing place to watch the sunset, if you have time.  It is also a popular place to camp.  

The Gorge at George

Worth noting:  Just a few miles away is The Gorge at George, Washington’s single best venue to enjoy an outdoor concert.  Before you plan your trip, perhaps check The Gorge calendar and see if anyone you like is playing that Sunday evening.  Or plan the whole trip around it!  We have seen The Who, Roger Waters, and Jack Johnson here.  A Gorge concert is one of the top 20 things to do in Washington State.

Gorge at George

If you are driving back to Seattle from Potholes Coulee, here’s a map. If you’re driving back to Seattle from The Gorge at George, here’s a map.

Thank you for reading. To learn more about what to do in Washington, please check out our list of the 20 Best Things to do in Washington State.

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