Escape to the Sage Steppe

We’re a few weeks into the weirdest time of my life, and there’s no end to the weirdness in sight. Taking a deep breath before the plunge, Eva and I headed east to camp in wide open spaces among the sage brush. The sun and the basalt and the sage have helped heal us and fill us up before having to hunker down for awhile.

This gorgeous coulee is a genuine geologic wonder. It’s one of my favorite easily accessible camping spots in the state. The somber beauty of the Columbia Plateau and the sage steppe ecosystem is on full display here. 

A few years ago I wrote an article about the place we camped this last weekend. I’m re-posting that article with slight updates and all new photography that I shot this last weekend. Enjoy, and don’t forget to wash your hands!

Situated high above the Columbia River, cutting through terraced cliffs of lava beds, filled with an abundance of wildlife, water, and light, is one of my favorite places in Washington State. It’s a series of canyons and dry waterfalls huge in scale, with high stone walls of black and red basalt columns, and a floor of dusty grasses growing between fragrant grey sagebrush. Trails crisscross the wide landscape, somehow both open and contained, connecting landmarks and vistas. It’s a lush sage desert oasis, about as different from western Washington as could be. This wild and improbable place goes by a few different names, but I know it as Ancient Lakes.

We wake up Saturday morning and prepare breakfast and a carafe of coffee. It’s a leisurely start. Backpacks were packed the night before, one for each of us, including the dog, set out in the living room and ready to go. Soon we were in the car and pointed east. There were a few stops on the way for things like firewood and some jugs of water, and we arrived half past noon. We turned the Prius onto the dusty gravel road marked “Public Fishing” and drove downhill, and almost immediately the landscape transformed from an endless plane of circular-irrigation agricultural plots into a wild sage steppe peppered with lakes and basalt towers. It felt like stepping into a different place and time. We parked, loaded our weekend onto our backs, strapped on the dingo’s saddle bags, and hit the trail into the coulee.

This place is classic wild eastern Washington, all rolling sage covered hills and black basalt formations baking in the sun. This day, the landscape was all in bloom and covered in soft green grasses, and the warm air was filled with the sound of falling water and birdsong. We walked across desert terraces punctuated by high cliffs and scree slopes, and as we descended we were misted by waterfalls and faced with grand views down the coulee and across to the north reaches of the Columbia River gorge.

We couldn’t escape the fact that this beauty comes with a price. It was the hottest part of the day on exposed trails, and eastern Washington daytime temperatures are much warmer than the west slope this time of year. It was also the year’s first backpacking trip, and we hadn’t yet earned our pack legs. We were hot, the trail was entirely exposed, our water supply was limited, and we were in generally bad moods. But moods lifted quickly with every new vista that would come into view. 

We found the perfect spot far off the trail and into the sage. The tent went up and we got to work making a proper backcountry fire ring from the stone slabs eroded off the cliffs. Bedding was laid out in the tent and cookware was set up near the fire ring. Before long, we had a proper camp, a weekend suite for two. Photographs were taken, balls were thrown, boulders were climbed, dinner was cooked, a fire was stoked, beers were cracked, and a joint was lit. The evening light was unbeatable, and as warmth left the air in the canyon, the moon came out followed by a bright Jupiter at opposition, and hundreds of stars shone bright. We painted with light and giggled, only stopping to gaze at a dark sky and retire to our cozy tent: A two thousand star hotel carried here in backpacks.


Ancient Lakes is an interesting landscape to camp in, but also to study and learn about. The place has a geologic history filled with volcanoes and ice age glaciers, with scandal and controversy, with floods and destruction of seemingly biblical proportions. This landscape even serves as the only earth-analogue to features we see on the surface of Mars.

National Geographic recently put out a great article on this landscape, a section of eastern Washington high-desert called the Channeled Scablands. You really should read it, or at least look at the incredible photography; it really does the landscape justice, and does a much better job than I do telling the scandalous parts of this story.

Out here the days are warm, the nights are cold, and while still Washington, it doesn’t rain much; that’s for the west side of the state. The landscape of the region is a beautiful mashup of basalt column canyon land, sage steppe, and fertile farm country. It’s certainly intriguing from the ground, but from the air it really becomes clear that this place is somehow different.

From above, the landscape looks like it was carved by water. Lots of water. Whole hills and small mountains are eroded into teardrop shapes, all pointing in the same direction, as though in a stream or river. There are fertile hills of loamy soil built up around stony outcroppings, like gargantuan sand bars in a river. Dry waterfalls, some over ten times the size of Niagara Falls, are cut through terraces of lava laid down ten million years ago. All the signs of waterfalls are there: the catch basins at their bases (now filled in with verdant lakes), the rushing outflow channels beyond, and a heavily eroded U-shape suggesting heavy water flow and grand erosive power. The catch is that all these waterfalls are dry now, and there’s no source of water anywhere close to them that could have provided that kind of powerful outflow. The formation of the landscape, coupled with the fact that it’s so dry, caused a debate in geology circles that went on for decades. If this landscape really was shaped by floods, what could possibly have been the source of all that water?  

An unexpected answer to this question was eventually found. As earth was warming after the last glacial maximum, pools of melt water would collect in depressions atop glacial ice sheets, as happens today in the ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica. Some of these proglacial lakes were the size of inland seas, with one covering most of western Montana and another atop the northern part of Washington state. There were weak points in the ice holding that massive lake in there, and they would occasionally break, and the entire accumulated lake would burst out in a flood. This type of flood, known as a Jökulhlaup, is a well known and common occurrence in modern day Iceland. The difference is the scale of these iced age floods: the outburst of Lake Missoula was apocalyptic in scale. The flood water would race over the landscape, carving the Columbia river gorge, and eventually sweeping everything out to the Pacific Ocean. The soil was stripped and scoured down to bedrock, and hills and rocky outcroppings were eroded into teardrops. Freed from all that water pressure, the ice would re-freeze and the lake would fill again, then break again, and wipe the entire landscape clean of soil and plants and animals once more, depositing all it in a fan of sediment on the continental shelf in the Pacific Ocean. Scientists have drilled samples of that debris fan and confirmed all of this to have actually happened. Most astoundingly, these floods happened on average every 50 years from 15,000 to 13,000 years ago, and core samples from those Pacific sediment deposits confirm that it happened a total of 40 times.

Those 40 massive floods carved an entire landscape into the same shapes we see on the bottom of shallow river banks. They carved those coulees, the mysterious canyons with no water source To eroded them away so quickly. They provided the water for those massive waterfalls, what would have been far and away the world’s largest at the time and maybe since. They deposited those house-sized boulders and massive sand bars of that fine soil, perfect for farming. And most importantly, on a volcanic basalt cliff dropping off the scablands plateau into the Columbia River, one of those waterfalls carved a place that goes by several names, but that I know as Ancient Lakes.


I had planned on getting up before sunrise to shoot the dry falls in that perfect pre-dawn blue hour, but it was far too cold out, and I stayed in my sleeping bag to watch the canyon lighten through the crisp morning. Eva tossed and turned, and Data dog shifted around trying to find the most comfortable spot. About an hour after sunlight spilled over the canyon walls I was sitting in the soft grass, sipping a fresh brewed pour-over coffee and breathing in the cool air, warming up in the sun. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

We spent the later part of the morning and the early part of the afternoon exploring the north reaches of Potholes Coulee and inhaling the savory smell of new sage growth. The sky this day was much clearer than the day before, and the sun beat down on us, but the morning air kept us cool. We found crumbling palisades of stone and sat upon them, gazing over our desert domain like monarchs of old. Trails led us over rises and into hollows, from fields of the tiniest flowers to erratic boulders the size of a house. We could see forever, and Data bounded from this thing to that, never seeming to tire. 

Before long we were packing up our tent and the rest of the weekend into our backpacks and hitting the trail up the dry falls and back to the dusty parking lot. The vistas got bigger and bigger the higher we climbed as we came out of the canyon. The best view was right down the mouth of the coulee, across the Columbia, up into the snowy foothills topped with gargantuan wind turbines, the whole scene hazing with distance. It took a lot of will power to turn away from that perfect scene and continue to the parking area, and then back to Seattle.

There are lots of amazing places to backpack and camp and hike in the Pacific Northwest, and all of them are special. But Ancient Lakes is extremely special to me and Eva. After all, it’s the place we fell in love for the second time, but that’s a story for another time.

Thanks for reading.

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