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This is yet another incarnation of my personal blog. Here's where you can read about what I do when I'm not at work: hiking, seeing plays and other shows, eating, traveling, etc.

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Steamboat Rock

Posted by gck Tuesday, August 23, 2011 0 comments

A few years ago, I went to Eastern Washington and camped at Sun Lakes State Park, looking for a good place to see the Perseid meteor showers. We only spent one day out there, and we ended up driving down a forest road and parking illegally (after being shooed away by a ranger at a more visible spot) to watch the stars. While driving up Banks Lake, we found a campground and turned in, looking for a convenience store. It was such a gorgeously situated place that I said to myself, “I have to come back and camp here.”

Grand Coulee(driving by Grand Coulee)

Easier said than done. First of all, this area is far away. On our first trip, we camped near Wenatchee on the first night to split up the drive, and the drive home seemed to take forever. So it was a bit of an ordeal to make the drive to a campground that was even further from Seattle than Sun Lakes. After camping for a few years in Western Washington, last year when I was doing my annual campsite booking, I decided that it was time to go to Steamboat Rock. Washington State Parks reservations open up exactly 9 months before the start date of the reservation you want. So I went to the site exactly 9 months before a July Friday and… nothing was available. The next week, I woke up at 6:50am to hit the website exactly at 7am, when the reservations opened up. There were two sites available when I loaded the page, and when I tried to grab one exactly at 7am, it was gone. Same thing happened the next week. I was getting pretty tired of waking up so early to get nothing, so I was ready to give the whole thing up and find another option. But as luck would have it, I checked a few weekends back, just out of curiosity… and there was a site open for the weekend after the 4th of July! Someone must have booked it and canceled. MINE!

(Steamboat Rock – we hiked to the top!)

A lot of people in Seattle think of Eastern Washington as a scalding desert in the summer and a frozen wasteland in the winter, but the geography in this part known as the Scablands is actually pretty spectacular. You can’t fully appreciate this area without a geography lesson, though.

It started out millions of years ago when volcanic eruptions dumped a bunch of lava all over the place, causing a lot of the rock in that area to be basalt. Then during the Ice Age, ice dams formed and trapped a huge amount of water in Lake Missoula in Montana. When the pressure of the water became too great and burst through, a giant rush of water surged from Montana to Washington, traveling at great speeds and cutting into the landscape, forming the interesting features that are there today. Grand Coulee is one of those features, as well as Dry Falls, once the largest set of waterfalls in the world.

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(on the Steamboat Rock trail)

There’s a lot to do in the area. Swimming, fishing, boating, and hiking are all right at the state park. Then there’s the spectacular Grand Coulee Dam a few miles away and Dry Falls and Sun Lakes State Park to the south. This time we explored more of Sun Lakes and it turns out, there are lakes and trails that I didn’t have time to check out. I wouldn’t recommend camping here unless you don’t have a better option, though – the sites are dusty and lacking in privacy. Steamboat Rock, on the other hand, has lush, green campsites complete with shade trees. Our neighboring site didn’t show at all, and we had no neighbors to the other side, so the privacy was even better. And the trailhead for hiking up Steamboat Rock was right across the street.

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Steamboat Rock (4 miles, 650 ft gain)
Trailhead directions and other information on WTA.

Steamboat Rock is the big landmark at the park – why wouldn’t you want to climb to the top? The first part of the hike, getting to the rock, is mostly flat, but you get enough elevation gain to get a decent view of the campsites, the walls of Grand Coulee, and a bit of Banks Lake – not a bad turnaround spot if you’re injured or lazy. As soon as you hit the rock, it quickly turns into a scramble that will probably involve using your hands. Only a short section is like that, but it’s enough to turn some people back. From the bottom, you can see where the people end up at the top, and it seems daunting, but it’s really not that bad. Beautiful views the whole way, looking up at Steamboat Rock, looking back at the campsite, and looking at other parts of Banks Lake. At the top, you get gorgeous panoramic views. We saw other trails the split from the main trail that went to other viewpoints and possibly to the other side of Steamboat Rock. The descent sucks more than the ascent.

Northrup Canyon (6 miles or 3 miles to the homestead, 400 ft gain)
Trailhead directions and other information on WTA.

This is the first trail I’ve hiked where I turned around before reaching my intended destination. No regrets.

The plan was to hike the Canyon trail past the homestead to Northrup Lake, which looks really pretty from the pictures. I’d scoped out previous trip reports and it didn’t look too bad, other than a few people mentioning the possibility of running into rattlesnakes. First mistake: not bringing insect repellant. In our defense, mosquitoes weren’t a problem for the rest of the weekend, and I would have expected them to be at Banks Lake if they were going to be anywhere. Oh, so wrong. Swarms of hungry, hungry mosquitoes.

But we kept going. This canyon is described as an oasis in the desert, and we saw lots of interesting flowers, ponderosa and lodgepole pine trees, huge dandelion seed heads (as big as a fist), birds, and butterflies. A “canyon lady” used to live in Northrup Canyon (thus the homestead), and there were definitely things on the trail that indicated previous human occupation, like a field of rusted paint cans and metal shed roofs in the middle of tall grasses.

Speaking of tall grasses, they started to take over the trail, making us a little wary. We jumped at bugs, questioned whether or not sounds were rattlesnakes in the distance, and avoided the grasses as much as we could. There was certainly no questioning when a rattlesnake finally showed up. Mike was ahead, probably right next to it. I just heard really loud, angry rattling. Being bitten by hordes of mosquitoes was enough, we didn’t feel like getting bitten by rattlesnakes, so we turned back at that point.

Later on at the Dry Falls visitor center, I was browsing through a hiking book to look up the length of this trail, and I took a look at the map for the hike. You know how they’ll mark points of interest on the map, like views, old mining equipment, or campsites? On this hike, they marked “rattlesnakes” on the map. That’s great.