A staycation day trip for those seeking wide-open vistas and rugged scenery awaits on a loop drive running past two Columbia River dams into the heart of coulee country and back again through cooling forest lands of the Colville Indian Reservation.
During the trip, the traveler will pass three golf courses, three state parks, several historical markers and numerous recreational opportunities.
From the Okanogan Valley, head south on Highway 97 to the intersection with Highway 17 a few miles outside of Brewster. Head east past a golf course, orchards laden with ripening fruit and two Colville tribal fish hatcheries to Bridgeport, which lies just across the Columbia River in Douglas County.
The town, a quick jaunt off the highway, offers gas, food, parks and shopping. Conklin Park features a boat launch and picnic area.
Bridgeport lies just downstream from Chief Joseph Dam, which is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is the second-largest hydropower-producing dam in the United States. (Grand Coulee Dam is the largest.) Chief Joseph contains the longest straight-line powerhouse in North America.
Picnic areas, with playground equipment and restrooms, are on either side of the river. Access to the dam itself may be restricted because of security and coronavirus concerns.
Nearby Bridgeport State Park offers camping, a sandy swimming beach, boat launch, picnic area and a paved trail leading to the dam picnic area.
Two handicapped-accessible fishing platforms and a boat dock are available on the south shore of Rufus Woods Lake, the pool behind Chief Joseph Dam. (It’s a good idea to check state regulations for fishing opportunities.)
After leaving the dam, the road climbs to Leahy Junction through sagebrush-covered hills and onto a rolling prairie that takes the traveler through basalt rock formations and farmland. This time of year, acres and acres of golden wheat fill the fields.
At the junction, continue on Highway 17 to its intersection with Highway 2 near Coulee City.
A left on Highway 2 for a mile or so is followed by a right onto Highway 155 heading south to the Dry Falls Heritage area and Sun Lakes State Park, which offer scenic views, fishing, hiking, camping, golf and other amenities.
Dry Falls is the site of a massive prehistoric waterfall created during ice age melt-off. What remains now is a giant canyon headed by a sheer drop-off.
An interpretive center (closed because of coronavirus concerns) and restrooms aid the traveler. A concessionaire offers cooling ice cream and other treats.
From Dry Falls, the traveler can make a quick jaunt into Coulee City, which offers gas, food, groceries, fishing supplies and other amenities.
Just east of town, leave Highway 2 and head north on Highway 155 into the Grand Coulee. Carved by the same prehistoric floods that formed Dry Falls, the coulee is bounded by towering basalt cliffs that were cut by rushing water from numerous ice age floods.
The highway – aka Coulee Boulevard - skirts Banks Lake, a blue oasis offering boating, fishing and swimming. The lake was formed as a holding reservoir for water pumped from the Columbia River and destined to farmland throughout central Washington.
Steamboat Rock State Park and a couple resorts aid the traveler who wants to stop a while and take in the lake’s amenities – including a golf course.
At the head of the coulee lie four towns – Electric City, Grand Coulee, Coulee Dam and Elmer City - that offer lodging, gas, food, shopping and parks.
Grand Coulee Dam forms the heart of the area. Many dam visitor areas (visitor center, tours, etc.) are closed because of coronavirus concerns, but views of the dam still abound. The nightly Laser Light Show also is on hold.
Construction on Grand Coulee Dam began July 16, 1933, and the first water spilled over the dam was June 1, 1942.
After crossing the Columbia River, the traveler can take Highway 155 across the Colville Indian Reservation back to the Okanogan Valley. Tribal leaders have closed the reservation to non-members because of coronavirus concerns, but state highways remain open to through traffic.
A quick jaunt through boulder-strewn, sage-covered countryside takes the traveler to the Colville agency and, a couple miles beyond, the Town of Nespelem. Between Grand Coulee and the agency, be sure to keep a lookout for the root diggers sculptures on the left before the sweeping turn and Buffalo Lake turnoff.
The sculptures, by Omak artist Smoker Marchand, depict Native Americans digging for edible roots.
After Nespelem, the road rises into cool forestland. Travelers occasionally spot deer and along the road, and moose often hang out in swampy areas along the road. At the top of Disautel Pass, watch for Bigfoot – another Marchand sculpture – atop the hill to the right side of the road.
Much of the area is open range, so cattle have the right of way.
Once past the summit (elevation 3,252), it’s a quick drive back to the Okanogan Valley. A few miles out of Omak is a historic marker for St. Mary’s Mission, which was established in the late 1880s. The current, 110-year-old church building can be seen in the distance.
Just before the descent into Omak, there are views of the mountains separating the Okanogan and Methow valleys.