You hear echoes, past and present, in the coulees of arid central Washington.
At the Gorge Amphitheatre in Quincy, you might hear an arena concert from Beck, Mumford & Sons or Dave Matthews.
Just a few miles away in Frenchman Coulee, you might hear the voices of distant rock climbers on the spectacular basalt cliffs.
And in Grand Coulee, you might hear many things — motorboat engines, hikers’ conversations, the laughter of fishermen — but the loudest echoes come from cataclysmic Ice Age floods that shaped this amazing landscape.
Around 15,000 years ago, a massive ice dam near what is now Sandpoint, Idaho, created a lake that stretched 200 miles into Montana, well past present-day Missoula. It was 2,000 feet deep and as big as one of the Great Lakes.
As temperatures warmed, the ice dam (think the “Game of Thrones” Wall of the North) suddenly failed. Within 48 hours, the lake drained, racing out in a wall of water that carved up much of eastern Washington.
Then, it happened again, then several more times in the next 2,000 years.
From coulees to concerts
What’s left today are the coulees, a French word meaning deep ravine. The floods brought other things: house-sized boulders from Montana, for instance, and a mixture of soils and mineral deposits.
It turns out the land is ideal for growing grapes used in wine making.
“We have soils here from Montana, Idaho and Canada, all brought by the Ice Age floods,” Vince Bryan said to me one sunny day as we sipped Chenin Blanc on our vineyard perch in Quincy overlooking the Columbia River.
It was Bryan who paired two of this region’s most important features: wine and music.
In 1980, when Washington’s wine industry was in its infancy, Bryan and his wife, Carol, began growing wine grapes on a spectacular piece of land they had just purchased above the river in an area that had been used for grazing cattle and growing alfalfa.
They weren’t sure their wine business would flourish. But they quickly saw the potential of their setting.
“We bought the property for growing grapes, but within weeks, we realized we had bought a national park,” Bryan said. “As such, we always wanted to share it.”
In 1984, when the Bryans opened their winery, then called Champs de Brionne, they also started hosting concerts.
They were a hit.
The acts grew in stature as word spread about the winery’s setting and fantastic acoustics. Jesse Colin Young led to Chuck Berry, who led to Bob Dylan, when 16,000 people showed up.
In 1993, the Bryans sold the property to concert promoters and eventually Live Nation took over, building the Gorge Amphitheatre into perhaps the most beautiful natural setting for a concert in America.
Today, the Gorge hosts some of the biggest acts of summer. In early June I saw Grammy-winning performer Brandi Carlile sing to 20,000 ardent fans as the sunset turned the vast canyon below pink, then purple. It was magical.
Meanwhile, the Bryan business continues next door at Cave B Estate Winery, a boutique operation that is part of the Ancient Lakes of the Columbia Valley AVA (American Viticulture Area).
Bryan was right about the wine appellation, the legally defined and protected region where the floods created a landscape rich in “minerality,” said Sean Sullivan, editor of Washington Wine Report. The region produces Washington’s best Rieslings, and Sullivan points to two fine examples: Charles Smith’s Kung Fu Girl and Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Eroica.
“There is no doubt that there is a mineral streak on the aromas and flavors of Ancient Lakes wines, particularly the white wines,” he said. “I’ve seen enough high-quality Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs to demonstrate that these varieties can absolutely excel there as well.”
The grandest coulee
One way to explore coulee country is to head upstream from the Gorge Amphitheatre along the route of the Ice Age floods. From the farming town of Ephrata, the drive follows the Coulee Corridor National Scenic Byway, a route filled with recreational opportunities.
It feels a bit like traveling through the canyons in New Mexico or Arizona. The Lake Lenore Caves in Dry Falls-Sun Lakes State Park reminded me of Chaco Canyon, N.M., as I explored the steep cliffs high above the coulee floor. And Umatilla Rock, a dramatic butte, wouldn’t be out of place in Monument Valley, Utah.
The most mind-blowing part of the byway is Dry Falls, where you’ll see remnants of what was once the world’s largest waterfall. As the Ice Age floods roared through Grand Coulee, they plunged 400 feet over a cliff, four times wider than Niagara Falls.
Farther north in Grand Coulee is a man-made wonder.
Grand Coulee Dam, built during the Great Depression of the 1930s, is America’s largest dam and biggest hydroelectric generator. Besides putting thousands of people to work, it introduced cheap public power to the Pacific Northwest and helped irrigate more than 600,000 acres of desert in the Columbia Basin.
You can’t help but be impressed when you take a tour. The dam stretches 500 feet across the Columbia River and 550 feet above it. Huge pumps direct water 280 feet up a steep hillside into Grand Coulee, creating Banks Lake, a 27-mile-long reservoir that provides water for irrigation, fishing and boating.
And you have to hand it to our Bureau of Reclamation tour guide Chris McCart for his honesty about the dam’s downside.
“Anytime you put a giant piece of concrete over a river, you’re going to have a few negatives. One of those is the loss of salmon in the Columbia,” he said.
When the dam opened in 1942, it ended the historic Chinook salmon run that for centuries fed Native American tribes along the Columbia.
A big part of me wishes the dam wasn’t there. Still, I enjoyed camping at Steamboat Rock State Park on Banks Lake, which adds to the recreational experience of being in Grand Coulee.
I climbed high above the lake on Steamboat Rock, an 800-foot tall butte (and another stellar hike) and tried to imagine what Grand Coulee looked like before the lake was there.
Then I gave up. It’s gorgeous either way.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO CENTRAL WASHINGTON
From LAX, Delta offers nonstop service to Spokane, and Alaska, Delta, American, Southwest and United offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip service from $263, including taxes and fees. Grand Coulee is about 85 miles from Spokane. Alaska and American offer connecting service to Wenatchee, about 95 miles from Grand Coulee. Restricted round-trip airfare from $237, including taxes and fees.
Camping: One of the best ways to experience coulee country in eastern Washington is to camp. Two exceptional state parks offer sites in Grand Coulee: Steamboat Rock, 51052 State Route 155, Electric City, Wash., and Sun Lakes-Dry Falls, 34875 Park Lake Road NE, Coulee City, Wash. $37-$50. Reservations, (888) 226-7688. Camping also is available during concerts at the Gorge Amphitheatre, 754 Silica Road NW, Quincy, Wash.$59-$249
Accommodations: Cave B Inn & Spa Resort, 344 Silica Road NW, Quincy, Wash. Offers yurts, rooms and cliff houses overlooking the Columbia River next to the Gorge Amphitheatre. From $229 a night. A variety of motels and resorts are available along Coulee Corridor National Scenic Byway.
Dining: I had a fantastic lunch of chilaquiles and carne asada tacos at Tendrils Restaurant, at Cave B Inn & Spa Resort, which offers seasonal outdoor patio seating and amazing views. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner entrees from $25.