When you think of ancient caves, you may think you need to travel halfway across the country, or the world, to take this type of a step back in time. France, Indonesia, and in the U.S., Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, all come to mind.
You may as well add the Coulee country of east-central Washington to the list, because tucked into the Lenore Canyon are the Lake Lenore Caves, formed by glacial flooding, and once inhabited by Native Americans as far back as 5,000 years ago.
These caves may not possess the magnitude of the previously mentioned sights, but they are an incredible piece of regional history nonetheless, and much closer to home. The caves are located just 40 minutes from Moses Lake, 2 hours from Spokane or Tri-Cities, and 3.5 hours from Seattle.
Set in the arid shrub-steppe of the Columbia Basin, the trail that tours the caves is less than a mile and a half long. There are lots of rocks and uneven surfaces, so be sure to watch your step, but this is a great place to take the family for a day trip. The day I was there, I was accompanied by my 5-year-old niece Charley and my leashed Texas Heeler, Maizy. The hike was no problem for Charley. Maizy harnesses a never-ending supply of energy, so she wanted to go four or five more times once we were done. Much to her disappointment, we went up just once.
Lenore Canyon History
Along with much of the eastern half of the state, Lenore Canyon was formed during the Missoula floods at the end of the last Ice Age, over 13,000 years ago. The glacial flood waters crashed down the canyon, carving through the basalt that makes up the sheer rock walls, creating coulees, ridges, cliffs, plateaus, rock slides, caves and a series of lakes.
As far back as 5,000 years ago, long after the flood waters receded, the caves served as a base camp for Native American tribes that used the area to hunt, fish, and collect plants. It is still used today for certain Native American religious ceremonies.
It is said that at one time the walls of the caves contained petroglyphs. However, due to vandalism and folks feeling the need to commemorate their visits by plastering their names on the cave walls alongside the year of their travels, the remnants of that history may be gone. Nonetheless, the caves are an incredible piece of history to experience.
Driving to Lenore Canyon
The drive from Pasco to the caves cuts through the eastern Washington countryside and the Coulee Corridor National Scenic Byway. While Lake Lenore Caves State Park was our destination, some of the other sights you find along this rare and underappreciated stretch of Washington are the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, Colville Confederated Tribes Museum, Potholes State Park, Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park, and further north past Banks Lake is the famed Grand Coulee Dam.
Much of our drive was made up of farm land, but once we passed through Moses Lake the natural desert landscape took over, and miles of sagebrush-laden prairie and hills stretched to the horizon. The town of Soap Lake, famous for, well, Soap Lake, is the last stop before beginning the journey up Lenore Canyon, where towering basalt cliffs creep right to the edge of one side of the road, and the frothy waves of Soap and Lenore lakes border the opposite.
Exploring the Caves
The hike features a staircase toward the beginning, and from there, a series of manageable climbs and descents over rocky terrain as you approach the caves. The first cave is the largest, and opens like a whale’s mouth into the basalt cliff.
Charley, Maizy, and I climbed back inside the first cave and sat for a bit, enjoying the view of the basalt cliffs on the opposite side of the canyon. From our vantage point, the world outside took on an altered perspective, caught in an oval frame formed by the mouth of the cave. The blue sky was a little bluer, and the green of Lenore Lake a little greener.
Imagining what life was like for the people who once used these caves was humbling. We could also see why they were chosen as a cozy place to stay, as the depth provided plenty of shelter from the elements, while not going so deep that light couldn’t reach the back corners. It was neither inadequate nor spooky. It was warm and breezy the day we were there, but in the cave it was cool and calm.
After checking out most of the caves we headed back to the parking lot and enjoyed a picnic lunch from the toolbox in the back of my pickup. There was a perfectly good picnic table nearby, but we liked the view from the toolbox better.
For the more experienced hiker, a hike that’s as short and relatively well-traveled as this one often won’t make the cut. Nonetheless, for anyone with an appreciation of the humbling and unique wonders of the natural world, and the geological and archeological history of this amazing state we call home, I urge you to take a trip through the Coulee Corridor, and make sure Lake Lenore Caves State Park is on your checklist.