Looking for a kid-friendly hike with vast views and unique landscape in the Grand Coulee area? Steamboat Rock, topping out at six miles round-trip, may be just the hike you’ve been searching for.
Built by Floods
Approximately 10,000 – 15,000 years ago, 40 – 60 separate flood events tore through parts of the Northwest. Each torrent brought with it earth, massive boulders and entire mountainsides, all while carving the rippling landscape of what is now known as the Coulee Corridor of central Washington.
The “corridor” is referring to the dry canyons that wrap through so much of this portion of the state. The canyons formed so many years ago by the raging flood waters of the Glacial Lake Missoula floods, and now, they are dotted with bounding mule deer, colorful wildflowers and scablands so vast that you find yourself wondering “has anyone else ever stood right where I’m standing?”
Steamboat Rock State Park
In the midst of the corridor, planted firmly atop the edge of Banks Lake, stands Steamboat Rock, a giant basalt butte that looms over 800 feet above the shorelines. It is easy to understand how this rock received its name, for its resemblance to a hulking, iron barge is remarkable.
Camping is available at the base of the rock at Steamboat Rock State Park, only 20 miles from Coulee City. The park itself is beautiful, with a bike trail that weaves throughout the three separate camping circles, concessions that overlook a tree-lined park, paddleboard rentals, a basketball court and an area for the park ranger to teach eager campers about the animals that inhabit the area now, as well as during the Ice Age.
Beginning the Steamboat Rock Trek
As the sun began to slowly wane into a brilliant summer sky, my family and I set off along a long, sandy road to the base of the rock. This beginning section of the trail is nearly half a mile and the concern of rattlesnakes is always in the back of our minds. We continue on, undeterred, toward the mountain.
The base of the rock looks daunting. Loose, jagged stone is considered the trail, with your only support being the uneven sides of the mountain. The climb is slow, and each step must be carefully thought out. The rocks are wobbly, and it’s easy to lose your footing. A short distance up, the trail curves deeper into the rock and we find ourselves using large boulders as stairs and scrambling atop others, using anything we can find for a foothold.
We take our time and help each other when needed, with safety as our number one concern. The unevenness of the ground is slightly unnerving, but a bit more climbing rewards us with a firm, dirt trail!
Sagebrush & Wildflowers
The sweet aromas of sagebrush and wildflowers swirl in a light evening breeze. Grasshoppers hop across the path and crows circle above us, cawing out their displeasure that we are here. A bit higher up, the rocks on the trail feel looser and we slow our pace once more. Just over this section of scree is more trail and then a bit higher up, a large pile of rocks – a statement from each hiker before us – “I made it!” We add our own stones to this pile and debate on which way to go next.
To the east, a narrow, dirt trail that winds gradually across the bluff, or to the west, a steeper slope with canyons to climb through on a twisting, narrow trail. We decide to head west and make our way gradually higher into the canyon. One-by-one, we trek along, the trail not wide enough to walk side-by-side. At times, we have to shimmy underneath sagebrush or step slightly off the path to let another group go by.
Nearing the Summit
The evening sun shines bright, casting shadows across the cliffs. The dirt is much looser as we near the summit. The crow’s cries are louder, and they fly in worried circles around us. We make it to the top and follow a straight path another 50 yards to the edge of the rocky bluff. The view is magnificent. The lake stretches out in both directions before us, a glimmering turquoise. The sky, along with the panoramic landscape, is endless.
Other than the dim sound of a boat buzzing along the water below, the tranquility of our viewpoint is glorious and serene. We clamber atop a giant boulder, clearly a remnant of the great floods, to feel the breeze and the sun on our faces and take in the view from a higher standpoint. In this moment, any remaining strains from our struggles to get up the mountain are forgotten. THIS will be what we remember.
Soaking up the Views
We spend 20 minutes upon the bluff, exploring and soaking in the solitude of an area difficult to reach, a trail less-traveled and with a view as picturesque as a masterpiece. The way down goes quickly, but we take our time when the rocks are loose and the canyons steep. The crows’ cries grow faint as we descend, their shadows no longer above us. Back at camp, hours later, dusk has turned into darkness and the shadows of the steamboat stretch deep into the gullies. The silence – a whispering bellow of an ancient vessel lost.