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All kinds of recreation await visitors to Sun Lakes in Washington's North Central region. These mostly natural lakes all share a common origin, having formed in the ancient river gorge of the Columbia River. Scientists believe the Grand Coulee Gorge was cut through the surrounding plateau by the rupture of the ice dam holding back huge glacial Lake Missoula about 20,000 years ago. The massive flow of water scoured away the top layers of soil down to bedrock and flowed into the Pacific near Portland at depths nearing 400 feet. When it was all over-a process taking a few thousand years-the 900-foot-wide gorge held several pockets of water at the bottom of the new valley.
The Columbia River retreated to its present course, leaving the series of lakes called Sun Lakes in the lower Grande Coulee Gorge below striking basalt cliffs. The stark beauty of the sagebrush plateau called the 'scablands' gives the lakes an atmosphere of a surprising oasis in an arid desert-scape with columns of basalt as a backdrop. Finding wildflowers blooming in the thin soil and birds enjoying the shoreline are some of the reasons the Grand Coulee Gorge has been named a National Natural Landmark.
Over a score of lakes of various sizes occupy a spot on the gorge floor. The largest of these are connected by a natural outflow until they reach the terminus lake in the series: Soap Lake. The stream is part of the irrigation system formed when the Columbia Basin Project dammed the Upper Grand Coulee Gorge, creating Banks Lake. Water is pumped from above the Grand Coulee Dam to fill the lake, which flows down the gorge into and through the other lakes. The lakes in the lower basin include Soap, Deep, Lenore, Alkali, Blue and Park lakes. Dividing the Upper and Lower gorge, the world's largest ancient waterfall-a nearly 4-mile wide precipice that is 400 feet high-forms a breathtaking natural landmark. The falls were formed by the flooding created by the breaking of the ice dam that emptied ancient Lake Missoula. The falls are a major feature of the Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park and a favorite spot for visitors to the area.
The Dry Falls Interpretive Center is about two miles north of the main Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park entrance on Highway 17, also known as the Coulee Corridor-National Scenic Byway. The 4000-acre state park holds Dry Falls Lake, Deep Lake, and encompasses the north shore of Park Lake. The park boasts over 73,600 feet of shoreline open to visitors. Only 99 acres in size, Dry Falls Lake isn't the place for swimming or water sports, but canoes are encouraged here. Excellent fly fishing for rainbow trout and brown trout encourages anglers to navigate the primitive road to reach the lake. Hiking trails give access to the many small pothole lakes (formed by erosion of rock) in the park with some accessible to mountain bikes. A private concession offers guided horseback riding within the park to Dry Falls. Streams form a water trail between several of the smaller lakes in the park. Also located within the state park, Deep Lake is 107 acres and reaches a depth of 115 feet. A boat launch is available, and the lake is a favored place to fish for lake trout, rainbow trout and kokanee. Sections of the park are open for hunting in the fall.
The main entry point to Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park is located near the campground on Park Lake. A modern campground is located here, with all amenities for large RVs and tent campers. Primitive camping is permitted within the park in some areas. The park swimming area is located near the campground. A privately-operated resort within the park offers cabins for rent, a golf course, convenience store and rents paddleboats and row boats to guests. Two boat launch ramps are available, and waterskiing or personal watercraft are permitted during certain times of the year. Moorage slips can be reserved for use. An environmental learning center provides interpretation of the unique area and its outstanding features. Campers do not need a Discover Pass, but others visiting the park will need to purchase either a daily or an annual pass. Park Lake is the largest lake in the park at 246 acres. Long and narrow, Park Lake has a full six miles of shoreline located between striking canyon walls. Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park is the ideal spot to call home while visiting area attractions such as Grand Coulee Dam or Steamboat Rock.
Blue Lake is immediately downstream from Park Lake and holds several resorts, some of which have been in business for many years. The resorts provide boat launch facilities for a small fee. Blue Lake is about twice the size of Park Lake, with 532 acres. The lake is known for rainbow trout and brown trout and is very attractive to anglers. An old-fashioned lake vacation is still possible at Blue Lake. One of the resorts proudly reports that they do not provide either television or telephones in their cottages in order to maintain the relaxing family resort atmosphere, but they do provide WiFi. Hunting is popular near Blue Lake during the fall hunting season. Elk and deer frequent the area, along with wild turkey and huge numbers of birds.
Alkali Lake is next in line, but there is little information available about this lake. At 290 acres, the lake is only 14 feet deep at its deepest point. Its nearby neighbor, Lenore Lake, is far more popular. The 1300-acre lake is one of the most popular for sport fishing and offers Lahontan cutthroat trout, the largest subspecies of cutthroat. The Lahontan was at one time on the endangered species list and is still carefully managed. Adapted to alkaline waters, this species of trout is the only type of fish in Lenore Lake. Early season fishing is catch and release, and special gear regulations apply at all times. Three boat ramps are provided by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Gasoline motors are not permitted. A series of natural caves and rock ledges along the cliffs surrounding the lake are popular climbing and hiking destinations. Trail maps can be obtained locally.
The last lake in the series is salty Soap Lake. The name is derived from the Native American term Smokiam, meaning 'Healing Waters'. Soap Lake has the highest mineral content of all of the lakes in the series and was famous as a health-spa resort location as early as the first decade of the 20th century. The top layer of water-about 81 feet-contains heavily mineralized water with lower levels holding a slurry of muddy minerals. The layers do not mix. Fishing is non-existent here due to the high mineral content. The lake has no outlet, and evaporation serves to keep the lake at high levels of mineral salts. Before the Great Depression, the little resort town of Soap Lake was filled with spa hotels, sanitariums (hospitals) and mineral baths.
Today, several hotels and inns still offer access to the healing water and mud, and at least one private RV resort graces the shoreline. A city-owned campground can accommodate a limited number of visitors, with a free-to-play rough nine-hole golf course supported by donations which is excellent for beginners and children. A little town with a big vision and an eclectic appreciation for the arts, the City of Soap Lake has a community theater and a small art museum. Efforts are underway to build a 60-foot representation of a lava lamp with computerized light show that can be seen from the highway and draw tourists to the little city in revival. Sun Lakes wouldn't be Sun Lakes without the unusual attractions of Soap Lake.
Sun Lakes is the perfect spot for a central Washington vacation. Campgrounds and resorts are numerous along the many lakes, with hotels, motels and spas located in both Coulee City and the City of Soap Lake. Fishing, swimming, boating, paddling, hiking and horseback riding keep visitors coming back to this most unusual gorge. From Dry Falls to Soap Lake, you'll find activities and scenic wonders that will delight the senses and challenge your physical limits. Make reservations today, and bring the hiking boots!
*Statistics are not available for all lakes. The statistics listed are for Park Lake only.
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