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Deep, dark and mysterious describes Northeast Washington's Rock Lake. Largest and deepest of the many lakes in the 'Channeled Scablands', Rock lake covers over 2000 acres between striking basalt cliffs towering above the surface. Long and narrow, Rock Lake presents a deceptively serene surface much of the time which has led many unsuspecting boaters into serious difficulty. The lake is exceptionally deep and cold, and the towering cliffs funnel winds which can create three-foot waves in short order. Although suspected to be up to 425 feet deep in some areas, even deep water near shore hides sharp rock pinnacles just under the surface that can tear into the bottom of small boats. Because the water is somewhat murky much of the year, these aren't easily seen and avoiding them can be difficult.
A natural lake, Rock Lake gains most of its water at the north end from inflowing Rock Creek, a tributary of the Palouse River. During spring thaw, more water enters from the plateaus above through channels worn into the rock cliffs. The rushing water erodes the basalt into strange columns, producing caves and unusual holes through which the water flows. In spring, several seasonal waterfalls appear at the north end of the lake. The basalt, formed from long-ago volcanic action, and the channeled scablands which form the flooded canyon where Rock Lake lies, both show evidence of the major geologic changes this part of eastern Washington experienced in prehistory. Rock Creek flows through the 'scabland' valley which was created by repeated massive flooding from pre-historic Lake Missoula. Most visitors simply marvel at the unusual landscape.
Rock Lake has a shoreline of about 20 miles, but walking around it isn't possible due to the broken cliffs. The surrounding area is nearly all private land, and no road circles the lake. One small unimproved boat launch site near the south end is privately owned but maintained by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) under a public access agreement. The launch site is simply a flat, sandy spot where small boats can be launched. Insiders warn that the bottom drops off suddenly, and care must be taken when backing boat trailers into the shallow water. Launching large boats is simply not possible here, so most boating is restricted to fishing boats, canoes and kayaks. Despite these drawbacks, Rock Lake is extremely popular among fishermen and has a surprising variety of fish available for the catching.
Rock Lake is known as an excellent year-round fishery and holds black crappie, largemouth bass, bluegill, smallmouth bass, yellow perch, pumpkinseed , bullhead and carp. Most popular among anglers are the rainbow trout and brown trout. Originally planted by WDFW, the trout are mostly self-sustaining now. For reasons that aren't completely understood, the lake doesn't freeze most years. Early Native Americans believed that the lake didn't freeze because of 'large animals' seen below the surface. Reports of an elusive lake monster have persisted, with some researchers believing that a resident population of land-locked sturgeon live in the lake. Little actual scientific research has been done on Rock Lake, so it still holds its traditional mysteries-and remains open to speculation.
Canoe and kayak users sometimes enter the lake from inflowing Rock Creek. Reports of some sailing on the lake are occasionally found, but those suggest any boats remain near the center of the lake due to the unexpected rock pinnacles. A capsized boat can be very dangerous as the water remains cold enough that hypothermia quickly sets in. The steep cliffs prevent swimmers from reaching a shore point that will allow them to leave the water. Unfortunately, the lake has experienced several drownings due to unprepared boaters ending up in the water and being unable to reach shore, so it is not recommended for the inexperienced.
A portion of the John Wayne Trail skirts the southeast shore of the lake for some distance. Formed along the abandoned Milwaukee Road railroad bed, the trail is open only by permit from the Washington Department of Natural Resources. Much of the land is privately owned, so the trail is not yet widely available. The 100-mile John Wayne Trail travels from Cedar Falls to the Columbia River gorge and is open in many places to all non-motorized traffic. The Rock Lake portion of the trail passes through two long railroad tunnels, over iron and concrete trestles with abandoned rail cars overturned and lying next to the tracks from a long-ago trail derailment. Local legend maintains that several boxcars full of new Model T Fords went into the lake, never to be recovered. So far, divers have not located them. Whether is is true or not, the rail company relocated the railroad before abandoning it all together.
Around the turn of the last century, the small town of Rock Lake City occupied a spot on the cliffs above the lake. The railroad brought passengers to the small hotel built there, and tourists could take boat trips along the lake. The enterprise was short-lived due to the relocation of the rail line, and many of the buildings were moved to the nearby town of Ewan, a mile to the west. The area is still scenic and wildlife plentiful. If one gains permission from the local farmers who own the land around the lake, one can see and photograph bald eagles, osprey, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, vultures, turkey, coyotes, mule deer and an occasional elk wandering away from the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge herd. Talk about making the lakeshore into a state park was common in the 1950s, but the anticipated plan was never carried out. Likewise, plans to dam the outflowing Rock Creek for water storage, hydropower and other uses similarly have not occurred.
The area surrounding Rock Lake holds several geologic features of interest. Several lava blowholes are found south of the lake, and nearby, large Castle Rock rises above the landscape. On private land, Castle Rock isn't currently accessible. North of Rock Lake, a natural tunnel through a lava flow can be seen, and several shallow lava caves are located near here. Rock Creek courses through Hole-In-The-Ground coulee before heading to Rock Lake. Nearby, Devils Well is an ancient hole left in the lava when a lava flow surrounded a mammoth tree, which eventually rotted away, leaving the imprint of its bark in the cooling lava. Originally, the hole was reported to be about 100 feet deep, but local residents filled it nearly full with rocks after children had fallen into it. Paddlers can travel Rock Creek upstream to Bonnie Lake. A parking area is located near Hole-In-The-Ground.
There isn't much in the way of lodgings at Ewan, but the City of Cheney is about 30 miles to the north and well-prepared for visitors. Spokane is 50 miles from Rock Lake. The Cheney Rodeo is the biggest annual event the city produces, with a history of nearly 50 years. Cheney also holds the Ice-Age Flood Institute, which occasionally holds informational events. Here, visitors can get information necessary to take a self-guided tour of the scablands. Home to Eastern Washington University, Cheney has a number of arts and cultural venues which hold exhibits, plays and musical events. Several hotels and bed & breakfasts offer plenty of lodging choices. Local campgrounds can be found in the area. City lights are not so far away, as Spokane is just another 20 miles up the highway. So, if you're visiting eastern Washington, take a day to explore the area around Rock Lake. Its beauty, legends and mystery will delight you.
*Statistics included are the most current figures from Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. Reports of greater depths for Rock Lake are unofficial.
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