Nine out of the Top 10 hikes in Glacier National Park are on the covid-closed East side with no indication of opening. With an on-the-fly itinerary in play we narrowed our options … 200 miles south to Teton and Yellowstone, continuing south thru Colorado and New Mexico through the summer or 800 miles west to North Cascades, Mt Ranier and Olympic. So close to the Pacific Northwest, and at the top of the country already, we could spend a month traversing Washington and maybe East Glacier would open late July for a swing back. If not, down to Oregon and back over to Wyoming. Let’s go.
The Roads to Washington
Between Montana and North Cascades National Park is the chimney part of Idaho, farmlands, the desert of eastern Washington state and the largest power station in the country. With camping availability waning (read: Covid Camping), we cobbled one night in Idaho at Farragut State Park and three at Steamboat Rock State Park, 12 miles south of the Grand Coulee Dam and the halfway point to Cascades. We’d have to get in-country to work out the rest.
Coeur d’Alene drive-by
Farragut State Park is just outside Coeur d’Alene (CDA), a thriving, bring-your-boat mountain lake vacation destination with blue water sports, skiing, amusement park, golf and a million pine trees. The park was packed with local license plates on well-kept RVs fully hooked up on perfectly level pads. Vault toilets and no showers were a surprise, but who needs them when you’re big rigging it in the RV loop? We might have stayed a few days but first come first served in Idaho means that if you are the first to make a reservation, you will have a reservation. If a site is not reserved, it becomes eligible for first-come first-served. Should you be the first to find such a site, you can go online and reserve it so you are first served. And arguing with the volunteer ranger doesn’t change their definition.
The scenery from CDA into Washington shifts from bustling resort town to flat brown, green and yellow farmland. It’s easy to get lost in your head from the monotony of the terrain. A hundred miles later you come around a bend in the road where flat starts to undulate, sprouting into mountains, basalt cliffs and freshwater lakes created by the man made wonder called Grand Coulee Dam.
Grand Coulee Dam
Back in the day, big projects did not scare the United States. Few were bigger than this massive undertaking to harness hydroelectric power while providing irrigation to 960,000 acres of farmland using the Columbia River. The Grand Coulee Dam holds back Lake Roosevelt and feeds Banks Lake while turning out power for 4 million homes. The result is a water sports wonderland surrounded by an ancient desert of breathtaking beauty.
Self guided touring
Like most National Recreation Centers, Lake Roosevelt and the Grand Coulee Visitor Center are closed. You can day use the beach with no amenities. You can look at the dam but no tour, movie or nightly history in laser lights show. And forget about the giant fireworks celebration on July 4. Cancelled. The town is virtually abandoned. Safeway, 76 gas and one expensive Mexican restaurant are open, but literally every other business is shuttered with For Sale signs in windows. This is Grand Coulee ghost town. Locals only unless you’re using the Coulee Playground facilities to launch your boat, get bait or ice cream, or stay in their modest but weekends-booked campgrounds.
In the 40 miles between Grand Coulee Dam and the next so-called town of Coulee City is Steamboat Rock State Park, with 144 full hook up, no cell/internet RV sites sitting in the middle of the eastern Washington desert at the foot of an columnar basalt rock butte that rises 800 feet above Banks Lake.
According to park history, Steamboat Rock was once an island in the Ancient Columbia River bed. When the Columbia returned to its original course after the Ice Age floods subsided, the river left this massive landmark standing. Today it is respite from city life, where one goes to unplug and play; to race boats on the glass lake, swim in clear waters, climb on prehistoric terrain and picnic on lush lawns surrounded by carpets of sagebrush and wildflowers.
The hike to summit the 600 acre surface is rock and dirt vertical, perfectly suited for Scurry and Plod. We started the lightly traveled path at 8:30am and 75 degrees, finishing at 12:30pm and 95 degrees. Time and temperature weren’t the only transformation. For Sheri, this top of the rock was spectacular beauty beyond compare.
Unplugged is awesome in immersion but unsettling when you have nowhere to go and can’t get service to figure it out. On a jaunt to the Dam, we found 2 cell bars in a parking lot next to the convenience store along with several Washington Dept of Natural Resources, National Forest dispersed camping sites and a municipal park in Coulee City to reconnoiter.
Coulee City Camping
Anticipating a rush on the weekend, we traded unparalleled lawn service for city living as dispersed camping meant 100 degrees with no A/C. In this case, the city is Coulee and the living is in the city RV and day-use park at the south end of Banks Lake. The park is a true first-come, first-served locals-only place. Pick your site, pay at the self-serve kiosk, put the tag in your window. It’s kids on bikes, family tent compounds, Dad’s showing off their heavy duty trucks. Boats launch, fish get cleaned. A 90 second hot water shower costs 25 cents. It’s nothing fancy but very livable. We found a full service pull-through among some trees to break the strong sun and created comfortable, cold, Verizon LTE condo living with over the air TV to boot. At 90% capacity this weekend and everything nearby booked, we will almost certainly stay through Independence weekend and party like a socially distanced local.