Must see – Dry Falls Washington is an ancient wonder

Rocketing over the desert landscape of eastern Washington state, spectacular landscapes rise and fall away with startling frequency. But one sight is enough to make you hit the brakes as you speed down lonely state Highway 17 southwest of tiny Coulee City, Washington.

Dry Falls is a state park, but the name gives little clue about the wondrous landscapes here. Clinging to the edge of the highway on one side and a sheer drop on the other, the Dry Falls experience starts at a little patch of land along the park’s ¬†western rim.

DRY FALLS WASHINGTON GEOLOGY TRAVEL TOURISM WASHINGTON DESERTThe landscape suddenly drops away, plummeting more than 400 feet to a gaping maw that unfurls itself like a lengthy carpet into a wide sweeping canyon that stretches to the horizon. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d just stumbled into the Grand Canyon’s little brother.

What you’re looking at here is the skeleton of an ancient and massive waterfall; once the largest in the world. It flowed and ran dry several times eons ago, carving this massive gash from the earth as it flowed, making it one of North America’s greatest geological wonders.

If it still bore water today, its flow would dwarf Niagara Falls.


Sport the people on the narrow plank-style overlook.

Dry Falls was created during the earth’s ice ages. For years, an ice dam blocked off the Clark Ford River near what is today the Montana-Idaho border. This dam created a natural reservoir that held back a huge amount of glacial meltwater.

“This ice dam failed – over and over – sending inconceivable volumes of water and ice rampaging across the land,” according to Washington State parks website, “The largest floods were equal to 10 times the modern flow of all the rivers of the world combined.”

The torrent of water was littered with massive chunks of ice, huge boulders, soil and debris which helped scour Dry Falls from the landscape. It also left giant boulders strewn across the farmlands here, silent sentinels to the past.

Peering over the spectacularly situated park edge and into the massive canyon below it’s easy to imagine what the torrent must have been like here. Small lakes dot the canyon floor where today they’re home to an abundant wildlife population. Crouched on the edge like a legless AT-AT from Star Wars is the park’s Visitor Centre. ¬†A midcentury modern building with a dash of architectural brutalism, it presides over the vista and provided modern contrast to the ancient landscape. It’s a photographer’s dream. It’s also a good spot to learn about the landscape here through a series of historical photographs, renderings and a short, if badly dated film.DRY FALLS WASHINGTON GEOLOGY TRAVEL TOURISM WASHINGTON DESERT

So too is the natural but plank-like walkway that juts out over the edge of the canyon rim, providing spectacular photo ops.DRY FALLS WASHINGTON GEOLOGY TRAVEL TOURISM WASHINGTON DESERT

While you could spend some time here on the rim and feel as though you’ve seen into the past, it’s possible to head further south down the highway and enter the park, heading down to the canyon floor. A busy campground and small park is here, but it’s also possible to drive out towards the waterfall wall and look up, up, up at the spot you just were in order to more fully appreciate the height.

Down here it’s quieter, calmer and more imposing. It’s also easier to see that there are actually two waterfall basins — two former plunge pools– and two channels where the water once flowed. Hikers will delight in hoofing it around the landscape and feeling small in its shadow.

It’s easy to think that a dry waterfall now stripped of its former flowing glory would be easy to pass up but you’d be making a big mistake and missing out on truly spectacular views and an insider’s view of geological wonders. Dry Falls Washington is well worth a half day visit.DRY FALLS WASHINGTON GEOLOGY TRAVEL TOURISM WASHINGTON DESERT


Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park is a 4,027-acre camping park with 73,640 feet of freshwater shoreline. It’s located on Highway 17 about two hours’ drive west of Spokane.