Our Northwest

Devil's Canyon remote, but worthy of a road trip

Wednesday, August 3, 2016by  Jon Osterberg
I've crossed another attraction off of my "local landmarks Native Northwest Guy hasn't visited" list.
     Last February I identified six popular tourist attractions in Washington I've never seen, and there are other less-popular but riveting destinations on my list, too. Devil's Canyon is one.
     Because of its remote location, tourists generally don't seek out Devil's Canyon, one of the spectacular remnants of Washington's Ice Age megafloods. Dry Falls and Palouse Falls are much better known.
     But Devil's Canyon, located halfway between Connell and Washtucna, is spectacular and worth the drive. Gushing floodwaters along the Cheney-Palouse tract carved Devil's Canyon 12,000 to 15,000 years ago when Glacial Lake Missoula burst forth through its ice dam many times.
     When floodwaters 300 feet deep raced down Washtucna Coulee, some of it spilled over the brim and gushed through a fracture in the earth's crust, gouging a 5-mile-long canyon that dropped hundreds of feet to the Snake River. Today we call Devil's Canyon a recessional cataract canyon, because each time Glacial Lake Missoula burst forth and spilled its contents over the region, water ate away at the canyon, causing its vertical basalt headwalls to recede farther and farther up the chasm.
     Today, the top of Devil's Canyon is literally a dry waterfall, and the canyon is technically a coulee, a dry water channel.
     On Monday I drove to the farming town of Kahlotus, population 193, and turned south on State Route 263. Almost immediately the basalt headwall – an abandoned spillway – came into view and below, a deep, narrow canyon stretched ruler-straight downhill. The railbed for the old Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railroad hugs the west side of the canyon. Today it's part of the Columbia Plateau Trail.
     This is hot, arid country in the summer, and each time I stepped out of the car to shoot a photo I scrutinized the shoulder for rattlesnakes that might be coiled in the scrub brush.
     Basalt cliffs rise 500 feet high in the upper half of the canyon. A couple of miles downhill I stopped and photographed ancient columnar basalt that had vented in several directions.
     Approaching the Snake River the canyon flattens out, and Lower Monumental Dam comes into view. We watched a pleasure boat enter its locks, then drove east to see wheat unloaded from a grain elevator before retracing our route up Devil's Canyon.
     We kept a sharp eye out for Devil's Monument, a prominent butte with steep slopes and ledges said to resemble a human face. Sure enough, as we drove up into the throat of the canyon, the face came into view, tilted slightly upward and facing west.
     If that's not enough to lure you for a visit, combine Devil's Canyon with a trip to nearby Palouse Falls, another recessional cataract canyon from the Ice Age; and Marmes Rock Shelter, site of the oldest human settlement found in Washington.
     (Older blog posts recount previous Channeled Scablands road trips to Palouse Falls and Frenchman Coulee.)
     So, was man around to witness any of these megafloods? Perhaps, but there's no conclusive evidence of local civilization beyond 13,300 years ago. Native American lore tells of people having to evacuate to higher ground; the earliest name given to Rattlesnake Mountain means "stands above the water."
     Each megaflood lasted just weeks or days. Glacial Lake Missoula emptied, torrents scoured Eastern Washington, and floodwater temporarily impounded behind Wallula Gap before emptying into the Columbia. Scientists call that temporary body of water Ancient Lake Lewis, and it inundated the entire Pasco basin to a maximum depth of 1,200 feet – enough to submerge all but the top of Badger Mountain!

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