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Glacier N.P. & Pacific Northwest

by Kathy 15. February 2011 17:26

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Washington—Dry Falls

Every once in a while, we come across a place that is astounding in its historical or geological significance, and yet we weren’t even aware that it existed. We are flabbergasted, asking ourselves, “Why have we never heard of this place before?!”

Cahokia Mounds, near St. Louis, was one of those places. We encountered another on this trip--Dry Falls in central Washington.

Here was the site of THE largest waterfall that had ever existed in the world—3 ½ miles long, and 400 feet high.

Granted, there is no longer any water cascading down the rocky cliffs. Yet we still found the site to be impressive. Here is a panoramic view from the overlook near the Dry Falls Visitor Center, starting from the left and sweeping to the right:




This waterfall skeleton was created about 13,000 to 20,000 years ago, when glacial ice covered portions of Washington, Idaho and Montana:

A huge finger of ice crept down and blocked the flow of water along the Clark Fork River in Idaho. The river had nowhere to go. It slowly backed up behind the ice dam, forming a massive lake (now called Glacial Lake Missoula) that was almost half a mile deep and stretched back over 200 miles into Montana.

The build-up of water put pressure on the ice dam, and eventually it burst, sending a catastrophic flood of water that buried portions of Idaho, Washington and Oregon under hundreds of feet of water. The water sped over the land at a rate of about 65 miles per hour, with a flow that was ten times the current of all the rivers in the world combined.

This churning water roared toward the Pacific Ocean, ripping a deep channel into the earth, and carrying along soil, rocks, and anything else in its path. Deep canyons, called “coulees,” were gouged out of the earth in a sudden swoop. The biggest of the canyons is called “Grand Coulee”, which we had seen earlier on this trip on the day we visited the Grand Coulee Dam. The giant surge also deposited thirty-story mountains of gravel downstream and left 200-ton boulders far from their Rocky Mountain home. Moreover, the swirling flood waters sculpted 3-story high “ripple marks” that would perplex 20th century geologists.  

Eventually the ice dam reformed, the water built back up, and the dam broke again—over and over and over, for several thousand years.

An exhibit showed how the waterfall may have looked during the last flooding, about 13,000 years ago:

Another drawing showed how the falls may have looked as the waters were receding:

The glaciers gradually melted at the end of the latest Ice Age. With no more ice dams or floods, the waterfall was left high and dry.

The water flowing over the falls is believed to have been over 300 feet high (or 30 stories). That torrent would have towered far above Genevieve in the photo below.

We were fascinated to learn that the waterfall once began 15 miles south of here, at Soap Lake.

The blue waters of Soap Lake:

The powerful force of the pounding water had created deep plunge pools in Soap Lake and eroded away the base of the waterfall cliff. The resulting overhangs had collapsed over time, and the waterfall had gradually moved backwards, upstream, to its current spot.

As the waterfall moved backwards, it sliced through the dark rock, carving out a long narrow canyon called the Lower Grand Coulee. Here is a small part of the western wall of that canyon:

The Lower Grand Coulee contains a number of lakes, and is part of Sun Lakes–Dry Falls State Park, popular for hiking, camping and boating:

At the Dry Falls overlook, we could see some remaining plunge pools that are now fed by an underground stream.

Sebastian used his binoculars to get a closer look at the dry waterfall:

And to get a better look at me!

Genevieve, who loves geology, was eager to check out the visitor’s center, located near the overlook:

Outside the center was a table with different types of rocks and a map showing the path of the flood waters:

Working at the table was volunteer Shirley Mackey, a geologist, who answered all of our questions and encouraged Genevieve and Sebastian to pick up the rocks and feel their weight and texture. Here is Genevieve with a hefty chunk of basalt, a volcanic rock that covers much of this area:

Inside the visitor’s center were exhibits on the Dry Falls, as well as environmental changes, rock formations, animal fossils, and early humans in this area. One of the most interesting exhibits, however, contained the story of a geologist named J. Harlen Bretz (born in 1882), who was an expert in stream and glacial erosion.

In the late 1920’s, after years of exploring the coulees and rock formations in eastern Washington, Mr. Bretz presented his opinion that they must have been formed by a catastrophic flood. Previously, geologists had believed that the maze of coulees were formed slowly over time by glaciers or rivers.

Mr. Bretz’s conclusion was met with ridicule from his peers, who labeled it “preposterous” and “incompetent.” One of the main problems was that he hadn’t yet figured out the source of the flood waters. (In the 1930’s, a geologist named Joseph Thomas Pardee developed the theory that the water came from Glacial Lake Missoula, but Mr. Bretz didn’t embrace that idea until 1956.)

In the 1950’s, with the aid of aerial photography, giant ripple marks (up to 50 feet high and 500 feet apart) were clearly visible from Montana to Washington—ripples that could only have been made by the movement of water.  These ripples shined a light of credibility onto Mr. Bretz’s “catastrophic flood” theory. Finally, in 1965, the International Geological Congress acknowledged that Mr. Bretz had been correct. Fourteen years later, at the age of 96, Mr. Bretz received the highest geologic honor (the Penrose Medal) from the Geological Society of America. He died two years later, fully vindicated, and revered as a forward thinker and brilliant scientist.

Bravo to Mr. Bretz for standing his ground, for putting forth a controversial new idea, and for not backing down in the face of scorn and derision from his colleagues!

One last look at Dry Falls before we headed south:

 

More Information:

Dry Falls Visitor Center is located about 7 miles southwest of Coulee City in central Washington.

Visitor information for Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park. 

Directions to the Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park. 

Historical information about the Glacier Lake Missoula floods. 


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Planning Our Adventures

For us, each journey begins with the initial heart pangs to venture to a certain part of the world. Then the ideas start coming together . . . ahh, the possibilities . . . and the dream evolves gradually into an actual plan. But, oh, the joy of the dream!  Click here to learn more about how we plan and prepare for our journeys.

Where Are We Now?

Click here to discover where we are now, as well as our uncoming travel plans.


Words for the Heart

“. . . and then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Anais Nin