GET IN A COULEE STATE OF MIND
Take it from someone who grew up in the Grand Coulee Dam area: It's worth visiting, especially in the summer (and I'm not being paid to say that). The nearest stoplight may be 60 miles away (yeah, really), and the closest thing to "fast food" may be the Safeway deli, but there actually is a lot to do, even for one day or a full weekend. Of course, any angst-filled teen will tell you it's the worst place in the world, as every teen says about the place where they grew up. But the perspective of adulthood brings a more nuanced, objective view. Plan your trip with some insider knowledge.
Know the lingo: Saying you're from "the Coulee" is like saying you're from "New York." There's much more to the story. Like New York's boroughs, the Coulee area is made up of five distinct towns (actually more, but let's keep it simple): Electric City, Grand Coulee, Coulee Dam, Elmer City and Nespelem. Pro tip: Don't confuse Coulee Dam with Coulee City, which is 30 miles south on Banks Lake.
The area is really divided along geographic lines: Electric City and Grand Coulee are above the dam; Coulee Dam, split in two by the Columbia River, is below. Elmer City is a few short miles downstream. Nespelem, 14 miles away, is the administrative seat of the Colville Confederated Tribes.
Pick your activity: The Coulee area is a boater's paradise, with Lake Roosevelt (i.e., the Columbia River reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam) offering what is unquestionably some of the region's best boating and water-skiing. Boaters should launch from the Spring Canyon area, managed by the National Park Service. It's also the primary picnic and beach-going spot in town. Get there before noon if you want to claim your grassy, shaded area for a picnic, especially on a busy weekend. Kayakers and canoeists can enjoy a pleasant afternoon away from bigger boats by paddling in Crescent Bay.
Don't overlook Banks Lake, the man-made reservoir stretching 30 miles to the south through the cliff region that gives the area its Coulee name. Steamboat Rock State Park, surrounded by Banks Lake, is a haven for fishermen in sleek bass boats. It's also an ideal hiking spot to the top of the plateau, though snakes can give hikers a scare during the high heat of summer. It's best hiked in the early morning or cool evening closer to sunset.
Other short hikes along the basalt cliffs that make up the area are a good way to explore. Near Steamboat Rock, Northrup Canyon is a good bet, with a secluded lake, small forest, historical homestead and possible bald eagle sightings. It's part of the state park system, so a parking pass is required. Another option is the Candy Point Trail, a fun, elevation-gaining, leg-burning loop beginning and ending in Coulee Dam. Take off from Coulee Dam City Hall and quickly ascend through a narrow ravine, up the basalt rock walls that overlook the Columbia River. Midway is Crown Point, a vista overlooking the entire area with unmatched views (remember your camera).
Golfers have an 18-hole option at the Banks Lake Golf and Country Club, though in recent years the greens have had maintenance issues. Bring extra balls, as a wayward shot into the surrounding thick sagebrush will likely leave you searching for too long. People coming from Spokane may want to consider Big Bend Golf and Country Club in Wilbur, 20 miles to the southeast, a better (and cheaper) option on the way to the Coulee.
Find the food: Dining options are admittedly limited, though what's in town is varied enough to satisfy most appetites. In Grand Coulee, consider La Presa (meaning "the dam") for Mexican or Siam Palace for Thai/Chinese. Pepper Jack's Bar and Grill also is a worthwhile pub-fare option. If you're in town early enough for breakfast or lunch, Flo's Cafe is a favorite to meet the locals.
Laser light show: No trip to the Coulee, especially for the uninitiated, is complete without seeing the famed Laser Light Show, projected nightly in summer on the dam's surface. For locals, 25 years of the same, predictable program, narrated from the standpoint of the Columbia River telling the dam's history, got a little old. This year the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dam, unveiled a brand-new light show. Sadly, Neil Diamond songs aren't featured prominently in this one. Even if you never saw the old show, seeing the new version is worth the trip itself; it's projected on a surface twice the size of Niagara Falls. Showtimes are at night (after dark), throughout the summer but change between May and September. See GrandCouleeDam.com or call 509-633-9265 for times.
PALOUSE FALLS AND STEPTOE BUTTE LOOP
Many Inland Northwest residents and visitors are surprised to learn there's a big, open, mini-Grand Canyon-looking region within reach. Palouse Falls State Park offers fabulous views and open hiking, not to mention an ideal picnic spot above the falls. Recommended route: Drive west on I-90 to Ritzville before turning south. Return to Spokane via Colfax and Highway 195, stopping at Steptoe Butte State Park for an evening jaunt and photo op. It'll be quite an interesting geologic learning day. Pro tips: 1) Remember to bring or purchase a state park Discover Pass in advance: $30 annual; $10 day. 2) Arrive at Palouse Falls early in the day (before 10 am) to beat the crowds and heat. And remember the sunblock. There's not a lot of shade in "them thar hills."
If there's one thing that screams "summer day trip adventure," it's hanging in a tourist trap in the central Cascades pretending you're in a Bavarian village. Leavenworth, 17 miles north of Wenatchee, is a year-round destination with festivals seemingly every weekend. For a full day of fun, leave Spokane early at 7 am and drive west on I-90 past Ellensburg. Take the scenic route over Highway 97 and Blewett Pass. Try your hand at floating the Icicle River on a tube or paddleboard, with rentals in town. Or for the non-water-inclined, a hike in the Icicle River valley near the Enchantments. Leave the early evening open to stroll the touristy shops and get dinner along the way. (Recommended: South, a Latin-infused bistro with delicious drinks.) Stop by Icicle Brewing for a taste of local beer (and fresh pretzels) and likely a live band. If you're coming back in one day, mix up the route by returning through Wenatchee and Waterville via Highway 2. It'll be a long day, but well worth the trip and varied scenery. ♦