In the Back Yard

A couple years ago we took our kids on a trip through southern Utah. We went to Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, the Grand Escalante Staircase and the Great Barrier Reef before heading over to Moab.

While we were in Zion particularly, very few people we met were Americans. Most were from Finland, Denmark, England and Japan. At the time our family was living in Montana. We drove through Yellowstone National Park and had much the same experience there. We saw mostly foreigners. It bothered me, not because I don’t want foreigners in our parks– I am glad they are there. What bothered me was that we have so many amazing things in our own back yard, and we don’t take the time to see them.

My husband used to work in Newcastle Wyoming, less than an hour drive from Mount Rushmore. Twice I took our kids to Newcastle to see Nathan while he was working. Both times we said, “One of these days we have to take the kids to Mount Rushmore.” Well, guess what? The company he was working for fell on hard times, Nathan found a new job and we moved. I’ve still never seen Mount Rushmore. Now a trip there would mean days of driving, and I’m kicking myself that we didn’t take the time while we were there.

I’ve vowed to do better. We moved to Washington state a few years ago. I have taken my kids to see the Space Needle, the Pacific Science Center and Woodland Park Zoo. However, some of the most amazing sights in Washington state are practically in our back yard, and my kids had never seen them… until yesterday.

Did you know Grand Coulee Dam is almost a mile wide?

It is three times as wide as Hoover Dam. It is as tall as the Space Needle (approximately 64 stories), and contains enough concrete to build a highway from Seattle to Miami. Most people know that Grand Coulee is a hydroelectric dam, but it original dam was not designed to generate power. That high dam design was added during Roosevelt’s New Deal Era. The original purpose of Grand Coulee Dam was to control flooding, which ravaged everything down the Columbia River on a regular basis. Grand Coulee Dam saved millions of dollars in flood damages, but it wasn’t enough. Just a few years after its construction an Oregon town (I can’t recall the name right now) was almost completely submerged in flood waters. Now there is a system of dams controlling the flow of the temperamental Columbia River.

Grand Coulee was also designed as the centerpiece of the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project, which planned to irrigate 1.1 million acres of farmland. Only 60% of that was actually irrigated, but millions of dollars in crops are grown every year in Washington as a result of the Dam.

The road across the dam is now closed to the public.

Our own land is irrigated by the project. The irrigation system is so efficient that one third of the water sent out the ditches as irrigation is recaptured (the other 2/3 are used). My father in law informed me that less than 1% of the Columbia River’s flow is used for irrigation. It is pretty amazing. My own great-grandfather worked on building Grand Coulee Dam.


Another amazing thing in our back yard is Soap Lake, which gets its name from the foamy suds that are found along its shores. I saw a post on the Internet about Soap Lake, where someone asked if it was polluted. Let me emphatically answer, “No, it is not!” Soap Lake is the most minerally diverse body of water in the world (according to Wikipedia). Centuries of Native Americans believed in its healing powers. People still flock to its shores to enjoy the healing waters and to bath in the mud on the shore. The water has an oily feel to it, which comes from ichthyol.


Last on our stop yesterday was Dry Falls.

“Dry Falls is a 3.5 mile long scalloped precipice in central Washington, on the opposite side of the Upper Grand Coulee from the Columbia River, and at the head of the Lower Grand Coulee. Ten times the size of Niagara, Dry Falls is thought to be the greatest known waterfall that ever existed. According to the current geological model, catastrophic flooding channeled water at 65 miles per hour through the Upper Grand Coulee and over this 400-foot (120 m) rock face at the end of the last ice age. At this time, it is estimated that the flow of the falls was ten times the current flow of all the rivers in the world combined.”

Dry Falls, Wikipedia

I still remember seeing this when I was a kid. The view from the Visitor’s center is breath-taking. I took a picture of the painting in the Visitor’s Center. This is what the falls would have looked like at the end of the last Ice Age. Pretty darn amazing.

So, there you have it. That is my little history, science, geography lesson for today. As a native Washingtonian, I have to tell you, these sights are more impressive than the Space Needle and the Pacific Science Center. If you ever travel to the Pacific Northwest, I hope you’ll take some time off the beaten path and experience wonders most people miss in this great state.

What is in your back yard? And, have you taken the time to enjoy it?

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