Thursday, April 19, 2012

Lake Smokiam

By mid April, Westly and I were ready for some intense sunlight.  We had enjoyed a handful of partly to mostly sunny days in Seattle so far, even one where the mercury soared to 70 deg f (the previous spring our first 70 deg day was not until mid May).  What's the quickest way to bask in sunshine in Western Washington?  Trick question - the quickest way most of the year is to travel east for a few hours.  Eastern Washington is a completely different climate zone.  As you descend from the Cascade range across the alluvial terraces into the Columbia Basin and beyond (the Intermontane climatic region) the average rainfall plummets from 40 to 180 (Olympic Rain Forest) inches per year to 25, 15, 10 and in some areas even less.  I had been planning a trip like this all winter, and now was the time.

I packed some food, clothes, hiking boots, and - this time I remembered to bring a camera.  After work Saturday morning, I picked up my friend Redwood, and we headed east on I-90 toward Snoqualmie Pass.  This was the same pass where Westly had run dry a few weeks earlier so I made sure the tank was topped off.  The cloud cover was thinning as Westly charged up the grade.  At Hyak, near the summit, several feet of snow still bordered the road.  Keechelus Lake lay beside us, flat and gray until a late morning sun-break set it to sparkling.  By the time we reached Cle Elum (a somewhat loose translation of the Kittitas Tribe word for "swift water") it was time to shut off the heat and watch for the Indian John Hill rest area.

Finally feeling the warmth at Indian John Hill
Greatly refreshed, we continued on, descending into the Kittitas Valley, through Ellensburg, and then through some lower foothills and down to cross the Columbia River.  Across the river and up the hill at Vantage is an art installation titled "Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies".  You can see it easily from the freeway, but if you have the time I advise taking the first exit up Frenchmen Hill out of the river gorge.  From there it's a short, but steep hike up to visit the herd.  This string of 15 wild horses, cut from 1 inch steel was created by artist David Govedare in 1989.

An very succinct video clip from Mikes Road Trip 

Back on I-90, the terrain levels out into the Columbia Basin.  Just past George (average annual rainfall just 8 inches), Hwy 283 cuts off in a North-Easterly direction, intersecting with Hwy 28 near Ephrata.  Not far after, Hwy 17 heads North to our destination, Soap Lake.

View Larger Map

Soap Lake is located at the South end of the Coulee Corridor which was formed around 11,000 to 17,000 years ago by a series of floods that ended the last ice age.  The floods eventually emptied glacial Lake Missoula, sending more than 500 cubic miles of water at an estimated 15 times the combined flow of all the rivers currently in the world.  It rushed across parts of Washington, Idaho and Oregon carrying along billions of tons of earth and rock as it went.  The Grand Coulee and Channeled Scablands of Washington, the Columbia River Gorge in Washington and Oregon and the Willamette Valley in Oregon are all the result of these floods.

The lake is unusual in that it a meromitric lake - two layers of differing mineral composition that have apparently not ever mixed.   The Grand Coulee was a sort of highway for Native American tribes to access the Columbia river basin.  They would camp and stash supplies in caves along the way, and they valued the water and mud of Soap Lake for it's medicinal properties.  They referred to the lake as Smokiam which means "Healing Waters".

Downtown Soap Lake
No traffic signals
The city of Soap Lake is populated by around 1,740 highly individual people.  Redwood and I met with his friend Lady Smokiam who lives nearby.  After downing some deliciously cool glasses of water, we all walked downtown for a snack and a visit to the Soap Lake Art Museum.  Here SoapBlake regaled us with his grandiose visions such as erecting the worlds largest lava lamp in downtown.

How groovy would this be??
We also learned that there is a somewhat divisive issue about the name of the lake (not the first time, by the way - it was once known as Siloam).  Some of the residents would like to change it to Lake Smokiam to honor the ancient history of the lake and so potential visitors won't mistakenly think that it's suffering from some kind of grey-water run-off problem.  Others think the name Soap Lake has been fine for the past 100 years, and don't you even think about messing with it.  Well, what's your opinion?

Update:  04/28 - Now the Yakama Nation, having been defined by an 1855 treaty as the indigenous people of the Soap Lake area have requested that the name be changed to Cheem-Ti-Wa-Tum (no translation given) which is what their elders called it.

The following poem is from the back of the Don's Restaurant  "Dining With A Western Flavor" menu:

There is healing in the waters and the sunlight - by the lake,
Here your ailments and disorders could dissolve without mistake.
You must try this awesome wonder if you ail and might be cured...
'Tis a miracle of nature...half-again plus all you've heard.
In the past our redskin brothers met beside Smokiams's shore,
And they bathed here and they healed here...this was in the days of yore.

Never man was offered bounty like this spa in desert sun,
Ultra-violet shines upon you, breezes cool - when day is done.
You must come to see the wonder of this mineral water spa,
And the truths you'll see around you all are part of nature's law.
Mineral water is our treasure, come and sample if you'd care,
You may find that life awaits may find your answered prayer!

By Joyce E. Conklin, November, 1981

Anyway, we came here to camp and hike, so let's get on with it.  Lady Smokiam suggested we could  camp on a lot she had at the North end of the lake and as the day was about spent, we took her up on the offer.  The late afternoon wind continued to hang around into the evening, whipping the pop-top canvas into a mesmerizing percussive beat.  I pulled Westly around into the lee of some neglected out buildings to gain shelter from the gale.  After feasting on pasta fettuccine and V8, we dozed peacefully.

Shelter from the wind
Morning brought a symphony of melodious bird song under scattered clouds.  After breakfast we visited the city park which has a sandy beach along the South end of the lake with playground, showers (summer only) and even a small campground (I stayed there last summer while camping with my Outback - nice but a little close to the highway).

Art in Soap Lake City Park
Remember when playgrounds had swings and a merry go round?
At Soap Lake, they still do
The water was still a little too cold for swimming, so we met with Lady Smokiam who had promised to lead us to view some native petroglyphs (after coffee).

Redwood prepares for the trek
We set off on what turned out to be a close to 12 mile hike up canyons, through draws, across mesas, past long abandoned homesteads, and finally to the petroglyph rock.

On the trail
Basalt cliffs
A busy bumble bee shares a flower with a tiny spider
Click to enlarge
Cistern at an old homestead
The petroglyph rock
Mock Orange in bloom framed by a cave
Upon returning to town and freshening up, we strolled to Don's Restaurant to replenish lost carbs.  This is a real cowboy steakhouse, and bonus - you can purchase Indian Princess dolls and/or bundles of firewood at the cash register.
Fine dining in Soap Lake
The sign must have been neon at one time...
Soap Lake House
Canna Street South
Soap Lake house made of basalt rocks
Being thoroughly sated, we scouted out a remote campsite amongst the sagebrush, made some music for awhile, and called it a day.  Early next morning, a light mist was swirling about as we reluctantly made our way back to Seattle.

Making camp in the afterglow

Below - Westly moves it.  Thanks Redwood for putting this video together

Redwood also sent me these images he created on the trip:

Westly in the Wild Horse Monument parking lot
Found on the curb behind Westly
Tagged Pony
Sunday Morning calm at Lake Smokiam
Prepared for rough riding


  1. Nice get away and good pics.

  2. Thank you Mike. Hope to get out to the Midwest sometime...

  3. Hi Blue Highway Vanagon. Your stories are enjoyable and informative. We're a small yet responsible camper van group in northwest Washington, interested in meeting other camper van enthusiasts for short or long road trips, preferably away from Grand Central settings. Our emphasis is on safety, reliably running vehicles and self-sufficiency. Our plans include camping and fishing along the lower Columbia and at a later point, scenic stops in Oregon. We may at some point ferry our vans up to Alaska. KP salt water park in north Snoco county is very nice. Beautiful campground on the bay. Ideal trips include fishable waters or better yet, reasonably priced private property camping. Our focus is trips along the coastal I-5 corridor including the spectacular scenery of the North Cascades Highway (hwy 20). There are several scenic places to stop or even camp along the Skagit river. Baker lake has stunning views and great fishing. Further up the Cascade river road (above Marblemount) is breathtaking Baker-Snoqualmie forest land. Having once lived on the Cascade river, I know the area well. There's a privately owned riverfront campground open to the public for a fraction of what most campgrounds cost. If you or other responsible vanners would like to be part of our budding group or have suggestions, just drop an e-mail at We just put together a Facebook page. It's in the early stages but if you'd like to check it out or add yourself as a van camping enthusiast (stories, pics, suggestions) feel free to check it out at Pnw Van Campers. Happy trails!