Steamboat Rock


Why? Fabulous views of Banks Lake and The Devil’s Punch Bowl, an isolated herd of deer, and more swallows than you can imagine.

Season: March to November.

Ease: Moderate once you’re up on top, but little strenuous getting there, perhaps.

When you see Steamboat Rock, it’s easy to understand how it got its name. It sits at the edge of Banks Lake, a bit like the Steamboat Jean used to sit at the edge of one or the other of our local rivers. Steamboat Rock is tethered by a spit of land rather than ropes, however. And it’s a whole lot bigger than Jean, 800 feet above the lake that almost surrounds it. Basalt columns rise to its relatively flat top, which is set on a firm base of worn, gently rounded granite.

The views are what make Steamboat worth hiking, views both near and far. On clear days you can see the Cascades, which will probably be snowy when you hike the trail since this is definitely an early or late season hike. Up close, there’s the lake itself, an impressive sight if you’re into lakes. I particularly like the islands that sit to the north and north east of Steamboat, rounded lumps of rock that create a number of inlets and make, perhaps, a fine place to canoe. The canyon or coulee that holds the lake is bounded by basalt cliffs on top, granite underneath, just like Steamboat.

The trail up to the top of Steamboat starts in several places. All converge on an information board just below the cliffs where you’ll find the steep uphill that will get you past most of the elevation gain in the hike. Some of this section is quite rocky, some parts have loose rocks, and some of the switchbacks are far from obvious. It’s not a fun bit of uphill or, even more so, downhill.

Once at the top, however, there’s a few yards of flat area in which you can catch your breath before, if you hike counterclockwise as I always seem to, the final, short uphill.

On top you’ll find grassland, sage land, and, if you’re there in spring, flowers. In late May, when I hiked Steamboat the first time, I saw penstemon, buckwheat, phlox, bitterroot, wild onion, arrowleaf balsamroot, lupines, and a whole bunch of other stuff I couldn’t identify. I also suspect you’ll find mule deer most anytime. While I saw only one on that first trip, I saw 15 or more on the second, seven of which I almost had to push off the trail. Friends have reported even larger herds.

The other major wildlife is violet green swallows. They appear to nest high up in the basalt – or at least feed there. When you’re near the edge, they’re always swooping up at you, making a roaring noise when they come overhead that almost blocks out their normal, noisy chatter.

But there’s another roaring noise that’s even louder: low flying military planes. These are the fast guys that you see, hopefully, before you hear. Either way, I find them disconcerting when I’m walking at the edge of an 800-foot cliff. Especially if I’ve already peeked over the edge, way down to the bottom of a draw, and realized that I wouldn’t land with a splash but a splat.

The top of Steamboat also is littered with erratics, those big rocks we sometimes find that are geologically out of place until you consider the forces that deposited them where they sit - glaciers. For some reason, they look particularly out of place here, on top of an almost island.

The only negative about Steamboat for me was boat and jet ski noise from the lake.

Trail Note: If you hike counterclockwise, the last bit of trail on top can be a bit hard to follow. To find it, note a field of small boulders, then a corner of sorts followed by a couple of those big rocks, the erratics. At the second rock and above the draw, the trail becomes faint or non existent. Stay near the edge and either take the steep down through rocks that starts roughly across from the end of the big basalt cliff on the other side of the draw, or wait until you get near the high point and take the much easier and more visible trail down. It takes you down into what’s almost the narrowest part of the draw.

Information: Steamboat Rock State Park, (509) 633-1304, is open year round and has facilities for camping, fishing, day use and swimming. The State Park guide suggests you can cross country ski there in the winter. If they mean up on top – getting there and down would be an incredible challenge, at least for me.

This area can be very hot in the summer, so do this hike early or late season.

Directions: The park is on the west side of Highway 155, between mileposts 15 and 16 and between Coulee Dam and Coulee City. Turn onto the park road to the day use area across from the several trailheads heading up the rock.

Maps: USGS Barker Canyon, Electric City, Steamboat Rock SE and Steamboat Rock SW, Washington.