Jump to content
American Road Magazine
Celebrating our two-lane highways of yesteryear…And the joys of driving them today!

Ice Age Floods Sweep The Land. A Two Lane Road Leads You There!

Recommended Posts

Many years past, but just a moment ago in the story of our planet, vast floods were repeatedly unleashed from a lake with a volume as great as Lakes Erie and Ontario combined!! The torrents scoured the landscape and created massive waterfalls, ten times greater than Niagara. The destruction to the landscape was so massive that it was not understood until the 1930’s , despite the fact that The Yellowstone Trail and the National Parks Highway wound across and through the enormous canyons, sheer cliffs, and vast scab lands.


I refer to the Ice Age Floods of about 13-15,0000 years ago, which left their mark across three states (Montana, Idaho, and Washington) on a scale so large its full extent can only really be seen from 30,000 feet in the air or from a satellite.. But you can get up close and personal on our two lane roads, and marvel at land forms so awe inspiring you will be astounded that water could be the cause.


In fact it took most of 100 years of speculation and study for humans to understand and appreciate what they were seeing. That is one of the stories I want to tell here later, but for now I want to simply introduce you to some of the roadside scenery to peak your interest. Understanding will follow.


This example is little known today, but was a familiar sight in my youth. Turn off at exit 143 (Silica Road) on Interstate 90 in my home state of Washington. You will either make the turn while heading east after climbing out of the sheer walled Columbia River canyon filled side to side with water backed up by the Wanapum Dam, or headed west past George, Washington (clever name ?!) after crossing miles of rich irrigated farmland. From the interstate travel northward on Silica and then turn west on the old Vantage Road. (See map below)


For old roadies like myself, this is a road with a great history. Again I will elaborate on that later. But now lets visit the site of a cataclysm.


Almost immediately you start to drop into a deep and massive canyon with sheer cliffs on each side. Note the weathered wooden safety guards with their steel cables, typical of the 1940’s when my family first wound our way down this cliff face in our two tone green 1941 Chevrolet Coupe.


The road is almost abandoned today except for rock climbers and boaters headed for the River You are dropping into Frenchman Coulee. Stop at a pullout. If you are squeamish about heights, park below the cliff face on the left. Walk to the edge of the canyon on the right, just a few feet away.


Now imagine this in your mind’s eye if you can. A torrent of water 300 feet deep and traveling at 80 miles an hour is bearing down on you and over the cliffs you see across the canyon. Deeper than the height of the cliffs you see, as it rushes toward the west it erodes the cliff face toward the upstream side, clawing out massive blocks of solid rock and creating the canyon below. Rocks bigger than houses are tumbling in the torrent. Your perch on the pullout isn’t safe, and in a few moments you are swept away in that flood. Sorry, I should have warned you. But what a view!!


The old road followed this paved track, and I remember it well. I even have a photo of myself and my sister taken where the road overlooks the Columbia. In those golden days of yore there was a bridge about a 1.2 miles north of the modern bridge that crossed a much narrower Columbia River. It had massive sand dunes on each side, now buried under water.


As a small aside my wife and I ventured down the old road on the other side of the Columbia River where as a boy we had crossed on the old bridge. The old two lane road leads all the way from Ellensburg 29 miles and through a large wind farm with its massive windmills growning in the sky, down to a dead end at the Columbia’s edge. And there to greet us were two Big Horn Sheep! Have you seen any lately on the interstate?


Believe it or not, Frenchman Coulee is not the most impressive of the Floods creations, but it is easy to reach from the interstate. Most sites will require ending your dance with 18 wheelers and the charm of rest stops, and leaving behind the beauty of scenery rushing past in a 70 mph blur. Get on the two lane roads.




1. Frenchman Coulee looking west at 47.030393, -119.958240°. Can you spot the pickup truck on the road? Right green dot on # 2 below.






2. Old Vantage Road and Frenchman Coulee. Green dots represent photo sites.





3. The Feathers in Frenchman Coulee. A Flood remnant. 47.028642°, -119.965373° Left green dot on # 2 above.






5. A Big Horn at the old Vantage crossing of the Columbia. 46.957175°, -119.987799°







6. The Extent of the Ice Age Floods



If we get some interest, I will continue this tale of the massive Ice Age Floods. And for those who love videos, here are some fantastic aerial views by the pros from the Ice Age Flood Institute


Some excellent aerial views from the pros on You Tube. HERE. The books shown at the end are a terrific source of information and road trips. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUyxRWSYTgM

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This is the 1948 picture (looking south) taken on old US10 (Old Vantage Road) as it winds its way down the Frenchman Coulee cliffs to the Columbia River. Beyond the fact that I am in the picture :), fans of our two lane heritage should note the line of yellow posts with black caps securing the safety cables. These are still there!!! Seventy years later!!


Notice the mighty Columbia before it was dammed. Sand islands and dunes along the shore were characteristic of the River in those days.


Another feature. If you look closely you can see the old Vantage high bridge, long ago replaced by a new interstate bridge a mile south. But the old bridge lives on. It is now the high bridge at the Lyons Ferry crossing of the Snake River on the Yellowstone Trail, shown in the third photo, which by the way is on the route to Palouse falls, also a major site of the Ice Age Floods. More on that in another post.


The second photo was taken almost 70 years later. I have aged a bit, but the cliffs are still the same. The bridge is gone and the mighty Columbia is now dammed. But the 1940’s posts are still there minus their paint job!!! Odds are they will outlast me :).


If by chance you enjoy base jumping, here is a video of a jump from about where the first photo was taken in the first post.





Keep the Show on the Road!













Link to comment
Share on other sites

Great photos of the old highway and gorge. You mentioned about those floods. Some of the numbers that came out of those floods are truly staggering. At Wallula Gap, east of The Dalles, the flow was estimated to be between 6 and 10 cubic MILES of water per hour. Rivers tend to be measured in cubic FEET per second. Huge difference. The flood, at its highest point, filled the Columbia River Gorge nearly to the top. Imagine the view from Crown Point along the Columbia River Highway with the gorge completely filled with water. There are other features from the floods, yes, floods, that defy imagination. These floods happened at least 35-40 times. The geologist, J. Harlen Bretz, that came up with the original theory was basically laughed at by the scientific community until another geologist, Pardee, came up with the source of the water. It is a fascinating story and something that always gives me pause when I am in that region.

Link to comment
Share on other sites



With your background in Geology you are the expert, and your descriptions are right on. Thanks for the comment!


If we get enough interest, I will be filling the story out with more examples.


As you know as well as I do, our two lane roads lead us to fantastic locations and discoveries. i will probably be describing more of the gems on the Yellowstone Trail Great Circle Route soon.




Keep the Show on the Road!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 weeks later...



Thanks! I appreciate the come back!


The land forms created by the Ice Age Floods are truly spectacular, and all the more amazing when you appreciate how they were formed.


The old Yellowstone Trail and to a lessor extent the National Parks Highway passes by, or very near, many sites, but they were seen as mysterious and unexplained formations. Today the story is still developing, but several experts are on the trail, and many like myself have a growing interest.


Thanks again!




Keep the Show on the Road

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 1 month later...

Excellent post Dave

The ice age had carved out many features in our state. Being so close to the freeway makes this a nice little stop. The scenery is spectacular. 

I have a old photo on the construction of the road. I am pretty sure it was taken in the same spot as your first one. The other is from where you enter the coulee. The third is from mt trip there.






Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


  • Create New...