June 20, 2004 in Outdoors

Banks Lake lets boaters rock through the ages

The Lake Lady
Laurel Boone Helm Special to Outdoors


Banks Lake

» “ 90 miles west of Spokane

» “ 24,900 acres

» “ Campgrounds/resorts: Coulee Playland Resort (509) 633-2671, Sun Banks Resort (509) 633-3786, Steamboat Rock State Park (509) 633-1304.


It is 86 degrees, the water is like glass. I’m dangling feet in the cool water and I’ve got my lunch by my side. Can life get any better?

When I look up at the monumental sites that surround Banks Lake and realize that I’m seeing the work of the Ice Age Floods, the last of which took place some 13,000 years ago, I don’t think life could get any better.

And to think there is a whole summer ahead to explore the incredible lakes in our region, many of which were created by the earth-changing events of the floods — it’s a happy thought.

I accessed Banks Lake through Steamboat Rock State Park, a well-groomed campground with sandy beaches, roped in swim area and a food concession. The boat launch area is expansive and well-designed with plenty of parking. The ramp is a solid grooved concrete slab with a nice gradual slope and two docks on either side.

Not having the time to explore the entire lake I decided instead to go to a small campground farther north that is accessible only by boat. On shore I found a group of campers who had arrived by all manner of motor boat and personal watercraft.

I strike up a conversation with one of the campers who had motored past me earlier on a bright yellow jet ski with his dog Suzie on the back. He tells me that this group of family and friends has been coming here for 20 years. I can see why. The sand is like silk, the shore is long with a gradual slope, the leaves on the many tall cottonwood and poplar trees provide ample shade and a pleasant rustling sound in the wind.

He asks me if I know the history of Banks Lake. I tell him I know that it was created during the Ice Age Floods that started about 18,000 years ago when the ice dams of Glacial Lake Missoula broke. The flood of water, ice, dirt and rocks from the lake is estimated to have had a volume of over 500 cubic miles and have traveled at speeds up to 65 miles an hour. The lake emptied in a period of two or three days.

“Interesting isn’t it?” he says.


Banks Lake is part of the Upper Grand Coulee which extends from Grand Coulee Dam south approximately 25 miles to Dry Falls and is from 1 to 6 miles wide in places with numerous coves and inlets. The cliffs on the west side of the coulee rise from 800 to 900 feet high. From the water looking up, the basalt columns appear solid, unshakeable, touching the sky while at the base they crumble and turn into gravel and eventually give way to the shoreline. The water lines from the various floods can be clearly seen carved out of the cliffs.

I look at Steamboat Rock towering behind me. The peninsula looks like the world’s largest steamboat with a remarkably flat top. If a person climbed up there, I wonder, would they find the Lost World? In some ways, the answer is yes. Hiking trails lead to the top of the “rock” where there’s a resident herd of mule deer.

Around the corner in the marshy area of a small cove, I hear splashing and what appears to be a struggle for life. Whatever it is doesn’t show itself above the water so I can only assume. The ruckus finally stops and I wonder who was food and who was fattened.

Just as I’m leaving the cove I notice two of the largest fish I’ve ever seen in a lake swim out to deeper water and disappear. They could be largemouth or smallmouth bass, walleye, trout or any one of the various fish that populate the lake. I can’t tell.

Up shore a boat speeds toward the beach, the motor stops and the boat lodges safely in the sand. A man and women hop out and begin to pack their gear. I call out to say hello and ask what they like most about the lake.

“The cliffs turn incredible colors as the sun sets,” the man tells me.

“And the water is a skier’s dream,” the women adds.

I tell them about the splashing and ruckus over in the cove not far from their campsite.

“Oh,” the man says, “The carp are spawning.”


My time is running out so I head back to the boat launch stopping briefly to have lunch.

I pop open the lunch box I’d hastily packed that morning and look inside. An apple, celery and carrot sticks and peanut butter. Hmmm. Life can’t be much better but lunch certainly could be.

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