Soap Lake: Paddling the Healing Waters
by Andy Dappen
Note: All the photos in this post were taken along the more scenic, western shoreline of the lake.
It’s not on the list of our region’s best paddle trips, but both the desert scenery and lake’s history are interesting enough that local paddlers should make a point of completing the 5.5-mile circumnavigation of Soap Lake. Formed in the lower portion of the Grand Coulee during the Missoula Floods (aka Ice Age Floods), Soap Lake is the most mineralized of the many lakes in the coulee—assays have found 23 different minerals in the water. A small sip of lake water will confirm that it tastes like you’ve washed your mouth with soap and, on windy days, soapy suds form where lake water laps the shoreline.
The lake’s heavy mineralization has long been thought to have medicinal value. Before European settlement, various native tribes congregated here at different times of the year. Oral history maintains temporary truces were even established between hostile bands so that people and animals could call upon the healing powers of the water without conflict.
European pioneers started settling the area around 1900. At that time the lake had various names, including Cottage Lake, Salome Lake, and Sanitarium Lake. The natives referred to the lake as Smokiam, which roughly translated to ‘Healing Waters’ and because the water felt and tasted soapy and soap helped heal, the name Soap Lake eventually stuck.
The lake quickly established a reputation for its healing powers and by 1907 there were already a number of rooming houses and four hotels catering to visitors seeking cures to their ills as they soaked in the water and/or coated their bodies with mineral-rich mud from the lake. All of this started to dry up, quite literally, in the early 1930s when drought and The Depression created both a lack of water in the lake and shortage of money for travel. Still, people coming for the lake’s perceived health benefits kept some hotels and spas located along the lake in business until the mid-1940s.
Today the mineral content of the lake is not quite as concentrated as it was in the early 1900s. Likely some water from the Columbia Basin Project, which pumps water from the Columbia River into Banks Lake and then distributes that water through various irrigation canals in the region, has diluted the lake. Still, compared to the ocean and to other mineralized lakes, Soap Lake is said to have the most diverse mineralization of any body of water in the world. That alone is worth coming to experience.
Access. From Ephrata, drive highways 28 and 17 about six miles to the town of Soap Lake. At the north end of town, turn left off of Highway 17 into East Beach Park, situated on the southeastern edge of the lake. Day-use of the park is free. Restrooms, a beach for launching paddle craft, and parking for your vehicle are all available.
Fitness. If not windy: 1+ (fairly easy).
Skill: If not windy: 1 (suited to beginners).
Distance. Around the lake is 5.5 miles.
Trip Instructions. My recommendation is to paddle counterclockwise around the lake, heading initially up the eastern shoreline of the lake and returning via the western shoreline. The eastern shoreline is the side of the lake Highway 17 follows and, because initial impressions of a trip don’t stick with people as much as final impressions, it’s better to finish the trip along the quiet, scenic and very enjoyable western shoreline. I also recommend sticking very close to the shoreline (30 feet or closer) while completing the circuit. By doing so, you’ll see all manners of salt encrusted rocks, dipping birds, cliffs wallpapered with discarded pupa shells of millions of insects that have taken to flight, crumbling tubs once used for soaking, and more. Many of these details are easily missed if you’re even a hundred feet from shore.
Recommended Season. By planning around both the weather and wind forecasts, the lake offers paddling opportunities most of the year. Summer temperatures are hot and the lake offers little shade except at the camping destinations mentioned below. Nonetheless, summer heat will also make long soaks in the mineralized water enjoyable – and maybe deliver health benefits as well. If swimming and soaking isn’t your thing as much as the actual paddling, then spring (April – May) and fall (September – October) are much more pleasant – both in terms of temperatures and crowds. Even around the edges of winter, a calm sunny day can offer an enjoyable midday paddle if you’re wearing paddling gloves and some extra layers.
Hazards. Strong winds are not uncommon on Soap Lake. Check the weather and wind forecast for the lake before arriving and plan accordingly. If winds do leave you stranded on the far side of the lake from your starting point, pulling out of the water at the north end (Smokiam RV Park) and sending one paddler to fetch the car by walking the shoulder of Highway 17 is always an option.
Camping. There are quite a number of interesting lakes to paddle in the Grand Coulee area, including Banks Lake, Dry Falls Lake, Deep Lake, Alkali Lake, and Lenore Lake. Consider camping in the area and completing a few different trips over a two- or three-day period. At Soap Lake there are tent camping and RV options at private resorts situated on the south and north ends of the lake. Soap Lake RV Park on the south end of the lake is barer, starker, more hectic, and cheaper (2020 prices: $15 for tent spots, $25 for full hook-up RV spaces). Smokiam RV Park on the north end of the lake is more expensive but grassier, shadier, quieter, cleaner, and better maintained (2020 prices: $20 for tent spots, $40 for full hook-up RV spaces).
LEAVE IT BETTER THAN YOU FOUND IT. This should be every user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, pull a few noxious weeds along your route, etc.
DISCLAIMER. Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change and those contributing these reports are volunteers–they may make mistakes or not know all the issues affecting a route. You are responsible for yourself, your actions, and your safety. If you won’t accept that responsibility, you are prohibited from using our information.