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Banks Lake is an anomaly on several fronts.

Basalt cliffs flanking the western shoreline of Banks Lake on the Cache Butte Loop.

First, without extreme forces of nature and determined efforts of human engineering, this lake wouldn’t exist. Banks Lake sits in the upper Grand Coulee, a water-scoured drainage that saw dramatic sculpting as over 40 cataclysmic ‘Ice-Age Floods’ ravaged portions of North Central Washington and Eastern Washington. Geologists believe that near the end of the last ice age (roughly 15,000 years ago) Great-Lake-sized bodies of water accumulated in Montana behind dams of ice. Roughly every 50 years the rising lake level would lift ice dams enough to start water flowing and erode the dam. This would start as much as 500 cubic miles of water roaring down the Columbia River drainage toward the Pacific. During this era, however, the current drainage of the Columbia River was blocked by the Okanogan Lobe of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet near the current location of Grand Coulee Dam so all that flooding water was diverted through the Grand Coulee and once out of the coulee it spread out to scour large tracts of Eastern Washington (forming the Channeled Scablands). After the floods had run their course and the water receded, a number of deeper basins scooped into the floor of the Grand Coulee retained water. The pressure washer of these great floods carved in a period measured by days rather than millions of years the lake basins occupied by Dry Falls Lake, Deep Lake, Park Lake, Blue Lake, Alkali Lake, Lenore Lake, and Soap Lake.

Crazy lava flows and formations seen on the Cache Butte Loop.

While the cliffs flanking Banks Lake were also shaped by these violent floods, Banks Lake itself was not one of the naturally occurring remnant lakes bulldozed so quickly by the Ice-Age Floods. Instead it required human bulldozing to create the earthen dams that contain the lake’s water at both its northern and southern ends. Then massive quantities of water from Roosevelt Lake, the reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam, was pumped 280 vertical-feet uphill (using electricity generated by the dam) to fill this 27-mile-long, 2-mile-wide bathtub. Wow! That’s a lot of effort, water, and electricity.

On top of all this, Banks Lake is an aesthetic anomaly. To see this immense, blue, body of water glistening in a brown, desert landscape is a non-sequitur. Such profusion of water in an otherwise desiccated environment startles the senses and baffles the mind with its contrast. It’s almost as though you are witnessing the peaceful co-existence of matter and antimatter.

All of this — the geology, the human engineering, the aesthetics, and contrasts — make Banks Lake a fabulous destination for paddlers. Below we’ve listed six suggested trips that paddlers of different stripes (canoeists, sea kayakers, stand-up paddle boarders) can enjoy.  Many other possibilities exist, but these six should whet (ha ha) your appetite.

Trip Descriptions

Trip 1. State Park Loop (6 miles as shown on our map). Put your craft in the water at the state park’s boat launch area and then paddle around the big lagoon (Devil’s Punch Bowl) that is protected by land or islands on all sides. This is the most protected, shortest, and easiest route listed. On windy days, Steamboat Rock and the nearby islands to the north all help shelter the lagoon. If the winds are calm, extend the trip by a few very scenic miles by paddling out and back to the northern tip of Steamboat Rock.

Trip 2. Northrup Point Loop (8.5 miles as shown on our map). Put in at the Northrup Point boat launch. Recommended direction depends on the direction of the prevailing wind on the day of your trip – make the mile-long crossing between the northern tip of Steamboat Rock and the spit of land north of that with the wind at your back. That means if the winds are northerly (coming from the north) do the loop in a counterclockwise direction. If the winds are southerly (coming from the south), do the loop in a clockwise direction. This loop has a particularly interesting mix of basalt cliffs on Steamboat Rock (showing the layers of old lava flows) and far more ancient granitic domes and cliffs to the north of Steamboat Rock.

Scenery along the wilder portion of the Osborn Bay Loop.

Trip 3. Jones Bay Loop (9 miles as shown on our map). Put in from either road servicing the campsites at Jones Bay. Geologically this is another very interesting loop, particularly along the southern portion of the loop where the ancient batholith is exposed and granitic islands, cliffs, boulders, and coves create all kinds of interesting nooks along the shoreline. Again, let winds determine the direction of travel. Because it’s preferable to have the wind behind you while making the crossing at the north end of the trip, go clockwise if the winds are northerly, counterclockwise if the winds are southerly.

Trip 4. Osborne Bay Loop (9 miles as shown). Starting from the Osborn Bay boat launch, this route is interestingly schizophrenic with about a third of the circle being impacted by the homes and dam of Electric City (the dam and cordoned-off area where water is pumped into the lake are actually very interesting) and the other two-thirds of the route being quite wild. Like the routes above, you should choose your direction so that the wind (and their associated waves) are at your back and are helping to push you across the mile-long crossing at the western end of this loop.

Yet more cliffs and lava flows seen from the Cache Butte Loop.

Trip 5. Cache Butte Loop (12.5 miles as shown). Starting at the Cache Butte boat launch on the un-roaded side of the lake, this paddle offers a variety of spectacular basalt cliffs along both its western and eastern legs, granitic domes and coves along its northern leg, and a two-mile open-water crossing along its southern leg. If the weather is windy when you visit, our recommendation would be an out-and-back trip along the far wilder western shoreline of the lake – paddle into the wind to start; finish by riding the wind back to the put-in.

Trip 6. Paddling the length of the lake (roughly 30 miles). As a final option, consider a multi-day trip (2 days for strong paddlers, 3 days for a more relaxed pace) to span the entire lake. Pay attention to the weather forecast and the direction of the predicted winds and paddle in the direction that will have those winds at your back (click here for a wind forecast to Banks Lake). Almost the entire western shoreline of the lake is part of the Banks Lake Wildlife Area and you’ll find ample places to camp along this shoreline as you paddle. This is not to say there are great camping spots everywhere – toward the end of the day, allow 30 to 60 minutes to find a good site.

  • Regarding the camping, some of the places you consider may not have seen campers before and your passage should show no trace of your visit – do not build fire rings or fires, don’t saw down trees or sage brush, don’t pull up vegetation to level out a tent spot, dig cat holes that are at least 6 inches deep to bury your excrement and toilet paper, carry away all your own garbage and any other trash found at your site. Leave the area cleaner and in better shape than when you arrived. To prevent all the scarring associated with building a fire, bring a camping stove and fuel. Also, bring all your drinking water.

Access. Reach Banks Lake by driving Highway 2 (about 40 miles east of Waterville) or Highway 17 (about 20) miles north of Soap Lake to reach Coulee City. About 2 miles east of Coulee, follow Highway 155 north along the eastern shoreline of Banks Lake.

  • The entrance into Steamboat Rock State Park is at milepost 15.6 — turn left off Highway 155 and drive 3.1 miles to the boat launch area within the State Park (Discover Pass required) and to start the State Park Loop (green on the map).
  • For the Northrup Point Loop (blue on the map), drive Highway 155 to milepost 18.9 and turn left on the signed road leading to the boat launch area (Discover Pas required).
  • For the Jones Bay Loop (purple on the map) drive Highway 155 to milepost 20.6 or to milepost 20.75 and follow either of these roads to the camping area. Boat launches here are not as formalized but it’s easy to launch paddle craft from the camping spaces.

    Granite shoreline and cove to left — Basalt cliffs of Steamboat Rock to right.

  • For the Osborn Bay Loop (also purple) drive Highway 155 to milepost 23 and turn on the signed gravel road. In about 0.6 miles reach the camping area and the boat launch (Discover Pass required).
  • For the Cache Butte Loop (yellow on the map) drive Highway 155 all the way to the town of Grand Coulee. At the west edge of town, veer left onto Highway 174 and follow this for about 10 miles to the Barker Canyon Road. Turn left and follow this well-maintained gravel road 6 miles down to Banks Lake. At a T-intersection with the lake only about 150 yards away, turn left and drive about 0.7 miles to a big gravel parking lot and a boat launch (Discover Pass required).
  • To paddle the length of the lake, put-in or take out at the southeast tip of the lake using the Coulee City Community Park (easily seen from Highway 2 while driving into Coulee City). Camping is also available here ($15 for a tent site).  The put-in or take-out at the opposite end of the lake is a bit more complicated. The Coulee Playland Resort on the northeast corner of the lake has good boat launching and camping but is expensive ($8 for the day use of the boat launch area, $39 to camp).  You can put-in or take-out a paddle craft for free a half mile farther north of this resort at North Dam Park but the shoreline is rocky and has not been designed as a boat launch. To get your gear between the lake and the park’s grassy lawn entails unsteady walking over stones armoring the lake’s edge from erosion.

Recommended Season. By planning around both the weather and wind, you can paddle the lake most of the year. Summer temperatures are hot and the lake offers little shade except at the camping destinations mentioned below. Nonetheless, summer heat also makes the water pleasantly comfortable for frequent quick dips or even long soaks. If swimming and soaking isn’t your thing as much as paddling, then spring (April – May) and fall (September – October) are much better times to visit – both in terms of temperature and crowds. For part of the winter, temperatures may be too cold or the reservoir may be frozen, but on the edges of mild winters there can be some surprisingly pleasant, sunny days with little or no wind. At such times paddlers wearing ski caps, paddling gloves, and warm layers might have this large body of water entirely to themselves. Beautiful.

Camping. Whether you want to spend several days car camping and taking different day paddles, or intend to camp while paddling the length of the lake, there are a variety of camping options on the lake.

  • Camp spots in the heart of the best paddling include Steamboat Rock State Park (the most civilized and most expensive), Jones Bay (part of the State Park but much more primitive and about half the price of the main camping area), Osborn Bay (part of the State Park but much more primitive and about half the price of the main camping area).  At Jones Bay and Osborn Bay you’ll find picnic tables, tent sites, and pit toilets, but no potable water.
  • At the south end of the lake, moderately priced camping is available at Coulee City Community Park.
  • At the north end of the lake, rather expensive camping is available at Coulee Playland Resort.
  • Free car camping is allowed (Discover Pass required) on the western shoreline of the lake at the end of the Barker Canyon Road. There is no potable water here and one pit toilet services dispersed camping sites spread out over a half-mile long area.
  • If you intend to paddle the length of the lake and camp along the way, please read and adhere to the camping information provided in Trip 6.

Winds. Stiff and even strong winds are not unusual in the Grand Coulee. The coulee tends to channel the prevailing weather so that the winds most often blow up the lake or down the lake. In fair weather the prevailing weather systems usually come from the west or from the north. If there are strong winds associated with such systems, the prevailing winds may rule out on the lake. However, if the weather system has stable, slow-moving air, then the day’s thermal activity may dictate the winds, meaning you might expect down-lake morning breezes that switch to up-lake thermal winds in the afternoon as the sun burns down upon the brown landscape and heats up the ground. Storm systems most often come out the southwest to create up-lake winds. Regardless of the prevailing wind direction, note that the winds around Steamboat Rock can be quite squirrelly. The cliffs, island, and coves in this area all interfere with the prevailing winds and, like boulders in a stream, can cause the wind to swirl and eddy around these blockages. Before arriving to paddle, click here to get a better idea of what winds might be expected during your visit.

Boat Busters at the North Dam (keeping boats aways from the conduits bringing water into the lake or taking lake water down into the turbines of the dam).

Water.  It’s best to avoid drinking water directly from the lake. This water, pumped up from the Columbia River, has passed hundreds of miles of farms, orchards, and ranches that may have contributed chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides to the water. The river has also passed the massive lead and zinc smelter located at Trail, BC. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Tribe in Washington State have sued and won judgements against Teck Cominco Metal for the many millions of tons of slag (containing arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, zinc, mercury, sulfuric acid, and ammonia hydrosulfide) the smelter has dumped into the Columbia River over the past century.

Fish and Fishing. For much of the year, fishermen are the predominant boaters on the lake, but in summer there are also many motor boaters using the lake for water skiing, sightseeing, swimming, and camping. Smallmouth Bass and Walleye are the most popular species targeted by anglers, but whitefish, pan fish, rainbow trout, and kokanees are all found in the lake and have their devotees. In winter it’s not unusual for the reservoir to freeze over, bringing out those devoted to ice fishing. Brrr.

What’s in a name? Some say Banks Lake is named after Frank Banks, the Construction Supervisor of the Grand Coulee Dam which was built between the years of 1933 and 1941 and was the largest man-made structure in the world at that time. I say ‘bosh’ to such a boring explanation. Here’s the real story about the lake’s name. Banks Lake is a manmade storage device for water. Water is pumped 280 feet uphill from Lake Roosevelt (the reservoir behind the Grand Coulee Dam) into this higher reservoir. This water is then used to feed the massive network of irrigation canals that are part of the Columbia Basin Project – the country’s largest reclamation project supplying water to some 67,000 acres of land and making large tracts of North Central Washington and Eastern Washington arable. Furthermore, water from this higher reservoir can be redirected back down into two of the turbines at Grand Coulee Dam to generate electricity. In this way, the lake ‘banks’ water for both irrigation and electricity.

Information.  More about the Columbia Basin Project , Grand Coulee Dam, Steamboat Rock State Park, Ice Age Floods (aka Missoula Floods), geology of the Grand Coulee.

Leave It Better Than You Found It. This should be every user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, pull noxious weeds along your route, disperse old fire rings, throw branches over unwanted spur trails…

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.

This article was originally published on 11/6/2020.

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