Tracking a Jailbreak Flood

The scablands offer a succession of geologic double-takes,  and Deep Creek’s enchanting scar is one of them.

I first encountered Deep Creek the way I suspect most people do—in a car. As U.S. Highway 2 makes a bee-line west out of Spokane it passes the main gate to Fairchild Air Force Base. Then, in about the time it takes to write this sentence, your speeding vehicle takes an abrupt dip into a ravine, crosses a bridge, and takes you past a sign announcing that you’re passing through the small community of Deep Creek.

As for the creek itself, there is barely any water in Deep Creek at this crossing. This is a noteworthy riddle. The discernible headwaters for the stream are only a few miles away, in a maze of wetlands west of Four Lakes. Although the creek will sometimes flood during a rain on snow event in late winter, it’s too small and ephemeral to attract kayaks or canoes. So it is curious as to how such a trickle of water could create such an extraordinary crease in the earth.

And the answer is it didn’t. It’s just a geologic mind trick. The farther you head downstream, to the north, the more magnified the natural ruse becomes. You begin to encounter massive basalt outcroppings. As the creek approaches its confluence with the Spokane River, it passes below enormous basalt cliffs, reaching upwards of 400 feet above the floor.

Heights above Deep Creek

The towering cliffs display contours and shapes seen in many of the more familiar coulees in eastern Washington’s channeled scablands, with rounded thumbs, occasional spires and massive teardrops of basalt. This figures because they were formed by the same torrents of late Pleistocene epoch floodwaters, the largest of which—from ancient Lake Missoula—flowed through the Spokane valley before turning southward, eventually blasting through the Columbia River gorge to the Pacific. At what is now Deep Creek, the flood waters overwhelmed the landscape, exploited a weakness in the underlying, fractured basalt, and simply excavated a pathway out to the west plains and beyond.

Deep Creek is in no way comparable to the Snake, or the Palouse. But if there’s an added dash of geophysical humor to Deep Creek it is that today it weaves and tumbles northward in the same canyon carved by ice age floodwaters that were headed the other way.


Perhaps the best known instance of the ancient Missoula floodwaters doing the excavation for a present day stream is the Palouse River canyon, eighty miles south of Deep Creek. Near the small town of Hooper in southwest Whitman County the Palouse River makes a sharp left turn. It is at this point that the Palouse leaves behind the now dry river course it used to follow, one that made its way westward, toward present-day Connell, before ultimately joining the Columbia River near Pasco. Today it makes a shortcut down to the Snake, a shortcut created entirely by the almost unimaginable flood waters that hammered through a divide and then carved the canyon that now bears the name of the river that appropriated it.

Centennial Trail Bridge over Deep Creek where the creek enters the Spokane River.

After the famed scabland geologist J Harlan Bretz did his early field work on the Palouse River canyon in the 1920s, he discovered something amazing about the Snake River. He not only found enormous sand and gravel bars upstream from where the Palouse empties into the Snake, but he noticed by their composition and shape that they could have only been created by water moving east. Again, this is at a place where the Snake River is actually headed west. The extraordinary flow reversal could only be explained by accounting for the enormous inflow of Lake Missoula floodwaters from the Palouse canyon and nearby Devils Canyon. When these torrents emptied into the Snake the outburst forced the flow of the Snake to temporarily reverse itself for several miles.

Deep Creek is in no way comparable to the Snake, or the Palouse. But if there’s an added dash of geophysical humor to Deep Creek it is that today it weaves and tumbles northward in the same canyon carved by ice age floodwaters that were headed the other way.

Devin atop one of the basalt cliffs overlooking Deep Creek and the Spokane River gorge beyond.

I began to visit Deep Creek a few years ago, partly out of curiosity but also as a way to do some father/son exploration with my son, Devin, who was then in his mid-teens. I’ve been there many times since, not always with a camera, but deliberately with a camera this fall. The main part of the canyon is within Riverside State Park and is well-known to rock climbers. Actually, whether you are a serious climber or not, there is a near irresistible temptation to climb rocks, especially on the large outcrops of exposed basalt near the creek’s confluence with the Spokane River.


I’m surprised at how narrow it is in places, and fascinated with the incredible variety of metamorphic and igneous rocks that litter the ravine and form enormous deposits on its margins. There are also places where the basalt seems to come alive with ornate fractures and fists of suddenly cooled lava that were formed under dynamic conditions, clearly through interactions with water. There are signs of spasms and large erupting gas bubbles, explosions of shape and color that got frozen in time and then uncovered by the catastrophic floodwaters blasting through from Montana.

I’m sure others can provide a more precise geologic analysis, but aesthetically it’s hard to beat, a garden of textures that leads me to lose track of time, especially when I’m there with my camera.

—Tim Connor

Note: Rhubarb Sky photography is available for purchase upon request. The ‘Epiphany’ and ‘Vulcanology’ photos are of basalt formations found deep in the Deep Creek ravine. For more information about these and other photos, visit the site photography store.

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