I had barely put the car in park at the first stop on our father-son field trip when Alex made a beeline for a series of basalt columns known as "The Feathers."
About a mile away, Interstate 90 enters a long stretch of rolling farmland, but here in Frenchman Coulee, in central Washington, the brown earth felt like a desert.
"Wow," Alex said. "It feels like we're in Arizona."
This, I figured, was my chance. I was here looking for places to hike and recreate in lesser known parts of Washington's channeled scablands. But I pulled Alex, 10, out of school in hopes that a little firsthand experience might spark an interest in geology, the subject that bored me so much it almost single-handedly obliterated my college grade-point average.
Having just read John Soennichsen's new book Washington's Channeled Scablands Guide, I quickly morphed into geology professor mode. I told Alex how the basalt rock he was touching was caused by volcanic eruptions about 17 million years ago and was covered by thick layers of silt about six million years ago.
I told him how the land became rich with nutrients ideal for farming before ice age floods 15,000 to 18,000 year ago violently scoured Eastern Washington, leaving potholes, deep channels called coulees and basalt columns like the one he was eyeing.
"OK," he said. "Can I climb it?"
To call what we did at Frenchman Coulee "climbing," would be generous. We scrambled part way up The Feathers and on boulders, but we left the real climbing to the experts.
While most people zip past Exit 143 on I-90 without a second thought, it's a destination for rock climbers. The routes range from challenging to easy.
Frenchman Coulee isn't just for climbers, however. A 4-mile hike among the sage and scattered wildflowers on the coulee floor takes you to the base of a waterfall.
Our second stop was Moses Coulee, a smaller and drier (only two small lakes on the canyon floor) version of it famous neighbor, Grand Coulee.
Here, the high cliffs hold farmland to the south and Grimes and Jameson Lake to the north. Soennichsen recommends paddling the river-like Jameson Lake for a secluded recreation experience. A short hike south of the lake will take you to Dutch Henry Falls.
While Grand Coulee and Potholes reservoir are the most popular recreation destinations in the channeled scablands, smaller coulees and recreation opportunities lie farther east.
And some of these areas have interesting history.
We stopped briefly to explore Telford Recreation Area, where Soennichsen recommends camping, fishing and hiking to see the small basalt knobs left exposed by the ice age floods.
What Alex and I found most interesting was the tale of Henry Tracy that Soennichsen tells in his book.
Tracy, an outlaw friend of Butch Cassidy, was killed near here in 1902 after using the scabland features to avoid authorities for a month.
Our last stop on the trip was Rock Lake, southwest of Cheney, where our GPS took us way off course and deposited us in a farmer's driveway.
Farther south we found a handful of fishermen trying their luck. The lake is too cold for swimming but a fun spot for paddling, Soennichsen said. Although, he warns, this place is creepy.
Local Native American legend claims a sea serpent patrols the lake. Another story claims several railroad cars filled with Model T cars lay on the lake bottom.
Hot spots in the scablands
Five of the most popular destinations in Eastern Washington's Channeled Scablands:
Grand Coulee Dam
This 550-foot engineering marvel has harnessed the Columbia River for power for 70 years. An information center at the center offers exhibits, tours and souvenirs. A nightly laser light show is projected on the dam face Memorial Day weekend-Sept. 30. Go to usbr.gov/pn/grandcoulee.
A popular fishing destination but also a good place to hike, boat and swim. Go to parks.wa.gov.
One of Washington's most popular state parks, it's tough to score a campsite here. However, anybody can make the steep four-mile roundtrip hike to the top of 700-foot Steamboat Rock. Go to parks.wa.gov.
An easy stop on state Route 17, the view of Dry Falls is breathtaking. The 400-foot-high cliffs were once the biggest waterfall in the world. The area is packed with trails to explore around Sun Lakes. Go to parks.wa.gov.
These falls aren't dry, in fact, this dramatic 198-foot plunge in the Palouse River is one of the most dramatic sites in Eastern Washington. The state park offers camping and a short hiking trail. Go to parks.wa.gov.