Exploring NE Washington: Odessa Ring Craters

by Anne Ott

Although actual remnants of the Great Missoula Floods remain to the south and west of our area, some amazing geologic features are clearly visible in neighboring communities and have been consolidated into the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail in the area known as the Channeled Scablands, overseen by the National Park Service. Extending from Montana through Idaho, Washington, and Oregon, some of the most spectacular scenery is only a short drive from our area and make for great day trips!

There are more than 100 circular ring structures of basalt, a volcanic rock, found nowhere else on earth except for the Channeled Scablands north of Odessa, Washington. First studied in 1965, they faded into obscurity, but their unique structure provided the impetus for the Bureau of Land Management to not only preserve the structures with fencing and signage, but to provide hiking trails, benches, trailheads with informational kiosks, and bathrooms for visitors. The Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail is working to improve such areas to help educate visitors and provide new recreation areas for non-motorized recreation. Walking trails are mostly gravel or sand, with only a few steep slopes on the Odessa Craters Loop Trail, which passes 3 ring structures – the Amphitheater Crater is the largest and most spectacular. This trail is about 1.5 miles long and provides marked viewpoints to help you identify the ring craters. If you’d like a slightly easier route, one that’s wheelchair accessible, take the 0.2 mile Cache Crater Trail which leads to a crater formed around a spring that Native Americans used for food caches. Many people used to believe that these craters were meteor impact craters, but careful geologic research showed that it was simply boggy or wet terrain which caused the lava from ancient eruptions to cool in ring patterns, unique to Odessa. And, once you’re in the area, you can visit wildlife and recreation areas on Crab and Lake Creeks or enjoy lunch in one of the local towns such as Davenport, Odessa, Wilbur, or Reardan!

Getting to the Odessa Ring Craters is easy – from I-90, head north on SR 21 to Odessa, then about 6 miles north of Odessa you’ll see a parking area and signs on the right for the Odessa Craters Loop trail. If you’d like to hike the shorter Cache Crater trail, drive 0.25 miles further and that trailhead is on the left. More rural routes will take you through wheat fields, coulees, and other geologic evidence of the ancient floods if you prefer a more leisurely day’s drive. SR 2 to Davenport, then south on SR 28 to Harrington and Odessa, then north on SR21 to the craters makes for a pretty drive on good roads. You can continue north on SR 21 to Wilbur, then back east on SR2 home, for a long loop route. Another scenic route is to continue north from the craters on SR 21, but turn east/right onto Coffeepot Road back to Harrington, then north on SR 28 to SR 2 to return home – this takes you past a lovely recreation area with fishing and camping at Coffeepot Lake!

For more information on the Ice Age Floods, Channeled Scablands, and the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail, the Seattle Mountaineers have published a great tour guide called Washington’s Channeled Scablands Guide by John Soennichsen, available at bookstores or online.