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In the middle Miocene, 17 to 15 Ma, the Columbia Plateau and the Oregon Basin and Range of the Pacific Northwest were flooded with lava flows.
As the molten rock came to the surface, the Earth's crust gradually sank into the space left by the rising lava.
The lava, as it flowed over the area, first filled the stream valleys, forming dams that in turn caused impoundments or lakes.
The flows can be divided into four major categories: The Steens Basalt, Grande Ronde Basalt, the Wanapum Basalt, and the Saddle Mountains Basalt.
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Erosion resulting from the Missoula Floods has extensively exposed these lava flows, laying bare many layers of the basalt flows at Wallula Gap, the lower Palouse River, the Columbia River Gorge and throughout the Channeled Scablands.
In these ancient lake beds are found fossil leaf impressions, petrified wood, fossil insects, and bones of vertebrate animals.
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The northwesterly advancing lava forced the ancient Columbia River into its present course.