Travel

This Long-Forgotten Lake Town Has Healing Waters and Bangin’ Sausages

In the middle of nowhere, this Russian-speaking enclave is full of surprises.

soap lake
Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist
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Years ago, when the travel writer Pam Mandel passed through Soap Lake, Washington, she said “it felt like one of those fake nuclear test site towns.” 

The hot, arid climate only adds to the deserted feeling. But you could say this little-known town in Eastern Washington was once one of the nation’s premier wellness retreats: The mineral-rich waters of its lakeshore drew everyone from the Native Tsincayuse tribe to Eastern European immigrants with its healing powers.

“People come here, and they think it’s dead,” says Anna Kozlov, who works at Mom’s European Food & Deli, a local grocery owned by her in-laws. “There just aren't that many people here.”

The foamy lake “smells like a bad egg,” she says. The thick mud on the bottom glops with a potpourri of things not normally associated with summertime swims: sulfates, nitrogen, potassium, lithium, and other highly alkaline minerals with medicinal properties. 

Mom’s has five dozen kinds of Russian-style candy, fridges full of Polish cheese, and breads shipped from Germany and baked on-site.

Originally called Smokiam (Salish for “healing waters”), then Sanitarium Lake, after the most prominent local business in the early 20th century, Soap Lake’s popularity as a health destination faded following the development of antibiotics. 

Fast forward to the early ‘90s, when Eastern European immigrants once again frequented the lake for its curative powers. When Nadezhda and Aleksandr Kozlov moved from Ukraine to Sacramento in 1992, they quickly relocated to Soap Lake. They found a community of fellow Ukrainians and agricultural land, where they still grow tomatoes and cucumbers to sell at the family business: Mom’s.

Mom’s has five dozen kinds of Russian-style candy, fridges full of Polish cheese, and breads shipped from Germany and baked on-site. With sausages that Anna says “are like what we had back home,” buckwheat, pickled mushrooms, and pirozhki that she calls real -- “unlike the ones at Pike Place Market” -- Mom’s caters to people who are picky about their pierogi and care about their kefir.

“It was fun to discover this Russian-speaking enclave in a place where you'd least expect it, literally in the middle of nowhere.”

It can be hard, in remote places, to find this variety of imported foods. But when Mom’s opened shop in 2007, it had an advantage: two of the Kozlovs’ sons were truck drivers. Their routes brought them out to New York and through Chicago, places with huge Eastern European populations and plenty of distributors ready to stock them up with pickles and bologna to drive back to Washington. 

“The hardest task was figuring out what would sell,” Anna says. Whole brined herring didn’t move quite fast enough, but everyone in town stops by for borsch (beet soup), plov (an oven-baked rice and meat dish) and vareniki (dumplings).

Irina Vodonos, who lives a few hours north, in the Methow Valley, learned about Soap Lake from a Russian Orthodox priest who recommended the meromictic waters to help her husband with health problems. The waters were too cold for a swim, and the unexpected highlight of their trip, she says, was finding Mom’s. “It was fun to discover this little Russian-speaking enclave in a place where you'd least expect it, literally in the middle of nowhere.”

Soap Lake’s sneaky charm, hidden under its small-town quiet, overpowers the sulfuric smell of the water. When Seattleite Daynah Burnett rented a cottage with a friend in Soap Lake last year, they planned to attend a concert at the nearby Gorge. But when her friend emerged from a float, “No exaggeration, positively glowing,” those plans went out the window. Instead they hung around town for a spectacular sunset, skipping Brandi Carlile in favor of karaoke at Del-Red Pub.

In a town with one strip and only a few businesses -- including a Brazilian-Italian pizza joint and a spa (of course) -- getting people to stop and stay a while proves a challenge. But, as it has for more than a hundred years, Soap Lake might have a cure for what ails you.

Food and travel writer Naomi Tomky is the author of The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook. Follow her on Twitter @Gastrognome and on Instagram @the_gastrognome.