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Exploring the Palouse

In the Spring of 2015, I led a one-man expedition to S.E. Washington on a scouting trip to the Palouse. It had been on my to do list for some time and I was close by in N.E. Oregon visiting the Bar V Ranch, so off I headed. After positioning the trailer in the city campground in Pullman, Washington, I set out to explore the city. Pullman is a pleasant college town, home of Washington State University and 28,000+ students. The city is a blend of a college town and an agricultural hub and is located within a few miles of the Idaho border and the larger city of Lewiston.

The Palouse is a large, variously defined 18,100 square mile farming area in southeastern Washington and western Idaho primarily producing wheat. The wheat is planted on large rolling hills using contour farming techniques and intersected periodically by gravel roads and a couple of main highways. Highway 195 runs roughly north and south paralleling the Washington-Idaho border a few miles to the east and is mirrored by Highway 95 on the Idaho side. The farms are quite large and highly productive. Buildings are few and far between. You might get the impression from photo magazines that there's an old barn, house or tractor around every corner, but such is not the case in my experience. There are two iconic buttes in the area north and west of Pullman with Steptoe Butte being the best known and the most photographed. Rising out of the surrounding wheat fields to an altitude of 3,612 feet, this state park is served by one asphalt road that winds its way to the top of the butte where there is a 360 degree panorama of the surrounding countryside. The best viewpoint for sunset is actually below the antenna toting peak near a moderate sized parking lot. The classic view from here does not disappoint especially with pink clouds and sunset light illuminating the farm buildings and grain elevators west of the butte. You can easily see the town of Steptoe straight west of the butte and the city of Colfax to the southwest with rolling green hills and farm buildings stretching to the horizon.

Palouse Landscape

This is one of those times when having a zoom lens is especially helpful as aside from the grand landscape there are many vignettes that are equally interesting and beautiful. Moving the tripod legs up and down the road increases the opportunity for a variety of photo ops. You can easily spend a couple of hours here. Dress warm as it cools off quickly and the winds get brisk toward sunset in May at least.

Palouse Landscape 2

The other icon is Kamiak Butte County Park just a few miles southwest of Steptoe Butte and is higher in elevation at 3,641 feet, but less accessible by car. While you can drive part way to the peak arriving at very pleasant picnic area, if you want the best views you're going to have to hike to the top. The trailhead is immediately across from the first parking lot you come to. A rather steep but short uphill hike of about 1.4 miles brings you to a nice overlook to the east and multiple small fields of wildflowers.


If you're feeling less ambitious, there is a nice view to the north from the picnic grounds requiring only a short walk past the picnic tables to the edge of the adjacent wheat field. The view is again one of rolling wheat fields as far as the eye can see. As you come back down the road that leads up to Kamiak Butte, at the bottom of the hill you come to a T-intersection. Take a right here and continue east until you intersect Clear Creek Road where you make a sharp left. Continue driving until you reach a hilltop and start looking for parking. This is a very busy country road with lots of cars and semi's. There's very little parking, but find a safe spot and park as far off the road as you can. Just don't block any farm lanes. Whether you decide to drive to the far side of the hill or make a u-turn and face the way you came, you will be rewarded by very fine views of the countryside.

Palouse Landscape 5

Continuing on Clear Creek Road brings you to Highway 272 where you want to turn left and then make an almost immediate right on Glenwood Road. Stay on Glenwood Road until you cross over the Palouse River which is more of a stream here and then continue up the hill on Glenwood Road until you see a barn on the left. The barn has started to fall on hard times. The paint is weathering away and it is not being well maintained. It sits close to the road on a steep hillside forming a rather nice intimate landscape in early morning light. Remember this is private land so shoot from the road only.

Palouse Barn

If you have time, another photogenic spot is just across the Idaho border in the area around and in the St. Joe National Forest. Within the national forest is Mary Minerva McCloskey Memorial State Park. It's a large ridge arising out of rolling farmland much the same as in adjacent Washington. There are some nice views to the south and at widely scattered points some nice collections of wildflowers. Be aware that the gravel roads while well maintained are poorly marked and it is easy to misplace yourself up there. The same is true on the Washington side of the border.

The third icon in the area is Palouse Falls which lies pretty much in the middle of nowhere 69 miles from Colfax and an additional 16 miles from Pullman. It's in another state park at the end of an unassuming road when suddenly as you enter the parking lot you spot an unlikely placed waterfall in a steep canyon with the river headed toward the mighty Columbia. There are multiple spots from which to photograph the falls and the river. You can take a short, steep walk off the right side of the parking lot as you face the river up to a small pavilion for some views of both the river and the falls.

Palouse Falls

Alternatively, you can take one of several walking paths toward the falls for a close up view. Intrepid hikers can even take a steep walk down the side of the gorge to the foot of the falls. This is definitely a late afternoon shot otherwise the gorge and the falls will be in deep shadow. To add interest to the visit, there is a sizeable colony of yellow bellied marmots in the park. They are quite cute and pose nicely if you stay 15-20 feet away and are quiet and still.

Yellow-bellied Marmot

The other attraction in the area is Little Goose Dam on the Snake River. It's a bit of a drive to get there. An additional point of interest along the way is a large, high railroad trestle that happened to have a couple of engines crossing it as I pulled to a stop just before crossing the Snake River.

Train on High Bridge

Incidentally, the photo happens to represent the three major modes of transportation in the area--railroads, roads and waterways. Agricultural products from this area move on all three with rivers and railroads being the major modes of transportation. When you get to Little Goose Dam, consider taking a tour of this Corp of Engineers dam, it's well worth it. There's a pretty little picnic area and small campground below the dam if you're in the mood.

The trip back is long and rather uneventful and retraces your steps to Colfax or Pullman. Palouse Falls is unique though and well worth the trip if you have the time. In general, there's a lot of driving involved in seeing the Palouse. The main sites are easy to find, but if you get off the beaten path it's easy to get lost. So, stopping at the Chamber of Commerce offices in Pullman or Colfax and picking up the "Photography Hot Spots on the Palouse" map is well worth the effort. Timing is important too. I was there in the second week in May and the wheat was just starting to come up. I estimate that I was at least a couple of weeks early, maybe more. But at any time of year it's a interesting and beautiful place to visit. Be aware that it's a very rural area and that once you leave Colfax or Pullman services are limited.

If You Go:

Dates: June is the earliest I would recommend going. To see the harvest, be there in late July or August. Places to stay: Colfax is the most centrally located town. It's small, but has a Holiday Inn Express and other chain and local motels and an adequate number of places to eat. I stayed in Pullman because it was the only place with an RV park with any amenities in the area.


Photograph America

"Photography Hot Spots on the Palouse" map

Benchmark Washington Road and Recreation Atlas

Pullman and Whitman County Washington Map available at the Pullman Chamber of Commerce Thanks as always for reading and commenting.

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