The Palouse in southeastern Washington is one of those areas of the Pacific Northwest that does not receive many visitors. It is out of the way and not nearly as spectacular as the Cascades or the Coast. But if you are into photography you really can’t do much better. It is a slice of rural life in the drier eastern parts of the Pacific NW. Perhaps it doesn’t belong at the top of your list during a first visit to the region, but it should definitely be considered on a second trip.
WHEN TO GO
The Palouse is best in spring and fall. It is quite windy and cold in winter, and in high summer it’s a dry and often dusty place. When I say summer I mean from July through early September. June is really late spring in these parts. The flowers, which are only found in certain areas, begin to bloom in mid- to late-April. The bloom continues through May or early June. The splashy yellow sunflower-like balsamroot peaks around early May. Spring is a very green season, with the rolling fields taking on an almost electric hue. Fall offers superb golden wave-like fields of wheat.
WHERE TO STAY
Despite its lack of big towns and parks, it is fairly easy to find a good base from which to explore the Palouse. You can stay in the small town of Palouse, which is very central, but there are only a few motels. You’ll find more choice in Pullman or Moscow, Idaho. Realize that, depending on where you intend to photograph at sunrise, this will involve getting up VERY early. Tekoa in the north is also a good base, with several places to stay. Throughout the Palouse lie scattered B&Bs to choose from, so google this.
For campers there are several options. Towards the western end of the Palouse, you’ll find Palouse Falls State Park. This compact little park has a big advantage in that you can photograph the stunning waterfall here at any time when the light is good. Near the eastern end of the Palouse, there is a beautiful campground at Kamiak Butte. This county park has a great hiking loop that takes you over the top of the butte, with flower-fields and views of the rolling fields below. The problem with Kamiak is that the gates are closed at dusk, ruling it out as a base from which to make forays for sunset photos.
You can also camp at the Palouse Empire Fairgrounds 20 miles north of Pullman. The Boyer Park RV camp 22 miles SW of Pullman is a good choice if you have a camper/RV. They have showers and laundry there. Wherever you stay, note that the region is fairly spread out, so prepare for some driving. The great news is that the roads are pleasantly rural with little traffic.
WHAT TO DO/PHOTOGRAPH
There are not many traditional tourist sights in the Palouse. There are a number of small, quirky museums and plenty of great barns and farms to see and photograph. Check out Palouse Scenic Byway and Visit Palouse, and of course Trip Advisor’s Forums. For photographers, you’ll notice almost immediately that it helps to get up in elevation a bit. The easy approach is to head up Steptoe Butte or Kamiak Butte (the latter which you’ll have to hike to access the summit). Tekoa Mountain south of Pullman is also a great choice. But since you don’t actually need to be that high for good photographic compositions, you’ll find hills when you’re driving around which will get you high enough. I’ve got a secret little hill that sticks up, but I’m going to keep that to myself for now, sorry.
- Drive the Palouse Scenic Byway and turn off at random dirt roads that strike your fancy. Many of them loop back to the pavement. Take along a good atlas (such as Delorme’s).
- Visit Steptoe Butte. This isolated hill lies in the heart of the Palouse. The great thing about it is that you can stop on the road that winds its way up the butte at whatever elevation you wish. This will allow you to pick your perspective for photography. Or simply drive to the top for 360 degree views.
- Visit Kamiak Butte. To photograph at sunset and/or sunrise, you’ll need to camp here, because they close the gates at dusk. Make the short hike to the top of the butte for both sunset and sunrise. If its springtime the flowers are as fantastic as the views.
- Visit Palouse Falls. This is an amazing waterfall with a spectacular plunge pool. You can hike to the bottom or do a short loop around the top. There is a state park here which requires a Washington Discovery Pass ($10/day).
- Walk around a couple of the small towns with your camera. Try Garfield, Lacrosse & Rosalia. Uniontown has a fence made of wagon wheels. In addition, during your driving explorations, keep on the lookout for beautifully situated barns.
- If you are in the Colfax area and want a nice quiet picnic spot, check out Klemgard County Park. From Hwy. 195 heading south of Colfax, turn right (west) on Hamilton Hill Road, then right on Upper Union Flat Rd. There are signs. A short trail loops up through the small forest and there is plenty of open grassy space in this peaceful little park.
- Drive along the major watercourses in nice light for great photo opportunities. The Palouse River meanders through the countryside and is a lovely stream. Even where it flows out of the town of Palouse it is picturesque (see image below). The Snake River is accessible in several places, but for me its size clashes with the more intimate nature of the Palouse landscapes. The Pataha Creek valley west of Pomeroy along U.S. Hwy. 12 is beautiful. Wind turbines add some interest. Often in the Palouse you will be starved for subjects, the landscape is so spare, so windmills, barns, etc. are worth keeping an eye out for.
The Palouse is an understated yet beautiful and peaceful place to visit. If you’re looking for action or adrenaline sports, look elsewhere. But for history and photography enthusiasts, and for those who wish to spend time being transported back to America’s simpler times, the Palouse is one of the best places in the Pacific Northwest.
Please note that the images here are copyrighted and not available for free download, sorry ’bout that. But if you’re interested in one of them you can either click the image or contact me with questions and requests. Thanks for your interest!