Palouse Falls

With record low temperatures and rainfall amounts this spring, it seems as if summer will never come to northern Idaho this year.  With the St. Joe and Coeur d’Alene Rivers cresting above flood-levels in the past few weeks, St. Maries and other residential areas along the waterways are preparing for flooding that could continue for weeks.  In light of these wet, dreary conditions in northern Idaho, it is necessary to leave the torrential downpour behind and head west this weekend to the arid, desert-like landscape of southeastern Washington.  Here, in the heart of the Channeled Scablands of the Columbia River Plateau, lies beautiful Palouse Falls State Park.

Palouse Falls sits about two hours west of Moscow, ID.  To get to the falls from Moscow, take the Moscow-Pullman Highway (WA-270 W) to Pullman and connect with US Highway 195 N to Colfax.  Once in Colfax, follow WA-26 west for about fifty miles to the small town of Washtucna.  After passing through Washtucna, follow the highway (WA-260) for a little over six miles to the turn-off to Palouse Falls State Park.  Following the many signs from this point, you will arrive at the park in around twenty minutes.  While the drive from Colfax to the park is very barren and dry, the story behind the area’s creation is pretty interesting.  A series of massive, Ice Age-era floods, burst from glacial ice-dams containing the colossal Lake Missoula in eastern Montana, covered southeastern Washington in enormous amounts of water.  As the floods subsided, the water carved out the various valleys and coulees through the Washington desert.  Continuing erosion created the falls as they are today.  As I said, the drive can be a little boring, but once at the destination, it definitely seems worth it.

Palouse Falls Gorge

Driving down the narrow gravel road from the highway to the park, it’s hard to expect to find much beauty in the surrounding area.  Upon rounding the last bend in the road, the hills open up and Palouse Falls can be seen in its entire splendor.  Towering to a height of anywhere between 180 and 198 feet (depending on water levels), the raw power of the water cascading from such height is breathtaking.  At this time of year, especially due to heavy precipitation to the east, the sheer force of Palouse Falls is enough to make anyone grateful to be on solid ground and not on the semi-placid surface of the Palouse River above the falls.  Anyone, that is, except the bravest, better yet, the craziest of white-water thrill-seekers.  On April 21, 2009, Montana professional kayaker and resident lunatic, Tyler Bradt, successfully ran Palouse Falls in his little red kayak, paddling over the falls and surviving the 189 foot drop to the violently churning, white pool below.  For those of us content to view the falls in a less up-close-and-personal way, there are multiple trails winding throughout the park, leading hikers to various viewpoints.  One network of trails snakes away from the main viewing area and back up and around to the large basalt columns towering over the lip of the falls.  Hikers may take the trails down to the banks of the river above the falls, but the trail is steep and doesn’t really provide a great view of the canyon below.  There is a trail that winds down to the base of the falls, leaving climbers with an awe-inspiring perspective of a waterfall that soars to heights higher than Niagara Falls.  Be warned; the trail is steep and a prime target for rock falls and slumbering rattlesnakes.  None of the trails in the park are maintained, but if you are willing to accept the risks, no park official will stop you.  Those who stay in the main park area are bound to be entertained by numerous little marmots that scurry along perilously steep rock faces at the rim of the canyon. 

Just Another Mangy Marmot

The best time to visit Palouse Falls is now, in the spring-time.  If you make it to the park early enough in the morning, you just might catch a picturesque rainbow in the spray at the base of the falls.  If you’re like me, you’re more of an afternoon/evening person, a characteristic that lends itself beautifully to catching colorful sunsets above the canyon and falls.  If you are ever making you way over to Seattle, I would definitely recommend a quick detour to see one of the Pacific Northwest’s wonders!


¡Viva la Palouse!

Welcome to my small corner of the world: northern Idaho!  Currently I’m based out of the small city of Moscow.  While around 23,000 people permanently call Moscow home, that number increases by over 11,000 at the end of August when students from the University of Idaho return to town to begin another school year.  Serving as the county seat for Latah County, Moscow is an eclectic mixture of individuals and community groups.  Eight miles to the west sits the city of Pullman, WA and Washington State University.  Trying to describe the vibrant yet relaxed culture of the Moscow-Pullman area can be difficult, and I’m not going to attempt it in detail here.  In order to truly get a feel for the city and the entire region, one must get a broad perspective of the area.  In order to do this, climbing to the peak of Moscow Mountain is a must!

About eight miles northeast of Moscow is the trailhead for the climb up to the top of Moscow Mountain.  This trailhead is one of many markers for hiking/mountain-biking trails the criss-cross the entire Moscow Mountain recreation area.  The Moscow Area Mountain Bike Association (MAMBA) is a group of local community members, volunteers and land owners the works to create and maintain all of the trails running across the mountain and surrounding area.  MAMBA maintains about 35 trails covering miles upon miles of pristine mountain terrain.  The best place on the mountain to see the surrounding area is known as East Moscow Mountain Lookout.  Years ago, an old wooden lookout sat at the top, surveying the Tamarack Ski Hill.  Unfortunately, the ski hill was closed, the lookout was dismantled and the slopes are now overgrown with thick vegetation.  However, don’t let the lack of a lookout station discourage you from making this short trip to the top.  Starting from the Moscow Mountain parking area, continue through the blue gate and uphill.  The trail follows an old logging road up the side of the mountain, looking out over the surrounding timber and farmland.  After 45 minutes or so of uphill climbing, the road stops at a large outcrop of rocks, close to where the lookout station used to reside.  While the ascent can be tiring, the final destination is well worth the effort. 

East Moscow Mountain Lookout Rocks

From the vantage point at East Moscow Mountain Lookout, one can gaze out over miles over farmland and forests.  This agricultural-based region, comprising a large section of north central Idaho and southeastern Washington, is known as the Palouse.  Lying directly west of the Bitterroot Mountains, a subset of the Rocky Mountain Range, the Palouse is an ideal place to receive plentiful rainfall as clouds gather and release their moisture before heading over the nearby mountains.  Contributing the excellent farming conditions is the rich, nutrient-laden soil known as Palouse loess.  In prehistoric times, flooding of the Columbia River in western and central Washington left large deposits of silt and sand on the river banks to combine with sediments left behind by retreating glaciers.  Prevailing winds from the west swept up the soil, carrying it over central Washington and depositing it in dune-like formations across the Palouse area.  It is not uncommon to hear locals refer to the dunes as “the rolling hills of the Palouse.”  The productive loess topsoil, which can be up to a hundred feet deep in some areas, allows for abundant wheat and legume crops to be produced every year.  Standing at the lookout on the top of Moscow Mountain, fields stretch out to touch the horizon in every direction.  Tucked within the rolling hills are the tiny agricultural communities like of Troy, Potlatch, Genesee and Deary.  To the south lies the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley, Hells Canyon and the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers.  To the north, Freezeout Ridge and its popular snowmobiling trails can be seen.  From the top of Moscow Mountain, possibilities for outdoor recreation and activities seem endless.  After taking in the beauty of the views from the lookout, don’t feel guilty for wanting to rush back down the mountain to start off on a journey to explore more of this incredible area!

Wildflowers on the Lookout