A SHORT VISIT TO THE NW #4 – The Palouse
A SHORT VISIT TO THE NW #4 – The Palouse
This edition covers an area called “The Palouse” which is in the Southeast corner of Washington state and actually covers several days of roaming the area.
The Palouse Area of Washington State
Route from Mt. Rainier to The Palouse area in Washington State
Our Travels in The Palouse Area (Day 1)
Our Travels in The Palouse Area (Day 2)
OVERVIEW OF THE AREA
The Palouse region is basically Whitman county in southeastern Washington. Although there are no official boundaries it is generally considered to be bordered by the Spokane and Lincoln county line on the north (about 30 miles south of Spokane), the Idaho border on to the east (although many consider it to extend a bit into western Idaho), the Snake river to the South, and the Adams and Franklin county lines on the West side (about half way between Walla Walla and the Idaho border).
It is a major agricultural area and is said to be the richest wheat growing area in the US – but they also grow barley, lentils and a few other crops. But, in this area wheat is king. On a world scale, wheat production here is second only to the Ukraine. Even though this is dry-land farming, and unlike the wheat areas of the Midwest, the Palouse has never seen a crop failure due to weather. But, as in many things, location counts. If you go just 20 miles to the west the crop yields are less than half of what they are in the Palouse.
Not including the native Americans, the “original” settlers were the pioneers coming across the Oregon trail from Missouri and points farther east. They homesteaded the area and used the rolling hills for cattle and sheep. But in the 1880’s they started to experiment with dry-land farming which had been successful in nearby areas such as Walla Walla. Dry-land farming relies on rain for irrigation rather than piped or pumped water. When this proved to work quite well a minor land rush ensued and by 1890 the entire region had been claimed and the livestock gave way to wheat fields. By the late 1800’s the area was more heavily populated than the Puget Sound area that now includes Seattle and Tacoma. Around this same time the railroads came along and provided rapid and economical transport for the crops allowing the farming industry to flourish.
The terrain made up of rolling hill farmland where the farmers many times follow the contours of the hills when they plow and plant their fields. These hills are made of “wind blown silty loess” that averages about 200 feet deep and makes a wonderfully rich and porous soil that is easily plowed and the wheat just loves it. This top layer of loess sits on a layer of Columbia River basalt up to 2 miles thick (think lava). The bottom line is that it’s great for farming.
Rolling Hills of the Palouse
Dark silty loess earth where they’ve plowed the wheat stubble back into the ground
Contours, shapes, and patterns
So, what has made the Palouse area a go to destination for photographers in the last decade or so? There are several answers to that question. There are the contours and shapes of the crop rows, multiple colors cover the landscape in the planting and growing season in curves and lines, abandoned buildings in all manner of decay, old cars and trucks sitting photographically adjacent to tumble down buildings, bright blue skies – many times with puffy white clouds and all unobstructed by irrigation equipment or, for that matter, many overhead wires.
There are two prime times for photographing this area. One is during the spring planting when there are alternating patches of freshly plowed fields of dark brown to black interspersed with bright fields of seedlings in many different shades of green in curving patterns dictated by the shape of the hills. Then there’s the harvest season where you get the golden wheat against the blue sky interspersed with deep brown earth where they’ve already harvested the wheat and plowed the stubble under. So, naturally, we were not there at either of these times. We came pretty much after the fall harvest when - except for one or two fields - the wheat was down to stubble and about half the fields had been plowed under. So, not the best time, but interesting nonetheless. For the most part we also had high overcast during our visit which also was not ideal.
We stayed in a farming town called Colfax for 3 nights on our visit. While not as big a town as Pullman to the south, Moscow (Idaho) to the Southeast, or Spokane to the north, Colfax is pretty much in the center of the area making day trips radiating out from Colfax a practical option. Interspersed between these proper towns are a fair number of smaller towns like Oaksdale, Farmington, Garfield and Palouse. These smaller towns are along the railway lines and were generally centered around a large grain facility where the farmers sold their corps and where the loose grain was loaded onto trains for shipping. I’ll show you one of these towns later.
Getting around the Palouse area by car is not difficult. It is made up of 4 kinds of roads. There are the primary 2 lane paved highways going North/South and East/West from Colfax. These roads connect the major towns and are good for getting to/from a region we wanted to explore, but these roads are typically 55mph and have no park-able shoulders to pull off on. So they don’t work too well for seeing something interesting and making a quick decision to stop to take some photos.
The second type of road is also 2 lane and paved, but narrower and with 35mph speed limits. Many times these secondary paved roads are more curvy but they have shoulders in places where you can get off the highway in order to take photographs. Many times some very nice photo ops show up on these roads.
Secondary 2 lane paved road
The third type of road are the dirt/gravel all season roads. These roads are as wide as a the regular 2 lane paved roads, are well graded and very, very, dusty. In the off season it’s quite reasonable to just stop in the driving lane for 10 to 15 minutes for photographing some barn or field and not worry about blocking traffic. In most cases, no other cars will come by and even if one does it’s easy for them to just swing by on the other side of the road. However, when you leave your car it’s a good idea to shut the door so if someone else does come by your car doesn’t fill up with dust.
All season dirt road
The last kind of road are the summer only roads – called seasonal roads. This may be somewhat of a misnomer as there are occupied farm houses down some of them so at least those folks will have to use them in the winter. But, as I’ve been told, many of these become muddy quagmires that will defy even 4 wheel drive vehicles with winter treads in the rainy or snowy seasons. Some of these are one lane tracks with grass growing in the middle while others are a bit wider with places wide enough for cars going opposite directions to squeeze past each other.
Typical seasonal road
A GPS is a great asset in driving these back roads. Not so much to key in a destination and have it guide you there, but more to just show you where you are and how to get back to a main road.. Most of the roads are marked with their names, but there are no signs saying where the roads lead to. Another very useful item is the free map provided by the local chamber of commerce designed for photographers. You can pick up one of these at the front desk of your hotel and probably in many other locations. You can also down load a PDF of it at http://pullmanchamber.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Photography-Hot-Spot-Map-2014.pdf. This map shows has markers on if for Barns, Red Barns, Lone Trees, Viewpoints, Bird habitat, Abandoned Houses, Grainieries, Farm Equipment, and windmills. It also shows pretty much all the roads of all 4 types in the area. Even if you print one from the PDF, it’s good to pick one up as well as it will show a larger version of the map. Another interesting free guide is here http://pullmanchamber.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Photo-Brochure11.pdf
On our first day in the Palouse area we decided to get up in the world for an overview of the area so we headed over to Steptoe Butte. This feature is a Quartzite island that juts up through the Loess Silt forming a standalone peak – well actually there’s another smaller one a few miles away but we won’t go into that. Anyway, this one was named after Colonel Edward Steptoe and interestingly enough, the name “Steptoe” is now applied to this sort of geologic formation worldwide.
The butte itself rises roughly 1000 ft (300 m) above the surrounding landscape with a paved road that spirals up the mountain, circling it 2.5 times before reaching the top. Between 1888 and 1908 a hotel stood at the top of the butte but now the top is covered in a parking area and an array of telecommunications towers.
In 1946, one Virgil McCroskey donated 120 acres of land containing this peak to form Steptoe Butte State Park, which was later increased to over 150 acres). Steptoe Butte is currently recognized as a National Natural Landmark because of its unique geological value.
From the top you have a 360 degree panorama of the Palouse area. When we were there in early October the shapes and patterns of various farms alternated between golden wheat color of the post harvest stubble and deep chocolate of the rich soil where they’d already plowed the stubble under for the winter.
View from Steptoe Butte
View from Steptoe Butte
View from Steptoe Butte
This area is full of abandoned buildings which make for great photographic opportunities. As mentioned, the area was settled in the 2nd half of the 19th century. As the farming has been so good here, most of the farms have remained as single family owned affairs, with many still being in the same family that originally homesteaded the plot. The economic conditions of these farms has not been such that they needed to sell out to big agribusiness so, they remain relatively small family farms. However, over the years as some families prospered and others fell on harder times, there has been some consolidation where one neighbor bought out the next door farm leaving the sellers buildings abandoned . In addition, as some families did very well they built themselves new homes, barns and silos, again abandoning the old ones to just weather on their own.
Abandoned Grain processing facility, RT-195 S of Barbee Rd
Scholz Rd near Rt-195
Wind turbines behind barn, Oakesdale Rd Near RT-195
Rt-27 N of Altergott Rd
Walter Siding Rd near Walters Rd
RT-195 S of Barbee Rd
As Pullman (in Palouse area), Walla Walla & Spokane (near the Palouse area) and Moscow (near the Palouse but in Idaho) are proper cities with populations at or above 30,000, the towns in the Palouse area are really just towns with populations at 3,000 or less. I’d call Colfax, with a population of 3,000 or so, a small town. The rest have populations of under 2,000 and in many cases nearer 500, so, I guess I’d call those “smaller towns”.
Colfax (where we stayed) has a main street of 10 to 20 blocks, a downtown with 2 and 3 story buildings and a typical assortment of stores such a banks, motels, restaurants, bars, clothing, hardware, gas station, library, city hall, etc. However, make no mistake – this is a small town. Only 2 restaurants we could find were open for dinner and about a third of the store fronts were vacant.
The smaller towns have not fared nearly as well. As you drive down the main street these towns seem to be on the verge of abandonment. You see more abandoned store fronts than occupied ones and even ones still in use don’t look much changed from the 1950’s. One would think they were on the verge of becoming ghost towns until you look a bit deeper.
Between the abandoned store fronts you’ll find a nice café, or book store, or sewing machine shop. You’ll come across a municipal park with a swimming pool and modern bathrooms. You’ll see whimsical art painted on buildings, a newly rebuilt church replacing an historic one, well paved streets, etc.
Get off the commercial street and back into residential areas and you find that most properties are occupied and moderately maintained. We’re not talking upscale by any means but not slums either (in most cases). Mostly single story, single family homes, with mostly ignored landscaping that sees a lawn mower maybe 2 or 3 times a year. These towns are where the “white” workers live.
So, it’s really a mixed bag of barely hanging on and tapping into the needs of - and revenue brought in by - the large number of photographers who descend on the area several times a year as well as the needs of a farming community.
Town Clock, Libray and City Hall
Old Boarding house in the middle of town
Rail Line through town
Decorated (and leaning) fireplug
Abandoned Gas Station
Abandoned drug store and saloon
Reflection in window of abandoned saloon
Old barn converted into antique/craft store near town
Whimsical art in windows of apartment building
Anatone, A decidedly less prosperous town
In stark contrast we also drove through the town of Albion which on the map looked about the same as I just described. But this town was decidedly several rungs lower on the economic scale – at least as evidenced by the neighborhoods we drove through. I suspect that Albion houses more of the non Anglo workers.
NOT ALL IS FALLING DOWN
As we drove around, in addition to “tumble down” structures that was my main quarry, there were also lots of in-use structures (some new some old) as well as other state of the art features like a wind farm. Remember, these are working farms that require modern facilities.
Wind farm near Steptoe Butte
Old Truck, New Barn
Mailbox and red barn
Modern Grain facility
Old but functional
Plowing under the wheat stubble
Bailing the last of the wheat crop
Will continue working tomorrow
Although known for it’s rolling hills, farms, old falling down buildings and other debris from past times, the area also has other interesting things to see. We saw a nice old covered bridge, artistic sculptures, and a lovely waterfall splashing into an azure pool.
Colfax Bridge (or Road Bridge) near Harpole
Iron Wheel fence
Palouse falls, in Palouse State Park, is not actually in the area commonly thought of as “The Palouse”, but since it has its name, and is not too far off, it is generally shown on maps of the Palouse area. Palouse Falls is on the Palouse River, about 4 miles upstream from the Snake River. It is 198 ft (60 m) tall and consists of an upper falls (more like a cascade) with a drop of only 20 feet (6.1 m) and a lower (or main) falls with a drop of 198 feet (60 m).
The canyon at the lower falls is 377 feet deep, exposing a large cross-section of the Columbia River Basalt layer. These falls and the canyon downstream are part of the channeled scablands created by the great Missoula Floods that swept periodically across eastern Washington (see first post in this series)
Upper Palouse Falls (for scale, find the tourist in a red shirt)
Lower Palouse Falls
Lower Palouse Falls
Lower Palouse Falls
And, of course, Sunsets.......
In the next installment we’ll head down to Hells Canyon in Oregon.
- You can see images of this area on my website at
- My websie home page
- You may also enjoy the very popular Trip Advisor review I published about the Mt. St. Helen's Visitor Centers (including Johnston Ridge Observatory)
Thanks for reading -- Dan
Keywords: Autumn, DanTravelBlog, DanTravelBlogPalouse, Decaying Building, Farm Land, Harvest, Palouse Falls, Rolling Hills, Ruins, Rural Decay, Small town, Steptoe Butte, The Palouse, Travel Blog, Travel Log, Tumble Down, Wagon Wheel Fence, Washington, Wheat Fields
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