Winter Road Trip to Palouse Falls, Washington

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Photo © Reznick - iStock

Between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago, dozens of breaches of glacier-dammed Lake Missoula—a body of water nearly the size of Lake Michigan that spread over western Montana—released a torrent of water over the volcanic bedrock of central and eastern Washington. The resulting landscape looks straight out of a John Ford western: a maze of basalt buttes and broad mesas, carved by long coulees.

Today, this high prairie and scabland country is the region’s breadbasket and one of the nation’s premier dryland farming regions, its 4,000 square miles of wind-sculpted hills unfolding under an endless sea of wheat and wineries, with Walla Walla as its wine-making capital and a destination for oenophiles around the world.

The same geological forces that created such fine wine country also carved Palouse Falls, the official state waterfall of Washington and home to a 105-acre park a little more than an hour from Walla Walla.

Created when the Missoula Floods overran the Palouse River and carved a new course to the Snake River, the nearly 200-foot Palouse Falls is one of the state’s most impressive. An otherwise unremarkable coulee-country river across most of its length, the Palouse River effects a transformation on the level of Clark Kent to Superman when it rounds a bend out of site of the park’s viewing area and plunges 198 feet into a churn of water at the base of a circular basalt catch basin.

A short, paved trail follows the west side of the catch-basin. A chain-link fence corrals those bewitched by the spectacle. It’s a considerable effort to get to the base of the main falls, but visitors interested in an up-close view of the water can wander 10 minutes upstream, parallel to the train tracks, on any of many boot-beaten paths to the upper falls. Smaller in scale than the main falls, the upper falls consist of a series of waist-high cascades beneath a monolith of columnar basalt on the far side of the Palouse River. From here, visitors can also get a peek at the Palouse’s plunge from above.

Either way, the walk is short enough that most visitors won’t even break a sweat, but it will exhaust one’s store of superlatives.

Although springtime sees the highest flows, winter offers a unique experience, the spray of the falls settling on the surrounding basalt in a blanket of rime, and, during periods of deep freeze, the bulk of the water becoming a 20-story ice wall.

Palouse Falls is also a favorite of sunset and star watchers; the expansive evening and night sky is an impressive backdrop for the drama below.

You can stay in Dayton, only about 45 minutes from the falls, or in the much larger city of Walla Walla. Dayton, known as the “Gateway to the Blue Mountains,” has retained its rural charm. Anchoring the brick-fronted Main Street is the historic Weinhard Hotel. Named for the nephew of Portland beer magnate Henry Weinhard, who opened a hotel, saloon and lodge here at the end of the 19th Century, the Weinhard offers 15 spacious guest rooms, each uniquely appointed with Victorian-era furnishings including ornately carved canopy beds and oak bureaus. Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, take a tour; the staff leaves open any unoccupied rooms, and they encourage visitors to peek inside.

For dinner, head across the street to the Weinhard Café. Specializing in a contemporary twist on traditional American cuisine, the Weinhard rotates its menu regularly but always features local ingredients, including house-cured meats. The Tucannon ribeye travels one block from producer to plate, and the accompanying mashed potatoes also make a short journey. The exposed brick walls and warm wooden accents encourage lingering, so stick around for dessert. Sitting at a farmhouse table, regional wine in hand, it’s easy to forget you’re in a one-stoplight town.

If you’re staying in Walla Walla, the grande dame of the area’s lodging options is The Marcus Whitman, a historic hotel in the heart of downtown, surrounded by wine tasting rooms and excellent restaurants, such as The Marc (in the hotel) and nearby Saffron.