by Sue Hansen | Photo © Dreamtime
It’s a hidden oasis out in the middle of nowhere. Down a remote road in southeast Washington, across flat, arid land, a bend brings into view a vista so startling it seems a mirage. Velvety green grass beneath tall trees offer shade from the hot summer sun. The sound of cascading water beyond beckons as well. In 1945, private parties donated 299 acres for Palouse Falls State Park, which was dedicated in 1951. Here, geology, history and the science of hydrology mix with hiking and camping.
The main attraction is Palouse Falls, roaring whitewater tumbling over a dramatic 200-foot drop-off into a pool below before flowing toward the Snake River. From the overlook near the campground and picnic area, Palouse Falls seems out of place as it emerges from the dry Columbia Plateau.
Palouse Falls was discovered by the Wilkes Expedition in 1841. Though the Palouse Tribe first called the falls Aputapat, meaning “falling water,” it was renamed to commemorate the Palouse Indian culture. Today, an observation shelter contains historical displays to educate visitors.
For day trippers, hiking and fishing are favorite outdoor pursuits. Atop the plateau, an easy half-mile loop trail leads first to the wide Upper Falls where another short trail switchbacks down to the river’s edge. From the picnic area, a steep trail down to the secluded pool at the base of Palouse Falls lures fishermen.
For campers, 10 primitive sites are available (first come, first served) for tents on the lush lawn, but three can be used for RVs or trailers—one with ADA amenities—adjacent to the day parking area and restrooms. Overnight stays offer the chance to sit out under the spectacular display of stars and soak in the solitude.
Also, watch for wildlife, especially rattlesnakes in late spring through early fall. According to state park host Bob Kranda, “At times, people do get snake bit, but I always warn visitors to stay alert. Signs are posted, too.” Less dangerous are marmots lounging along the cliff’s edge, plus wild birds during the day and bats at night.
Palouse Falls is worth the 2.5-mile side trip off State Route 261. It’s the only major waterfall along the Columbia Plateau.
The state park is open year-round, though potable water is turned off from late September to April. For more information, visit www.parks.wa.gov.
What created this amazing landscape?
Two great geologic forces millions of years apart created the Palouse Canyon’s layered basalt cliffs and the dramatic waterfall we enjoy today.
First, two massive volcanic flows, one following the other over millions of years, created the basalt columns. The first occurred repeatedly between 17 and 14 million years ago. The second and smaller of the two volcanic events layered over the top of the first between 14 and 6 million years ago. The result is the basalt columns and varied terraced layers that line the canyon walls.
The second major event, the more recent Missoula Floods, occurred at the end of the Ice Age approximately 16,000 years ago. The rushing waters and giant debris flowed at 10 times the rate of the average river, scouring out coulees, or drainage zones, exposing basalt columns and other geologic formations. Palouse Canyon is one of these resulting coulees. – Allen Cox