Tag Archives: Palouse

Visiting the Palouse, day 2

Steptoe Butte from the approach road.
Steptoe Butte from the approach road.

In which I discover I’m not excited about hundred-plus foot dropoffs on single-lane roads with no guardrails, but find the view worth it, anyway.

One of the reasons I decided to visit the Palouse, especially in spring, was because I had hopes of wildflowers. If you read my blog, especially in the summertime, you’ll note that I have a Thing for wildflowers and also for identifying them.

An interesting geological feature of the Palouse is the occasional butte sticking up out of the deep, rolling loess landscape. Two of these buttes are enclosed in parks, and the wildflower book I carried with me said that they were good places to go see wildflowers in the spring because they’re just about the only part of the landscape that isn’t farmed intensely for wheat and lentils.

Kamiak Butte County Park is a few miles north of Pullman, and it was my first stop of the morning. The road into the park approaches the butte from the north, and I was surprised to discover how thickly wooded it was with pines. Not another soul was there at nine in the morning on a weekday, which made me a bit uncomfortable as a woman hiking alone, but I started out on the trail, anyway, and was immediately rewarded by fawn lilies and thimbleberry blossoms scattered thickly among the pine needles.

Fawn or glacier lilies.
Fawn or glacier lilies.
Thimbleberry blossoms.
Thimbleberry blossoms.

The trail went pretty much straight up the side of the butte, and I am sort of ashamed to say that I never made it out of the forest to the top before I got pretty winded. I have no trouble hiking the three miles at 6300 feet on the loop back around behind Sunrise on Mt. Rainier every summer, but this trail was just a bit much, for some reason, not just physically. It was also disconcerting to be the only person on the trail except for a runner who nearly mowed me down as I was coming back down the hill.

So on north I went to Steptoe Butte State Park, which, according to Wikipedia, is a protrusion of rock almost 25 times older than the land surrounding it. It’s such an archetype that this sort of geological formation is officially called a steptoe wherever it’s found (the word steptoe itself comes from the name of an army officer in the Indian Wars — Kamiak Butte was named after a local Indian chief, which seems only fair).

Steptoe Butte was similarly deserted, which was a good thing. There’s a road to the top, winding three times around the butte to get there. It’s barely wide enough for a compact car, there is no guard rail until you reach the top but a good many potholes, and the butte goes straight up on one side and drops to the base over 3600 feet below from the top on the other. I did not meet another car either going up or coming down, for which I am extremely grateful, because I’m not sure what I would have done if I had. But the views from the top were spectacular.

From the top of Steptoe Butte.  One of those "you can see the curvature of the earth from here" views.
From the top of Steptoe Butte. One of those “you can see the curvature of the earth from here” views.
Starting back down.
Starting back down.
One lane, no guardrails, 3000 feet straight down on the left.
One lane, no guardrails, 3000 feet straight down on the left.

I was very pleased with the wildflowers I saw, too.

Gray's biscuit root.
Gray’s biscuit root.
Arrowleaf balsamroot.
Arrowleaf balsamroot and yarrow.
Wild cherry blossoms, I think.  The bark looks like cherry, anyway.
Wild cherry blossoms, I think. The bark looks like cherry, anyway.

And a critter.

Chipmunk at the base of Steptoe Butte.
Chipmunk at the base of Steptoe Butte.

By the time I white-knuckled my way back down to the bottom, it was getting on towards noon, so reluctantly I started making my way west again.  I saw a huge piece of farm machinery plowing along the side of one of those voluptuous curves, which made me wonder if the operator had a hard time keeping it from tipping over.

Plowing the Palouse.
Plowing the Palouse.

While I was passing through the town of Colfax, I saw a sign for a quilt shop, and of course I could not resist. The shop, tucked into a turn-of-the-last-century building on the main drag, had some lovely fabric, and I came out with 3/4 of a yard of souvenir.

Then I topped off my gas tank and headed out on U.S. 26, which eventually took me all the way back to I-90 at Vantage and home, crossing the rest of the Palouse, the almost-manmade-looking dividing line between it and the channeled scablands, and the orchard country, before I headed over the mountains again.

It was a lovely two days, and exactly what I needed, even after a winter that wasn’t really a winter this year.

A trip to Washington’s Palouse

Each one of those wind turbines is taller than the Statue of Liberty.
Each one of those wind turbines is taller than the Statue of Liberty.

Serendipity and itchy feet. Metaphorical itchy feet, I hasten to add. Anyway, it’s spring and I was feeling the need to hit the road,
preferably to a place I’d never been before. This isn’t easy when I can only be gone overnight, after almost twenty-two years in the same county.

But I’d never been to the Palouse before, somehow. Granted,
because it’s down in the far southeastern corner of Washington state (slopping over a bit into Idaho), the Palouse (which is either where the horse breed Appaloosa gets its name or vice versa) is about as far from home as I can get without leaving the state, but still, it’s only about 250 miles one way. Not that bad.

So I packed up for an overnight, loaded the cats’ food and water dishes, and headed out.

I left I-90 where it crosses the Columbia River at the little town of Vantage, and followed the river downstream to where if you look across it, you can see the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which was part of the Manhattan Project during WWII, where they developed the bombs our government dropped on Japan, and which is now the Superfund site to end all Superfund sites (I can only wish it would be the end of Superfund sites). From the highway, of course, you can’t see anything but barren hills, but there is a sign that tells about it.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation sign.
The Hanford Nuclear Reservation sign.

And so on eastward, past orchards and through the little town of Othello and the hamlet of Washtucna.

Orchard along the river south of Othello.
Apple orchard in bloom along the river south of Othello.

I turned south again at Washtucna through the terrain known as the channeled scablands, which resulted from huge lava flows which were then carved when great glacial Lake Missoula flooded most of eastern Washington, leaving behind a great black jagged landscape looking about as desolate as a place can get.

But it’s a beautiful desolate, and one of the most beautiful places in it is Palouse Falls, which is also Washington state’s official state
waterfall.

190-foot Palouse Falls, Washington's state waterfall.
190-foot Palouse Falls, Washington’s state waterfall.
Looking downstream from Palouse Falls at the channeled scablands.
Looking downstream from Palouse Falls at the channeled scablands.
Marmot near Palouse Falls.
Marmot near Palouse Falls.
I thought this was camas, but it turns out to be brodiaea.
I thought this was camas, but it turns out to be brodiaea.

But no, I wasn’t in the Palouse yet. After I hiked around the falls a bit, and photographed a few wildflowers and a critter or two, I
headed on east and north, and the land changed abruptly from sharp and jagged and rocky to smooth and covered with a
patchwork of kelly green new sprouting wheat and fallow tan.

The undulating landscape of the Palouse.
The undulating landscape of the Palouse.

The Palouse proper looks like the landscape version of a Renoir nude. Not a sharp edge in sight. The soil here, wind-blown loess up to a thousand feet deep in places, flows almost like water. The roads curve and wrap themselves around and through the undulating ups and downs topped with ranks of wind turbines. Farmhouses
surrounded with windbreak trees nestle in the hollows. The sky is unutterably wide, especially to someone who’s used to spending most of her time surrounded by huge evergreens and snowcapped mountains.

It’s actually quite glorious.

The biggest town in the Palouse is the college town of Pullman.
Everything there is Washington State University Cougar red and
silver. People kept telling me I needed to go to a place called
Ferdinand’s to get ice cream, but I couldn’t find it. I did, however, find a place to spend the night, the better to get ready for more
exploration the next day.

If you enjoy my travel blog posts, you might enjoy my travel memoir, Cross-Country.