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.