Friday, April 24, 2020

Kamiak Butte

Palouse Hills from Kamiak Butte
2.5 miles loop, 700 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee, open 7 AM to dusk

Kamiak Butte provides a stunning bird's-eye view of the gently rolling hills of wheat in the Palouse region of southeastern Washington. During springtime, the wave-like landscape of wheat is a verdant green while in fall, the wheat turns golden for harvest season. This easy hike in a county park in the heart of Palouse, just a short drive from the campus of Washington State University, is one of the best ways to see this pastoral landscape in the Northwest's most important wheat-growing region. If you happen to be in the area, Kamiak Butte is one of two spots (along with nearby Steptoe Butte) that provide these unique views of the wheat hills from above and is very worth visiting.

Kamiak Butte is at least a five and a half hour drive from Seattle; the closest city is Spokane and it is just outside the college town of Pullman. I hiked Kamiak Butte during mid-September while on the way to a trip to Hells Canyon and the Wallowas. From Pullman, I took Highway 27 north from the downtown about 10 miles. The highway skirted the eastern end of Kamiak Butte; I turned left at Clear Creek Road, following the sign for Kamiak Butte County Park. I followed Fugate Road when it broke off to the left from Clear Creek Road and then turned left at the sign for Kamiak Butte County Park. The park opens at 7 AM; I initially made the mistake of arriving before opening in hopes of seeing the sunrise. Having arrived too early, I returned to Pullman and did a brief walking tour through the Washington State University campus before returning to the butte to hike. The park road climbs up the lower slopes of the butte, with good views of wheat fields even before reaching the trailhead. The road dead ends at a campground but I parked a little earlier on at the day use parking area to start the hike.

Palouse wheat fields near Kamiak Butte
The trail started from the far end of the parking lot and headed uphill into the forest. Almost immediately, I came to a junction with the more direct trail to the ridge on the left and the more gradual trail to the summit on the right. I took the left fork for the more direct climb. The wide trail switchbacked through the forest for a half mile to gain the top of Pine Ridge, the primary ridge of Kamiak Butte. None of this hike is particularly strenuous but this is more or less the most physically strenuous bit of the trail. As the trail reached the top of the ridge, I arrived at a clearing with views to the south over the Palouse Hills. The town of Pullman was in the distance, an oasis of green trees and stately buildings nestled amongst the golden hills, and the forested mountains of the Palouse Range rose to the southeast near Moscow, Idaho, signaling the start of the Rocky Mountains.

Palouse Range from Kamiak Butte
The Palouse Hills are made of windblown loess, a result of Eastern Washington's dramatic and contorted geological history. During previous ice ages, advancing glaciers turned into ice dams on the Clark Fork River in Idaho, creating Glacial Lake Missoula and other ice age great lakes that stretched into Montana. Massive floods swept Eastern Washington when the ice dams failed, sculpting the Channeled Scablands and depositing fine silt across the region. Winds carried this silt and deposited it to the southwest at the foot of the Blue Mountains, forming the gentle and fertile loess hills that we see today.

The loess deposited in these hills has made the Palouse one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the country. These hills grow lentils, barley, and chickpeas, but the predominate crop is wheat. While the Midwest and the Great Plains are usually thought of as the nation's breadbasket, the Palouse makes Washington State the US's fourth largest producer of wheat. Much of the Palouse crop is exported, taking advantage of barge shipping along the Snake and Columbia Rivers through the locks that accompany the eight dams between Lewiston's slackwater and Portland's tidewater. In the spring, the young wheat is green, making the hills here unbelievably verdant; by summer, the green matures to a rich gold, which is the primary color of the Palouse until the harvest ends in the fall.

Those looking for an even shorter hike can turn around here after enjoying the views and return via the switchbacks to the trailhead; however, if you have time, I recommend completing the loop by following the Pine Ridge Trail west to the summit of Kamiak Butte.

Over the course of the mile from the first viewpoint to the junction for Kamiak Butte's summit, the trail climbed about 400 feet in a reasonably gentle grade along Pine Ridge. The trail along the ridge had constant views to the south; the dichotomy between the open, grassy south slopes and the heavily forested north slope illustrated the effects of sunlight on moisture and forest growth in this landscape. The ever higher angle for outward views increasingly brought out the features of the town of Pullman.

Pullman and WSU from Kamiak Butte
Pullman is home to Washington State University, one pole of Washington State's principal college rivalry. Although I did my graduate education at the University of Washington, WSU was a school that had some meaning to me: my uncle had worked here as an agricultural researcher at one point, telling me stories about how he used to have to trek to Moscow, Idaho to get McDonalds. UVa's celebrated men's basketball coach, Tony Bennett, once coached here and led a WSU team with Klay Thompson on the roster back to PAC12 relevance before leaving for Virginia with Chelan native Joe Harris for a decade of rebuilding by alma mater's team into national championship material.

Although views were primarily to the south, at one point I found a small clearing that provided a view to the north and northwest instead. From here, I could spot Steptoe Butte, a pyramidal peak rising from the wheatfields. Steptoe Butte- the sister to Kamiak Butte- is one of the few geographical features to rise above the loess hills to provide a bird's eye view, and is a lovely spot where one can drive to the summit for an overview of the surrounding countryside.

Steptoe Butte from Kamiak Butte
At 1.5 miles into the hike, I arrived at a junction: the principal trail turned right here to head downhill and back to the parking lot, but a spur trail led to Kamiak Butte's summit, which is on private land. I took the spur, which climbed quickly to the butte's summit, where there were limited views. I backtracked to the junction and continued around the loop, returning towards the trailhead on the north side of the butte.

While the south side of the ridge was dry and sunny, the north side was a more familiar scene for the Pacific Northwest: a dense, green forest of firs, pines, and larches with copious undergrowth. The well-built trail descended on a dirt tread through the forest at a gentle incline.

Forested trail on Kamiak Butte
Although this stretch of trail was much more forested, at one point a view opened up to the northeast, where in the distance I could see the forested westernmost ranges of the Rockies rising from the Palouse.

Palouse wheat fields and the start of the Rockies in Idaho
After most of a mile of downhill hiking from the summit, a side trail led to the campground; I stayed to the right to continue back towards the day use parking area. Very shortly afterwards, I arrived back at the first junction; turning left, I was back at the trailhead.

If you enjoyed the scenery from Kamiak Butte, or if you want to see the rolling wheat hills from above without any hiking, nearby Steptoe Butte, just north of Colfax, is a highly recommended vantage point for gazing out over the Palouse. A potholed road leads to its summit, from which one can gaze out over Eastern Washington's pastoral hills.

Palouse Hills in spring from Steptoe Butte

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