Friday, April 24, 2020

Palouse Falls

Palouse Falls
1.5 miles round trip, 250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate; the path requires some very steep descents, shoes with good traction recommended.
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, Washington State Discover Pass required

At Palouse Falls, the Palouse River takes a dramatic plunge into a canyon carved into the multi-layered Columbia River Basalts in the desert landscape of Eastern Washington. This is one of Washington State's most extraordinary waterfalls- in fact, it's the state waterfall- and it's a lovely spot to visit if you're in Eastern Washington. The falls are far from Seattle but are a must for anyone exploring the desertscape of the state's eastern half. No hiking is necessary to see the falls themselves but a short hike provides access to the river just upstream of the falls.

I visited the falls on Memorial Day weekend with two friends on a road trip out to Spokane. From Seattle, we took I-90 east to Vantage and exited onto Washington Highway 26 east immediately after crossing the Columbia River. We followed Highway 26 east past Royal City and Othello to Washtucna, where we turned right onto Highway 261 heading south. At the junction between 261 and 260, we made a left turn to stay on 261, which we followed through winding hills until reaching the turnoff for Palouse Falls State Park on the left. We then followed a gravel road for the remaining distance down to the trailhead at the end of the road, though heavy Memorial Day traffic meant we spent nearly a half hour just to get into the park and find parking.

The falls are directly next to the trailhead; if you're interested just in seeing the falls, it's not necessary to actually do any hiking.

Palouse Falls
Fences line the side of the canyon; don't venture onto any of the paths below the canyon rim here as the terrain here is steep and treacherous.

Palouse Falls would not exist without a confluence of factors that makes Eastern Washington's landscape a geological oddity. The columnar basalt of the cliffs forming the walls of the canyon are a result of the massive volcanic eruptions around 15 million years ago that released floods of mafic lava which covered the Columbia River Basin; during cooling, the basalt fractured into vertical polygonal arrays. The columnar nature of the rock makes the walls of the canyon particularly steep; the many layers of the walls represent the many flood basalt eruptions that occurred around that time. The tendency of the basalt to shed vertical columnar chunks during erosion makes possible a waterfall rather than a more gentle descent for the Palouse River. During the ice ages of the past hundred thousand years or so, heavy glaciation in the Rockies formed ice dams that created massive lakes on what is now the Clark Fork River. Glacial Lake Missoula and other Ice Age era lakes were released in phenomenal floods when the ice dams failed and floodwaters swept and scoured the Columbia River Basin, carving out the Channeled Scablands. One of the greatest of these erosive events was at Dry Falls on the Grand Coulee, where at the height of the floods the flow volume might have been as much as ten times as the flow of all rivers on earth combined, dwarfing contemporary falls like Niagara or Iguazu. The floods and those great falls are gone; Palouse Falls provides a glimpse of how a fraction of those ancient falls might have looked.

From the parking lot, we started our hike here by following the broad, paved path leading into the prairie towards the upstream direction. After a brief walk of about a hundred yards, we came to an unmarked but obvious junction where a wide trail led to the right; we followed this trail, which led to the rim of the canyon and followed it until coming to a point of land on the canyon rim high above the falls. This vantage point offered one of the best views of the canyon of the Palouse River cutting through the flood basalts.

Palouse River canyon
From the point, we then followed the trail along the other rim back towards the main paved trail, with views into a narrow canyon just upstream of the falls. Following this trail about a quarter of a mile, we met back up with the initial paved trail at a wide gravel turnabout next to both the canyon rim and some railroad tracks. Looking down, we could see the Palouse River dropping down a few small cascades at the bottom of the steep-walled canyon. From here, a gravel path descended down part of the canyon wall to meet the railroad tracks at the top of a huge talus slope; we then followed the railroad tracks about fifty meters to reach a rocky path that descended through the talus slope to reach the bottom of the canyon.

Palouse River canyon
Once at the base of the canyon, we followed the clear path to reach a set of cascades on the Palouse River where it turned into a narrower stretch above the main falls. The basalt canyon walls towered impressively above.

Small falls upstream of Palouse Falls
This is a good spot to turn around, for a hike of about a mile round trip. Those who wish can continue on to reach the lip of the falls. We followed a social path to the right from the cascades, hiking in the downstream direction as we followed the river into an especially narrow part of the canyon. The trail narrowed as well, hugging the vertical walls.

Palouse River cuts through a canyon upstream of Palouse Falls
At the end of the trail, we emerged to a spectacular sight: a row of free-standing basalt columns known as the Feathers towered over the lip of Palouse Falls, which dropped off into the depths of the Palouse River canyon down below.

The Fingers
View down the canyon from the top of the falls
As there are no fences or railings for safety, it's important to exercise caution here: falls are fatal. We enjoyed the views and then retraced our steps, shortening the hike back by returning along the paved trail on the last leg.

After leaving the park, we drove further east on Washington Highway 26 to Colfax, deep within the rolling hills of wheat that define the Palouse. From Colfax, we headed just north to Steptoe Butte State Park and drove the winding road up to the top of the butte, where there was a sweeping, 360-degree view of the surrounding country.

Palouse wheatfields from Steptoe Butte

Palouse landscape from Steptoe Butte

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