The Palouse (pə-LOOSS) is a region of the northwestern United States, encompassing parts of southeastern Washington, north central Idaho and, in some definitions, extending south into northeast Oregon. It is a major agricultural area, primarily producing wheat and legumes.

The origin of the name “Palouse” is unclear. One theory is that the name of the Palus tribe (spelled in early accounts variously Palus, Palloatpallah, Pelusha, et cetera) was converted by French-Canadian fur traders to the more familiar French word pelouse, meaning “land with short and thick grass” or “lawn.” Over time, the spelling changed to Palouse. Another theory is that the name was in the first place a French word, describing the area which was then applied to the indigenous people inhabiting it.

Grain Fields north of Walla Walla

The landscape of the Palouse Prairie is unlike any other landscape I have seen.  As I drove in a northeasterly direction from Walla Walla on March 30, I entered terrain of closely packed round hills, seemingly placed at random.  There were no ridges or lines of hills.  I watched and hoped for a high spot to pull off the road and take a panorama shot of this fascinating country, but it was not to be.  The photo above was taken through the windshield while I was driving about 40mph!  Finally, I came to a relatively straight stretch of road with a broad shoulder and I pulled off to snap another photo.

Grain Fields North of Walla Walla

While I never did catch sight of any fields of the regionally coveted Walla Walla Sweet Onions, it was obvious the Palouse is a prime agricultural area.  Most fields, however, still carried last year’s stubble or had only recently been plowed.  What do they grow here?  Since the majority of my drive through the Palouse was in Columbia County, I did a bit of research and learned that:

  • Columbia County’s crops include 78,000 acres of wheat, 11,591 acres of barley, and 11,416 acres of lentils.
  • Washington produces 43% of the lentils grown in the U.S. and most of those are grown in the Palouse.
  • The loess hills of the Palouse Prairie were formed during the Ice Ages.  The wind deposited silt from glacial outwash plains to the south and west, in much the same way as sand dunes are formed in deserts today.
  • The original vegetation of this area was a mixture of perennial bunchgrasses and wildflowers which, in spring and summer, gave the appearance of a lush meadow, or Palouse Prairie.
  • Average annual rainfall is around 18 inches.

About the time I turned to go west toward Palouse Falls, the landscape changed.  The loess hills were left behind and the road climbed into channeled scablands created by the great ice age Missoula Floods.  At times, the view of the Palouse Prairie and Blue Mountains in my rearview mirror was breathtaking, but unfortunately, there was no safe place to pull over to take a photo.

4237-Starbuck sign

I passed through the town of Starbuck, but Starbuck’s Coffee will never set up shop there.  The population, as of 2012, was 127, with a median age of 58.1.  I can’t help but wonder how many more years this town will exist.

Then, suddenly, there was the Snake River and a long, high, narrow bridge.  At just 20 feet wide and with bumpy seams in the concrete deck, I slowed the car to 35mph.  I simply didn’t want to drive 50mph over that bridge.  Now that I have read its history, I understand why.

This very bridge once spanned the Columbia River at Vantage and was constructed in 1927.  In the 1960s, it was decided to replace this narrow two-lane bridge, which had become unsafe for high volume traffic.  Amazingly, it was dismantled and placed in storage until 1968, when the state decided to reconstruct the bridge to replace the Lyons Ferry crossing on the Snake River.  No wonder I didn’t feel like driving fast over it!  A 2012 inspection rated its sufficiency at 63.3%.   It is 1,500 feet long and 486 feet above the Snake River and is the oldest steel cantilever bridge in Washington.  Average daily traffic is 532 vehicles.

Slow Train over Snake River

On the other side of the bridge is Lyons Ferry State Park, where I stopped to admire the view and snap some photos.  While I was there, I heard a low rumble and wondered if there might be a thunder storm nearby.  The rumble continued, and gradually became louder until I saw that it was a very slow-moving train approaching an even scarier bridge.  Owned by Union Pacific Railroad, the Joso High Bridge is a massive deck truss bridge that is 3,920 feet long and includes a curve on the south bank of the river.  I estimate the train was moving at about 5mph and it took several minutes to cross.

Palouse Falls Rainbow

A few miles farther on, I finally arrived at a 2-mile gravel wash-board road that ended at Palouse Falls State Park.  The ancestral Palouse river flowed through the currently dry Washtucna Coulee to the Columbia River. The Palouse Falls and surrounding canyons were created when the Missoula Floods overtopped the south valley wall of the ancestral Palouse River, diverting it to it’s current course to the Snake River by erosion of a new channel.   Over 200 feet of columnar basalt is exposed around the falls.  As I discovered, on a sunny day, with the sun at the proper angle, one can see a rainbow near the base of the falls.

Downstream from Palouse Falls

With my back to Palouse Falls, the view very definitely shows how the Missoula Floods carved a channel for the Palouse River.

I hope you enjoyed touring the Palouse with me.



14 thoughts on “The Palouse — Washington Photo Trek Part II

  1. Well, you are branching out, aren’t you… you are becoming ‘Linda, mark 2’ 🙂
    What a wonderful area you travelled along – those ‘striped’ hill are amazing. The rainbow at the falls reminded me of Victoria Falls, which I visited twice whilst working out in Zambia. In the rainy season, when the falls are full, there is sometimes a full rainbow over the top.
    I actually got a photo of it, but it was in 1976, so pre digital, and I have no idea where the photo has gone!

    Posted a link to am image… don’t know how it works in WP, sorry.


    1. Isn’t it odd what prompts us sometimes to branch out. In this case, changes at wunderground that I don’t like prompted me to find changes I do like. So far at least, I’m finding WordPress likeable and fairly easy to use.

      Now that is a serious double rainbow!

      You know, I think we both need to think about a new rainy day project — scanning in the best of our old photos.


  2. A thoroughly mesmerizing area brought alive by your informative and delightful writing. Looking forward to more of your travelogues. Or other writings.


  3. Great tour, Briar. I think we went through the Palouse area of Idaho. It was an interesting drive. We had gone through so many different topographies driving from San Francisco to Yellowstone. I remember the agricultural areas like these as we crossed through Idaho. Amazed at how little rainfall that area gets…definitely dependent on irrigation.


    1. I’ve been trying to remember where else I saw striped hills growing wheat. My trip went from Portland to Yellowstone to Glacier to Portland in the 70s and it’s all a blur in my memory. The hills were differently shaped, but just as striking. From San Francisco, you might have gone through Reno then joined into I-84 near Twin Falls, Idaho. Maybe that was where we saw those striped hills?


  4. We went out to Salt Lake City on I-80 and then north on I-84/15. I guess we saw the agricultural hills following the Snake River between Pocatello and Idaho Falls. Interesting drive from coastal Northern California up into the Sierras and then out into the Great Basin. Then through the high deserts of Northern Nevada to the great Salt Lake. Equally as interesting to the north of SLC through Idaho to Yellowstone.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Good morning, I saw your post over at WU and knew why. “No four photos”???
    I tried to get here by the link you left in the last header and it took me back to your blog. Found my way eventually by going to ‘this’ blog’ over at WU and using the first link you posted.
    Don’t be a stranger, I have loved your posts and your friendship, and my “Coffee Blog” is always open, so drop by often.
    Happy Yardening!


  6. I liked that first graphic you made on your last WU blog. I hope your journey is a “sunnier” one or at least less drips here on WP. The Dalai’s quote has some rays of truthiness also.

    So far, I am enjoying WP. I can’t quantify exactly why yet…but maybe that doesn’t matter. WU is limited, FB is more wide open for me than here on WP (so far,) but I feel like there is potential to spend more time and go more in depth than a FB post. I am trying to make more links between the two to start with. WP offers a lot more in depth reporting and creative potential. WU still serves a purpose for me as well.

    Since I live in such an isolated/isolating place currently social media helps me stay connected. I think if I lived elsewhere I would be out in the world more like I used to be. Miss that. Just doesn’t work for me here. Hope springs eternal…

    Enjoy your yardening, day trips and observing life, Briar. Hope to see more of that here. A lot of us get to travel albeit virtually through blogs like yours and calpoppy’s.


    1. WU, WP, FB, and all the other social media each have something different to offer. I agree that WP seems to offer a lot more “in depth reporting and creative potential”. As far as I can tell, the only taboo is copyright violation. That I can live with.

      You may live in an isolated place and find that limiting, but when it comes down to it, we all are somewhat isolated in our own heads. Some more than others, of course. For myself, I am sort of a dork and not comfortable in most face-to-face social situations, so I have lived an isolated life even in San Diego. In my entire adult life, I can count on one hand the number of friends I have had who weren’t co-workers or relatives. The blogs have given me more than that in just a few short years, no matter that I will never meet most of you face to face.

      I love virtual travel! You can show me all the things in Hawaii that tourists rarely see. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all.


    1. On the comment screen accessed through my Dashboard, there is an Edit button at the bottom of every comment — mine and yours. But I just went over to your blog and posted a comment and after posting, I could see no way to edit what I said. I guess the moral of that store is to proofread before hitting that Reply button.


  7. I will try and do that here, Briar. I might retrieve what I have out of Flickr or what is on my hard drives to do that. And it might be a bit “touristy”. When I should have been getting off the tourist trek and off the beaten path here I went AWOL or MIA instead. I stick close to the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” here now. I do have some treks planned but coordinating with a friend and the weather has been problematic. Eventually, we will get to it.

    I am sort of a dork also and can relate to all that. When I lived in San Francisco/California there was much more comfortable casual social interaction both out of necessity (being in such a densely populated environment) and desire. Not all of it welcome but often it was and enjoyed that. The story here in Hawaii not so much a fun experience. Too much unresolved historical angst here and other unwelcome aggression. Speaking of ‘isolation’, they should put a picture of this place next to that word in the dictionary, imo.


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