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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.