Visiting one of Washington’s zen wonders and its collegiate neighbor
written by Kevin Max
After years of hearing about the natural wonder of Palouse Falls, I finally put it on my schedule. Neither my regular driving nor typical flight routes would ever get me close enough to this remote southeastern Washington site to make it feasible.
Starbuck, Washington, where Palouse Falls flows, is at least an hour-and-a-half drive north from Walla Walla, southwest from Spokane and northeast of the Tri-Cities. But, damnit, this was named Washington’s state waterfall in March 2014, and I was determined to see why. Kids from Washtucna Elementary School, 17 miles away, helped write the bill that would designate this as a state gem. I wanted to see what they saw.
As a rule, I never overplan. Nothing unexpected ever comes to those who overwrite possibility with assurance. I packed a one-man, one-dog tent, a good camera and few provisions for an overnight stay at the state park. I had it in mind that this would be more about the natural beauty and less about its bounty.
The park is a small 105 acres and has ten primitive campsites at $12 (cash) each and on a first-come, first-served basis. Cell service is a faint wisp, if at all. The nearest restaurant is a thirty-minute drive. It was the remoteness of Palouse Falls that kept me from going for so long, yet it is the remoteness of Palouse Falls that eventually drew me in.
Palouse Falls State Park is 2 miles in from the nearest paved road. As soon as I turned off the pavement, I encountered two large electronic signs. They rose up from the sagebrushed ground and into the blue-grey sky. The first one read: Danger 4 Recent Deaths. From what, I wondered. The second sign served as a partial answer: Recreate Safely.
You can hear the falls from the parking lot but not yet see them across the sloping embankment. Palouse Falls is one of the few remaining waterfalls along the Ice Age flood path from Lake Missoula. It is the coincidence of drama, power and beauty. At the cliff’s edge, basalt walls drop 200 feet to a bowl and, across the bowl the Palouse Falls pour powerfully into the mint tea of the Palouse River. At the top of the falls stand handsome basalt columns that could easily be mistaken for a nativity scene or array of chess pieces.
This is a moment in life. If Liam Neeson were providing the voiceover for this moment, he might have said in his graveled voice: “The first thing you must know is … you will be taken … by its beauty.”
For the next two days, I explored the canyon below. On the north side of the park is a trail that winds around and down into the canyon. While the main attraction of Palouse Falls is a narrow-gauge blast of water, the falls around the north side of the canyon are a wide and distributed spill whose pools you can walk up to, dip your feet, or, if you’re so inclined, strip and dip, cold as it is.
Over these days, I explored, took many photos and, during the harshly lit middays, lit out for the closest towns for food and drink.
Any visit to Palouse Falls should include a side trip to the Palouse region’s largest city—Pullman. Pullman, home to Washington State University, is a ninety-minute drive, but well worth it. The small college town is surrounded by fertile lands that yield lentils, wheat, barley and peas, a fitting landscape for Washington’s largest agriculture university.
There are many choices for those coming out of isolation. I walked downtown Pullman considering the dining options. Foundry Kitchen & Cocktails has a great back patio, chowder and burgers; The Black Cypress for Mediterranean cuisine, the venerable Rico’s Public House for soups, salads, burgers and live music, and a handful of Asian and Mexican restaurants. I ended up building my decision around a margarita-first mantra and ducked into Rancho Viejo for absolution.
Hours later, I would make it back to Palouse Falls in time to watch the sun climb the falls as it fell over the western bank and gave way to a thousand stars blinking remote signals light-years away and into my one-man tent.
Campfire food at Palouse Falls State Park
The Black Cypress, Pullman
Rico’s Public House, Pullman
Foundry Kitchen & Cocktails
Camp at Palouse Falls State Park
Coast Hilltop Inn
Courtyard by Marriott Pullman
Hike and photograph Palouse Falls State Park
Check out Pullman
Drive the Palouse Scenic Byway