The Palouse region of Washington and Idaho is a breathtaking landscape that has been attracting photographers for decades. From rolling hills to fields of golden wheat, the Palouse offers a unique and diverse array of subject matter for photographers of all levels. In this article, we will explore the beauty of the Palouse and why it is a must-visit destination for photographers.
In May and June the hillsides explode with various shades of greens and yellows from the crops planted earlier in the year. Late summer is dominated by warm hues of gold and brown from freshly plowed fields and harvested wheat. In winter, the snow covered rolling hills look like giant white marshmallows begging for some hot cocoa. With this year round diversity of color, it's not a surprise that the Palouse is one of the most widely photographed locations in the Pacific Northwest. It has the distinction of being one of the 7 wonders of Washington State.
HOW THE PALOUSE WAS FORMED
During the last Ice Age, 15,000 years ago, an ice dam over 2000 feet tall blocked the Clark Fork and Columbia Rivers. This ice dam allowed Glacial Lake Missoula to form, which was larger than Lake Ontario and Lake Erie combined. As more water filled in behind the dam, the pressure increased, allowing the freezing temperature of the water at the bottom of the dam to decrease. Cracks opened up and water rushed through, generating heat increasing the cracks. More water rushed through and cycle continued until the dam failed, causing a cataclysmic flood throughout Washington and Oregon. There’s some controversy about how many times this happened. Some scientists say up to 40 times, others say only once. Either way, it created the Palouse after the floods, so it doesn’t matter how many times it happened. Just be happy the floods aren’t still happening. That would ruin your day in a hurry. Especially since some scientists think the floods had a maximum flow up to 386 million cubic feet per second.
Thousands of years of glacial movement during the last ice age grinding away at the bedrock created fine dust and silt. For the next 10,000 years after the floods and as the ice receded, the wind carried the dust and silt to create the loess hills of the Palouse. The loess hills are very fertile and farming became the primary industry in the area. Now, the Palouse is one of the richest farmlands for wheat, barley, lentils, and chickpeas. Also, The Palouse is filled with wineries so if your significant other is not into photography, drop them off at a winery and go get your photos. That way, you won't feel pressured taking an hour to get one shot waiting for the light.
WHY IS IT CALLED THE PALOUSE?
No one really knows for sure but the theory is the name was changed from the Palus Indian tribe by French-Canadian fur traders. The word they used was Pelouse which means "short and thick grass". The word Pelouse changed over time to Palouse. But, like I said, it's just a theory. Whether it's named for the local Indian tribe or something else, The Palouse is quite a large area covering parts of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. Once you arrive in the Palouse, the meaning of "short and thick grass" or grasslands becomes evident. Rolling fields of green and yellow as far as the eye can see. Sometimes the eye can't see very far because some of the hills are quite tall and roads are at the bottom of them.
THE RIGHT LIGHT
One of the biggest draws for photographers in the Palouse is the light. The region is known for its soft, warm light that provides stunning contrasts and highlights. The light in the Palouse is best in the early morning and late afternoon, when the sun is low in the sky and creates long shadows and rich colors. Photographers who are looking for the best light should plan their trips for the spring and fall, when the weather is mild and the days are longer.
ABUDANT SUBJECT MATTER
In addition to its unique landscapes and beautiful light, the Palouse also offers a wealth of subject matter for photographers. From rustic barns and windmills to abandoned homesteads and rolling hills, there is something for everyone. For those who are interested in wildlife, the region is also home to a variety of animals, including deer, coyotes, and birds of prey.
The Palouse has a strong and supportive community of photographers who are passionate about the region. Many of these photographers have been visiting the area for years and have established relationships with local farmers and landowners. This community provides a great opportunity for photographers to network and collaborate with one another, as well as learn from the experiences of others.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Planning a trip to the Palouse can be a bit overwhelming, given the size of the region and the number of locations to choose from. To get the most out of your trip, we recommend the following steps:
- Research the area and decide which locations you would like to visit.
- Contact local farmers and landowners to ask for permission to shoot on their property.
- Plan your trip around the best light, taking into account the time of year and the weather conditions.
- Pack appropriately for the conditions, including comfortable footwear and clothing for hiking and exploring.
- Consider joining a photography tour or workshop to maximize your time and get the most out of your experience.
WHERE TO PHOTOGRAPH IN THE PALOUSE
The short answer is everywhere. For sunrise and sunsets, photographers go to Steptoe Butte. When the skies are clear, the vantage point from Steptoe Butte looks down upon the hills. The gold light drifts across the loess hills, creating light and dark contrasting areas. This is one of the few places where clear skies are to your advantage during the twilight. Clouds block the sunlight and you lose the contrast. The same is true in the middle of the day. The direct sun does not create shadows on the hillsides, so it can be quite boring. Other than Steptoe Butte, the Palouse is full of random old barns, vehicles, lone trees, and sometimes cropduster planes as you can see in my Palouse Gallery. Pull out a map and start driving the roads and taking photographs. It is truly an amazing place. However, if it’s raining, if you are on a gravel road, if the gravel stops, that is where you stop driving and go back to the pavement. The dirt is mostly clay and when it’s wet, you will become stuck and or slide off the road. I don’t care what vehicle you have, wet clay is not something you drive on. I could go through and give all the locations, but what fun is that? You may only go where I say and miss out on so many interesting locations.
If you’re a photographer, the Palouse is one of the most amazing areas in the United States. The Tuscany of the U.S. is a landscape photographer’s playground. Rolling loess hills of wheat, canola, chickpeas, and unplanted ribbons of brown dirt make stunning photographs. The hills create a contrast of colors during sunsets or sunrises, the green fields mixed with blue sky in the middle of the day and the old barns are perfect subjects for fine art photographs. If you ever get the chance, drive the roads of southeast Washington in the late spring, early summer and witness the beauty of the Palouse. For inspiration, check out my premium fine art Palouse Gallery and you will be inspired to make the trip.