WHAT AND WHERE EXACTLY IS THE PALOUSE?
One of the perks of being a landscape photographer is that I get to travel around and “discover” new places. One of my favorite places in the Pacific Northwest is the Palouse, located in the southeast corner of Washington State. What makes this region of the state so spectacular and a mecca for photographers from all around the world, is that each season brings a different color palette to explore and photograph.
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.
BEST TIME OF THE YEAR TO PHOTOGRAPH THE PALOUSE
Photographing the Palouse happens mostly at the end of May through June. The wheat fields are green, the canola is bright yellow, and mixed in are unplanted fields contrasting with brown. Lots of red barns, old vehicles, lone trees, etc. contrast with the green and yellow fields. Late spring, early summer is when most photographers show up. In fact, photography workshops arrive this time of year, so workshop participants may surround you at any location. What’s remarkable about the green and yellow fields is they look nice against a blue sky. Waiting until sunset or sunrise is not always the best choice in the Palouse.
Another good time for the Palouse is during the Harvest in August. The fields are gold and ready to be harvested and the farm equipment may be out cutting the wheat. When the harvest equipment is in the field, it creates a pleasant subject for the image. Therefore, instead of a gold field with maybe a tree or a barn, a moving tractor is a pleasant touch. I think August is my favorite time of year. Maybe it was my first time this year so it’s different from late spring. The gold light of dusk brings out the warm tones of the fields differently than it does in June. Whether you go in late spring or late summer, you will not be disappointed. Both are a good option depending on the colors you want to photograph.
Although I haven’t been to the Palouse in winter when the rolling loess hills are covered in snow, it’s quite amazing. But remember, it’s not always covered in snow during the winter. I drove through at Christmas one year and it was bare and brown fields, so I didn’t stop. If snow falls this year, I’ll head out there for a couple of days. Assuming the skies are clear so the gold light washes over the snow-covered hills. But then, I wouldn’t drive that far unless I knew the skies will be clear. Another advantage to the clear skies is the chance of alpenglow. Alpenglow is the pink and blue tones that happen on the horizon opposite the sunset after the sun goes below the horizon. It doesn’t happen all the time, but can be quite stunning when it does. If you can’t make it up Steptoe Butte, find a farm or a lone tree and wait for the alpenglow to get the shot. Fortunately, Steptoe Butte is open when the snow falls, but be careful as it’s a steep hill and you could slide off the road.
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.