Palouse Falls

LaCrosse / Walla Walla / Pullman, Washington, USA

About Palouse Falls


Hiking Distance: roadside
Suggested Time:

Date first visited: 2013-04-26
Date last visited: 2013-04-26

Waterfall Latitude: 46.66348
Waterfall Longitude: -118.22375

Palouse Falls took our breath away when we gazed upon its powerful flow amidst a rugged and naturesque canyon that very much reminded us of the kind of raw scenery you might find in Iceland.

Except in this instance, we were in a remote corner of southeast Washington.

Palouse_Falls_030_20130426 - Palouse Falls
Palouse Falls

Indeed, it was that combination of nearly unspoilt scenery combined with a quality waterfall that further reminded us of how beautiful waterfalls could be when left alone to Nature.

Even though this waterfall was said to be only 180ft tall, it had a power that threw up enough mist to produce rainbows.

Indeed, we gave this waterfall the benefit of the doubt both in its ratings and in its place on our Top 10 Best Washington Waterfalls List (it even used to place on our competitive Top 10 Best US Waterfalls List).

Palouse Falls’ Turbulent History

It turned out that the Palouse River, which was responsible for Palouse Falls, was the geological legacy of repeated glacial dams and floods (especially the Great Missoula Flood) from the Ice Age.

In fact, Palouse Falls was said to be the only year-round waterfall that resulted from this turbulent history.

Palouse_Falls_043_20130426 - Looking downstream into the dramatic canyon carved out by the Palouse River hinting at a turbulent history given its relative desolation
Looking downstream into the dramatic canyon carved out by the Palouse River hinting at a turbulent history given its relative desolation

The accompanying canyons and hills surrounding both the falls and the deep gorge here provided clues as to violence of the geological forces at work from that last major Ice Age.

Perhaps such forces may have also had something to do with the raw and mostly undeveloped landscapes of southeastern Washington.

Palouse Falls’ more recent history told of its preservation from exploitation.

It was said that a majority of ratepayers of Franklin County rejected a proposal to build a dam immediately upstream of the falls despite the promise of lower energy rates.

Finally, given the waterfall’s precipitous gorges and powerful flow, it was hard to believe that someone managed to kayak over its entire drop and still live to tell about it!

Palouse_Falls_008_20130426 - Palouse Falls was the only year-round waterfall that remained after the Great Missoula Flood
Palouse Falls was the only year-round waterfall that remained after the Great Missoula Flood

This happened back in April 2009, and I’m sure you can find YouTube videos of the feat if you do a search for “Palouse Falls kayak”.

While we had no intentions of doing anything as crazy as kayaking over Palouse Falls, we did find a few other very different ways to experience it, which we’ll get to below.

Experiencing Palouse Falls from the Main Overlook

The main overlook was probably the most obvious way to experience Palouse Falls.

It was merely a few paces down two flights of steps past some lawn area with a few picnic tables to a broad overlook perched atop the rim of the deep gorge directly across from the falls.

Fences were erected to keep us from getting too close to the edge.

Palouse_Falls_076_20130426 - Picnic tables in a lawn area by the main overlook of Palouse Falls
Picnic tables in a lawn area by the main overlook of Palouse Falls

If we had only intended to just view the falls from here, our visit could’ve easily taken as little as 15 minutes or so.

However, the overlooks along this part of the gorge rim was wide enough that we were able to walk to each end of this main lookout area for some different perspectives of the thundering falls as well as the attractive gorge further downstream.

The immediate viewpoint from the base of the steps that connected with the parking lot (see directions below) yielded the most frontal view of the Palouse Falls.

Given its close proximity to the parking lot, this was also the busiest place to view the falls as we were sharing the overlook with many people.

During our visit in the early afternoon, we also happened to see half rainbows arcing across its base from this busy overlook.

Palouse_Falls_075_20130426 - Context of Palouse Falls with the parking lot on the topleft as seen from further downstream near the Fryxell Overlook
Context of Palouse Falls with the parking lot on the topleft as seen from further downstream near the Fryxell Overlook

As we walked further to the right downstream of the falls, we were able to get views from slightly higher and different vantage points.

The further away from the main overlook we were, the fewer people there were.

We went as far as the Fryxell Overlook, which was the sheltered overlook providing us with a somewhat distant and unusual perspective of Palouse Falls.

It also gave us a different look at the canyon further downstream when we looked away from the falls.

The reason why this sheltered overlook was given its name was because an anthropologist named Roald Fryxell from Washington State University happened to find bones and artifacts that were dated to be 10,000 to 12,000 years old!

Palouse_Falls_048_20130426 - I spotted this marmot near the overlooks opposite Palouse Falls around the Fryxell Overlook
I spotted this marmot near the overlooks opposite Palouse Falls around the Fryxell Overlook

Finally, on my way to the Fryxell Overlook from the main viewing area, I noticed there was a locked gate that led to a steep descent down a crevice between a couple of the fenced overlooks.

I (like almost everyone here) didn’t hop the gate to go down this path, but I was told by a couple who did manage to do this that the path ultimately led to the base of Palouse Falls.

They said it wasn’t easy as much of the path had severe drop off exposure as it was sandwiched on a ledge between two cliffs before making its final descent to the Palouse River.

Experiencing Palouse Falls from the Exposed Top (Difficulty: 1.5)

What I’m calling the “exposed top” pertained to a series of unfenced overlooks atop the cliffs immediately to the left of the Palouse Falls as I faced it.

I definitely had to exercise caution as the cliff exposure here gave me that nervous butterflies in my stomach feeling.

Palouse_Falls_153_20130426 - The informal footpaths skirting the canyon rim
The informal footpaths skirting the canyon rim

The benefit of seeing the falls from this perspective was to see it at a more edge-on angle.

Just to give you an idea of the photographic possibilities along these cliffs, I recalled seeing one photo in the literature where someone used an ultra-wide fish eye lens to capture both the falls and the canyon downstream together in one shot.

To access these overlooks, I left the parking lot just opposite the restroom facility along a gravel road.

Shortly after descending then ascending a short gully, I then followed the informal footpaths on the opposite side of the gully.

These informal footpaths eventually converged and skirted the canyon rim with very precipitous views of Palouse Falls.

Palouse_Falls_160_20130426 - Looking down at the horseshoe-shaped head of the canyon over which Palouse Falls drops as seen from one of the exposed rim lookouts
Looking down at the horseshoe-shaped head of the canyon over which Palouse Falls drops as seen from one of the exposed rim lookouts

The footpaths continued onto a very precarious corner where I was able to get a very edge-on view of both the falls and the Castle Rock (i.e. the pinnacles or “mohawk” as one person put it above the falls).

I definitely had to exercise extreme caution here because there were drop offs all around me and the terrain sloped towards the drop offs.

The informal footpaths continued further along the canyon rim upstream of the main falls.

I continued along these cliffs as I started to glimpse a very top down view of the much smaller Upper Palouse Falls with its very wide 20ft drop.

Palouse_Falls_147_20130426 - Looking downstream from Palouse Falls into the deep canyon while standing on the exposed canyon rim
Looking downstream from Palouse Falls into the deep canyon while standing on the exposed canyon rim

Despite some false trails and small water pipes going along into some gullies, there was no immediate way down the cliffs to access the Palouse Falls from the informal footpaths.

I’ll describe how to get down there through the next method of experiencing Palouse Falls below.

Upper Palouse Falls and the Castle Rock (Difficulty: 3)

The last way that I was able to experience Palouse Falls was on the access trail to the Upper Palouse Falls.

From there, it would then approach the Castle Rock (i.e. the pinnacles or the “mohawk”), which sat directly at the top of the main drop of Palouse Falls.

Palouse_Falls_080_20130426 - Context of people standing by the Castle Rock perched above the Palouse Falls
Context of people standing by the Castle Rock perched above the Palouse Falls

Even though it took me around an hour or so to exercise this option, I bumped up the difficulty because of the severe dropoff exposure hazards, especially at the top of the main falls near Castle Rock.

There were a couple of ways to reach the trail that led down to the Upper Palouse Falls.

The most straightforward way I did it was to follow the gravel path directly opposite the restrooms at the parking lot.

Then, I walked to the end of the gravel road, where there was a power line near the end.

Palouse_Falls_092_20130426 - The railroad tracks, which was the key landmark to access the Upper Palouse Falls
The railroad tracks, which was the key landmark to access the Upper Palouse Falls

From there, I headed towards the edge of the canyon rim on the right and looked for a steep scrambling path down to some railroad tracks.

Alternatively, instead of the gravel road, I could have taken the informal footpaths along the canyon rim (as described for the exposed top views above) and taken that footpath all the way to the railroad tracks access.

To get down to those tracks, I definitely made good use of the traction on my hiking boots because of the steepness and loose gravel making the footing slippery.

Once I was besides the railroad tracks, I walked towards their end where there was a foot trail on loose but stable rocks that ultimately descended into the base of the canyon.

Palouse_Falls_097_20130426 - Looking across the Upper Palouse Falls
Looking across the Upper Palouse Falls

A sign at the base of this descent reassured me that this was indeed a sanctioned trail.

Beyond the sign, the trail led me through some vegetation towards the base of the Upper Palouse Falls.

Even though this falls wasn’t tall, it was attractively wide and it was backed by a scenic rounded butte so I had some fun trying to compose photographs involving all the scenic subjects.

The trail continued further downstream of the upper falls as it followed a ledge between the Palouse River and the graffiti-laden cliffs.

Palouse_Falls_125_20130426 - Walking along the ledge between the Upper Palouse Falls and the Castle Rock
Walking along the ledge between the Upper Palouse Falls and the Castle Rock

After about a quarter-mile, I found myself scrambling behind the “mohawk” that was immediately above the top of the main Palouse Falls.

Even though the view of the falls from here wasn’t satisfactory, the thrill and exhiliration of literally being at the top of Palouse Falls was what really made this hike.

That said, the views of the waterfall were mostly blocked by cliffs, and I had to get dangerously close to the edge in order to even get a partial view of it.

In addition, I’m sure I was also someone’s photographic subject since I would’ve been seen by onlookers on the opposite side of the canyon at the main overlook area.

Palouse_Falls_127_20130426 - Edge on view of the Castle Rock as the path approaches it and the top of Palouse Falls behind it
Edge on view of the Castle Rock as the path approaches it and the top of Palouse Falls behind it

This was my turnaround point as I headed back the way I came.

Authorities

Palouse Falls resides in the Palouse Falls State Park in Franklin County and Whitman County, Washington (nearest town of size is probably Walla Walla, Washington). It is administered by Washington State Parks. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.

Palouse_Falls_010_20130426 - Palouse Falls as seen from the main viewing area closest to the parking lot
Palouse_Falls_035_20130426 - Portrait view of the Palouse Falls with a long arcing rainbow as seen from a more elevated position
Palouse_Falls_042_20130426 - Palouse Falls with a bolder rainbow from the right side of the main overlook area
Palouse_Falls_057_20130426 - Dramatic look at the Palouse Falls framed by canyon walls on either side as seen from the Fryxell Overlook
Palouse_Falls_066_20130426 - Looking downstream on the Palouse River from the Fryxell Overlook revealing the interesting layers of the deep canyon almost reminiscent of the something you might see out of the Grand Canyon or even Iceland
Palouse_Falls_069_20130426 - Looking back towards Palouse Falls from further out towards the Fryxell Overlook
Palouse_Falls_073_20130426 - More zoomed in on the Palouse Falls as seen from the Fryxell Overlook
Palouse_Falls_079_20130426 - Zoomed in on a group of folks who managed to hike to the 'mohawk' or Castle Rock at the top of Palouse Falls
Palouse_Falls_083_20130426 - Slightly angled perspective to the left of the main overlook area of the Palouse Falls
Palouse_Falls_084_20130426 - The gravel pathway that led me to the descent onto the railroad tracks when I pursued the Upper Palouse Falls and the Castle Rock
Palouse_Falls_085_20130426 - Approaching a part of the gravel trail leading closer to the power poles flanking the railroad tracks that were the key landmarks for pursuing the Upper Palouser Falls and Castle Rock
Palouse_Falls_087_20130426 - Looking down at the Upper Palouse Falls before descending onto the railroad tracks
Palouse_Falls_088_20130426 - Wide view looking down at the Upper Palouse Falls prior to descending to the railroad tracks
Palouse_Falls_089_20130426 - Looking down at an extremely sketchy gully or scramble into the gorge. Fortunately, I didn't have to do this in order to get down to the Upper Palouse Falls. Do NOT make the mistake of thinking these water pipes lead you down a shortcut trail to the Upper Palouse Falls
Palouse_Falls_090_20130426 - The tricky (but much more doable) scramble down to the railroad tracks below, which ultimately got me down to the Upper Palouse Falls
Palouse_Falls_093_20130426 - On the footpath leading down to the Upper Palouse Falls
Palouse_Falls_096_20130426 - This was a reassuring sign that the trail I took to get down to the Upper Palouse Falls was sanctioned
Palouse_Falls_102_20130426 - Looking across the wide drop of the Upper Palouse Falls
Palouse_Falls_108_20130426 - Downstream view of the Upper Palouse Falls and butte behind it
Palouse_Falls_115_20130426 - Looking back at the Upper Palouse Falls as I headed to the top of the main Palouse Falls and the Castle Rock
Palouse_Falls_122_20130426 - Graffiti along the cliff walls by the trail that led me to the top of Palouse Falls and the Castle Rock
Palouse_Falls_124_20130426 - Looking back at the context of the bottom of Upper Palouse Falls and the descending trail that I took from the railroad tracks to get into the gorge
Palouse_Falls_136_20130426 - Another look across the Upper Palouse Falls as I was returning from Castle Rock
Palouse_Falls_137_20130426 - Another look back across the brink of Palouse Falls as I continued to return from Castle Rock back up to the railroad tracks
Palouse_Falls_140_20130426 - Back on the gorge rim following along an informal trail skirting its edge on the way back to the parking lot after my excursion to the Castle Rock and Upper Palouse Falls
Palouse_Falls_142_20130426 - Looking down at the profile of Palouse Falls and Castle Rock from the corner of the upper canyon rim
Palouse_Falls_149_20130426 - My attempt at trying to capture Palouse Falls and the canyon from the precarious corner atop the exposed rim of the canyon while making my way back to the parking lot after having gone down to the Castle Rock earlier on
Palouse_Falls_156_20130426 - Looking down at Palouse Falls with rainbow beneath the 'mohawk' or Castle Rock
Palouse_Falls_168_20130426 - Our last look at the Palouse Falls from the exposed canyon rim before returning to the parking lot

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In our long drive to Palouse Falls State Park, we started from the town of Walla Walla, Washington, which we thought was the closest town of any significant size to the falls.

That said, Pullman, Washington (of Washington State University fame) also seemed to be similar in distance from Palouse Falls.

Nevertheless, from Walla Walla, we drove about 44 miles north on the US12 before turning left onto Hwy 261.

We’d follow Hwy 261 for the next 23 miles until we reached the signposted turnoff for Palouse Falls State Park on our right.

At that point, the road was unpaved and we drove the last 2.3 miles to the end of the road where there was the parking lot.

This drive took us about 90 minutes (3 hours round trip).

There was a $10 day use fee collected from drop envelopes on an honor system.

The fee envelopes were said to be collected on a daily basis.

For geographical context, Walla Walla was about a 253-mile 4-hour drive from Boise, Idaho. Spokane, Washington might be more of a closer city if you’re planning a road trip to this area as it was 180 miles or 3 hours drive.

Left to right sweep from the main overlook area showing the falls in the middle of the sweep as it was exhibiting a rainbow. The sweep ends with a downstream gorge view.


slow and deliberate left to right sweep from the right side of the main overlook area with a zoomed in top down sweep of the falls itself before panning over to the gorge scenery further downstream


Left to right sweep from the right side of the main overlook starting with the main overlook area itself then panning over deliberately to the canyon scenery further downstream


Right to left then right again boomerang sweep starting with the Fryxell Overlook, then focusing on the Palouse Falls before panning back over to the gorge scenery in the direction of the Fryxell Overlook


Right to left sweep from the shelter at Fryxell Overlook starting with the gorge scenery (plus showing some snow in the distant mountains) before panning over to the falls itself


Left to right sweep starting with a zoom-in of the railroad in the distance, then panning across the Upper Palouse Falls and the butte backing it before showing the downstream gorge scenery. The movie ends with a contextual fixation on the falls and butte together.




Left to right sweep starting with a focus on the falls with mohawk and rainbow themselves, before panning along the Palouse River towards the rugged canyon scenery further downstream

Tagged with: walla walla, washington, lacrosse, pullman, waterfall, franklin county, whitman county, fryxell, mohawk, pinnacles, upper palouse



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