About Palouse Falls
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This was my turnaround point as I headed back the way I came.
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.
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.
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