The Palouse provides stress free wandering
July 22, 2014
By Joe Grove
This Weekend Wanderer heads for Palouse Falls State Park, but as all true wanderers know, it is not the destination, but the wandering that counts.
On the way, you need to cruise the back roads and small farm towns of Palouse country to melt away your stress, so load the kids in the minivan or SUV and get going.
To get to Palouse country from Issaquah, of course you’re stuck on Interstate 90 to Moses Lake. I-90 is a familiar run; even so, there are a couple of things to note: The snow shed you always looked for as a kid so you could tell dad to “honk the horn, honk the horn,” near Lake Keechelus, has disappeared to make way for highway improvements.
As you cross Lake Wanapum at Vantage, you will now see extensive beaches which weren’t there before, as the water has been drawn way down to take pressure off the dam, following discovery of a stress-related crack.
If you go
And as you drive along the freeway from about George to Moses Lake, you will notice the state has graciously posted signs along the cultivated fields telling you what crops are being grown: Timothy, alfalfa, sweet corn, grain corn and others. Don’t point out the signs to the kids, so when they ask “what’s in that field?” you can tell them and they will think you’re an agri-genius.
Your wandering really begins when you exit I-90 onto state Route 17 at Moses Lake and head south until you come to state Route 170. Take 170 east to Warden, a typical eastern Washington agri-industrial town with huge warehouses, implement dealer lots and processing plants.
Hills, acres and tall tales
It doesn’t take long to realize the topography is changing and you are in Palouse country. Where the name comes from is anyone’s guess, but one guess is that it comes from the Palus tribe of Native Americans. The region consists of the fertile hills and prairies north of the Snake River, which separates it from Walla Walla country and north of the Clearwater River, which separates it from the Camas Prairie. It is predominately a wheat-growing area.
Continue heading east on 170 and ignore the sign that says end of 170. The road doesn’t really end, it just gets narrower and narrower, so by the time you get to Lind, the fields are planted right up to the pavement.
The thing that makes the Palouse unique is the rolling hills that comprise thousands of acres under cultivation. Wheat is the major crop grown on the Palouse hills, and it is a mystery to the wanderer how the farmers keep their machinery from tipping over as they work these slopes.
Occasionally, cattle will be grazing on a hillside. Don’t hesitate to tell your kids these cows have shorter legs on one side to make grazing easier on the slopes, but they tend to fall over when they get on level ground (at least that is what my dad told me).
Only person for miles
Maybe the most unique feature for city dwellers is that you can sometimes drive for 30 or 40 minutes and never meet another vehicle. However, remember you are driving on narrow, often twisty roads that are also used by farmers moving their big equipment from one field to another, so slow down and stay alert.
Stay on 170, even though the sign said it ended, until you get to Lind. If you need gas, you’d better get it there. Keep going east on the Lind Ralston Road. At Ralston, take state Route 261 south to Washtucna. There is nothing to speak of in Ralston, though there is a little more in Washtucna, but your wandering will go a little better, especially if kids are along, if you packed a little picnic lunch.
At Washtucna, it is time to head for Palouse Falls State Park, about 17 miles southeast of Washtucna. Take state Route 261 about five miles to the 261/260 junction and turn left at the grain elevator. Follow 261 southeast about eight miles to the Palouse Falls Road.
A couple of miles of good gravel road will get you to the falls.
The falls are the thing
Palouse Falls State Park is a semi-primitive park in that it has no hookups for RVs. It has a number of tent sites, but RVs have to park in the same parking spaces used by regular vehicles.
The big attraction is the falls. There are several reader boards giving the geological history of the area and how the falls came into being, as well as a nicely fenced-in observation site on a cliff’s edge, allowing a good view of the falls. It all provides a great learning opportunity for the kids.
According to one display, “During the last Ice Age, a lobe of ice at least a half-mile high blocked the Clark Fork River in Idaho, creating an enormous lake, called Glacial Lake Missoula. This ice dam failed — over and over — sending billions of tons of water rampaging across the land. … You are standing in the pathway of some of the largest floods ever known. They carved steep-walled canyons, sculpted immense waterfalls and left behind landscapes found nowhere else on earth.”
Return home refreshed
So, you’ve now seen the falls and hiked the trail that takes you above the falls, and it is time to head back to the city. Take Highway 26 to Othello, Royal City and back to I-90.
Be sure and roll down your windows — the agriculture smells are part of the experience. The smells can include freshly cut alfalfa hay, silage mixed with cow manure (an especially pungent but nostalgic smell for old farm boys) or maybe mint if you pass by a mint field.
Enjoy the stress-free (that’s what this whole trip has been about) lack of traffic, and the pastoral image of thousands of cultivated acres. Let the kids see the occasional old-fashioned windmill that earlier settlers used when developing the country and the remains of old granaries. The whole trip will be about 500 miles.