Palouse Falls and Hills
On the way to the IMTUF 100 we stopped at Washington State University to meet with one of Apryle’s committee members and were first exposed to the unique Palouse Hills. Most people would not look twice at this region and pass it off as boring and uninteresting but I found it to be quite fascinating. Although I will always be partial to the mountains and high desert regions, the steppe also intrigues me. My fascination in the region was further heightened because I had been reading a book called Steppes, which highlights the Columbia Basin Plateau.
So about five weeks after our first visit, Apryle and I made the trip back to the Palouse hills to perform a series of Giving Up Density (GUD) tests with the captive deer at Washington State University. After our work was finished we were able to further explore our surroundings. Our hotel was situated right on the Washington/Idaho border and right across the highway from the Palouse Trail. Therefore, I decided that the 7.1-mile trail would be a great place to capture the essence of the unique ecosystem. I made the out and back plus a few more for a solid 15 miler in 1:43:00.
The Palouse trail was developed in 1998 shortly after the Palouse River Railroad shut down operations after 113 years of activity. This was the work of one of my favorite programs – Rails to Trails, which has been responsible for many of my favorite places to run (Similkameen, John Wayne, and Ferry County).
The trail parallels Paradise Creek and crosses it 12 times with the aid of wooden bridges. The trailheads are located in Pullman, WA (2535ft) and Moscow, ID (2555ft). Although the trail parallels State Route 270/State Highway 8 and traffic can be seen buzzing by nearly the entire time, the corridor is surrounded by dense riparian vegetation, providing a since of seclusion. Much to my dismay the trail is asphalt and there is only a 180ft elevation difference, but it is still a worthwhile journey.
The Palouse region of southeastern Washington and Central Idaho is major agricultural producer in this country. It experienced a population boom greater than that of the Puget Sound region in the 19th century. This was due in large part to the introduction of Wheat and Legume farming. Today this region remains the most important Lentil growing community in the world. Unfortunately, due to the farming this is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the U.S. with only 1% of the original plants remaining.
The Loess hills that predominate the area may resemble sand dunes, but their development is far different. Most loess/calcrete dunes are formed by moving currents but the alternating layers of loess/calcrete that make up the Palouse loess hills originated from air fall of wind-silt from suspension. This stark and unique landscape is in the heart of the Columbia Basin Steppe.
The second adventure of the weekend was a side trip to the iconic Palouse Falls State Park. This 105-acre park features a 198-foot waterfall and about 3 miles of unofficial trail (though plans are in the works for trail creation). The main falls are located about 4 miles upstream from the rivers confluence with the Snake River. The upper falls are less dramatic and located about 400 meters northwest. The 377-foot canyon surrounding the falls exposes a cross section of the Columbia River Basalt group (which is basically a large accumulation of igneous rock).
The surrounding area is channeled scablands created by the Missoula floods that were a periodic occurrence about 1,800,000 to 12,000 years ago. Originally the Palouse flowed through the Washtucna Coulee (currently dry) to the Columbia River, but the floods ultimately diverted it to the Snake. The formation of this area is very similar to that of Sun Lakes Dry Falls SP and Steam Boat Rock SP, with features including: coulees, potholes, pinnacles, buttes and kolks.
Ultimately, I believe I am most intrigued by Eastern and Southeastern Washington because it is the exact opposite of the traditional picture of the Evergreen State. Though given its formation, geographic location, and weather patterns, it is not surprising that the landscapes of this state are so polarized. Although, I love exploring Mount Rainier, the North Cascades and the Salmo-Priest Wilderness; I highly recommend taking a moment to also explore the less glamorized scablands and steppe.