by Jesse Garnett White
Palouse Falls State Park a visually stunning place any time of year, but my favorite time is during Spring runoff when Palouse River flow rates are high and the water looks like chocolate milk. The immense geological forces that created the area conjure fascinating ideas and is mind-candy for nature lovers. As a geologist, a visit to Palouse Falls reminds me of how Miocene volcanism and Pleistocene glaciers and associated Great Missoula Floods have affected Washington State’s topography.
The falls have been designated as the official waterfall of Washington State and for good reason! If you haven’t been there, you should know that Palouse Falls State Park is remote–almost hidden–and when you arrive, you’ll feel like you’ve discovered a secret gem.
Following the Twists and Turns of a River
The Palouse River twists and turns from its headwaters in the Saint Joe National Forest in Idaho, through the farmlands of the Palouse and Channeled Scablands, over Palouse Falls, to the Snake River. Along Highway 261 between Washtucna and the cutoff road to the park, you can view massive linear sandbars that resulted from episodic Pleistocene cataclysmic glacial outburst floods (jökulhlaups). Technically, the Palouse River at Palouse Falls flows within a “coulee”, a deep gulch formed during these epic flooding events. Other well-known coulees in Washington State include Grand Coulee and Moses Coulee.
At Palouse Falls, the river is confined to coulee then drops nearly 200 feet into an epic plunge pool and picturesque gorge cut through the Columbia River Basalt Group. The park is an excellent place to observe wildlife and view the powerful force of water and volcanism both past and present. For example, the park is an excellent place to observe the Miocene Grand Ronde and Wanapum columnar basalt formations which flowed out over the landscape approximately 16 million to 13 million years ago respectively.
Plunge pool and rising mist
It’s not uncommon to see plunge pool rainbows on sunny days. During high flow rates, the earthy smell of Palouse Loess entrained in the mist rising from the falls is intoxicating. You may also spot coyotes, deer, marmots, hawks, kestrels, crows, ravens, pheasants, quail, various songbirds, and the elusive but ever-present Rattlesnake!
My first visit to Palouse Falls was in the spring of 1997. A classmate and drove down from Spokane to see the falls fully engorged in flood. It was awesome to witness all that churning brown-chocolate colored water cascading over the falls. Back in those days there wasn’t a fence to keep folks from falling off the edge or the now numerous signs warning people of the various dangers inherent to the park. My last visit to the falls was in the spring of 2016. I went with a couple of friends on a gorgeous sunny day, had a great time, made friends with a couple of marmots, and had a lovely picnic.
From flowing lava to basalt rock
As a geologist, I see the natural beauty of the falls in numerous and quite terrifying ways. For instance, all that basalt wasn’t solidified rock 16 million years ago, it was flowing lava covering vast swaths of earth, filling up paleo-valleys, inundating lakes and streams, and emitting toxic gases including sulfur dioxide, hydrogen fluoride, and hydrogen sulfide. Fissure eruption columns likely had toxic gas plumes reaching high into the atmosphere creating the potential for sulfuric acid-rain. It has been postulated by some geologists that lava fronts were over 150 feet high, 60 miles long, and moving at 3 miles per hour! It’s awesome to contemplate what this kind of inhospitable environment must have looked like and to consider that the complete stack of Grande Ronde basalt alone would bury the entire continental United States with nearly 40 ft of lava! And that’s just one of the flows making up the Columbia River Basalt group.
Considering the catastrophic flooding events resulting from breakouts of Glacial Lake Missoula I have always wondered what the animals and native peoples must have thought. Can you imagine the sights, sounds, and force of such events? Flood heights reached anywhere from 275 to 1250 feet across Washington and Oregon. That would have put a serious damper on migrating herds of bison, mammoths, and mastodons and the humans that followed them.
When you go …
There are numerous walkways and views of the falls including interpretive paths explaining the natural history of the area. The trail leading to the panoramic Fryxell Overlook is certainly worth the walk! It is important to stay on the trails and swimming in the river near the plunge pool is not advised. Venturing away from designated trails within the park is also not advised as hazards exist including dangerous cliffs and slippery ground. Be sure to keep your dog on a leash.
Prior to visiting the park be prepared for a remote nature experience. Be sure to have a full tank of gas and bring layered clothing, food, water, a rattlesnake kit, and a camera! It is also very important to be safety conscious. Check the state park website for official details and camping information. If you ever want a personalized tour feel free to contact me!
Palouse Falls State Park is located in Franklin County, WA along Highway 261. It can be accessed via the towns of Kahlotus, Washtucna, and Starbuck, Washington. It is 103 miles from Spokane, 75 miles from Clarkston, 83 miles from Pullman, and 237 miles from Seattle. Be sure to bring along your Roadside Geology of Washington State or your favorite nature identification guide and have a lovely day at Palouse Falls State Park!