The Palouse

The Palouse is a region of farmland in the northwest United States. It includes much of southeastern Washington and Idaho. The Palouse is the most productive wheat growing area in the United States. Lentils, barley, and chick peas are also major crops, and canola fields can occasionally be found. The Palouse is also a great place to grow grapes, and vineyards are starting to appear, especially in the Walla Walla area. Consisting largely of rolling hills, the undulating terrain of the Palouse is quite spectacular, and reminds one of the sand dunes in Death Valley.

Photography

Most photographers begin their trip to The Palouse with Steptoe Butte State Park. Steptoe Butte rises 1,500 feet above the surrounding farmland and provides a good overview of the area. A Washington State Discover Pass is required to visit the park, $10 per day, or $30 for an annual pass. An automated fee station can be found at the main parking area at the summit. Steptoe Butte is best at sunrise and sunset. I prefer sunrise as there is less haze, and less wind. It can be cold though, dress warmly. I suggest you arrive early and start shooting about thirty minutes before sunrise. A long lens is a must; you'll want to zoom in on the detail far below you. You may want to stop by some of the pullouts on your way to or from the summit and shoot from there as well, two pullout locations are shown on the map below.

After visiting Steptoe Butte I suggest you visit the nearby wind turbines. There are a total of 58 turbines producing just over 100 megawatts of electricity. While the turbines appear small from a distance, the rotors are over one hundred meters long and the hub sits 120 meters above the ground. They are very impressive up close, an ultrawide is a must. The "swoosh" that the blades make is something you will remember. Make a movie of the wind turbines; also consider making multiple exposures either in camera or in post, and long exposures. Wind turbines also work well as foregrounds for the Milky Way though you'll need to find a turbine that isn't spinning. The wind farm area is well above the surrounding terrain so good overlook shots are also possible.

The Palouse is also home to a great many abandoned homes, barns, and grain elevators. Do not enter these without permission. Do not walk into fields (currently growing or not), without permission of the farmer. Please respect the property of others. The farmers in the Palouse are very friendly, however tourism to the area is rapidly growing and poor behavior will strees the patience of even the easiest going.

When photographing abandoned structures try to include objects in the foreground such as mailboxes, wildflowers, or telephone poles. Use plantings and furrows as leading lines, in their absence roads, railroad tracks, and telephone lines will work. Watch your depth of field, you may need to focus bracket to get everything sharp. If you cannot find good foreground or leading lines a good sky can save the image, in this case the abandoned structure becomes the foreground and the sky the background. When you have a great sky include lots of it, otherwise just include a small strip, or eliminate the sky completely. A map showing the location of many abandoned structures can be found below, another source can be found at https://www.mobilemaplets.com/showplace/13112.

Other good photo sites include Colfax Bridge which is best at sunrise when fog is often present, Palouse Falls which is best mid-afternoon, and the bald eagle on N Palouse Rd. I have seen an eagle on N Palouse Rd in both 2011 and in 2018, since eagles often live to twenty years it is likely the same one. A long lens and teleconverter is needed.

When to go

Palouse is normally visited between May and August. In May and early June one finds a mix of green fields and fields that were just planted. Bright yellow fields of winter canola are occasionally seen and are at peak, especially in mid-May. Wildflowers are also seen in May. In mid-June and early July The Palouse is a land of greens and is perhaps the best time to visit. By mid-July the fields are turning yellow and wheat is ready to harvest. August is harvest month and is the time to visit to shoot combines and tractors in the fields.

Climate

Weatherspark has an excellent summary of The Palouse' climate. In May sunrise temperatures can be below 40° F, especially at the top of Steptoe Butte, so you will need warm clothing. From mid-June through mid-August temperatures are quite pleasant and normally range from 65° F to 85° F, though Steptoe Butte can still be cold at sunrise. From mid-July to mid-August there is little chance of rain and on 60% of the days the sky will be clear, certainly not ideal for taking great pictures. In mid-May and early June you have a much better chance of clouds as clear skies are only present about 30% of the time. Of course rain is also more common and you may get days when you cannot shoot at all. I find that clouds help Palouse images more than most and personally prefer to visit around June 1st.

Where to Stay

Most people visiting The Palouse stay in either Pullman or Colfax. Colfax is a small town and lacks services but it is centrally located and is the closest town to Steptoe Butte. There is only one chain motel in town, the Best Western Wheatland Inn. I suggest you book early if you are planning to stay in Colfax, especially in June. Pullman is a college town with over 60,000 residents and has many hotels to choose from, and many good restaurants, however you will often find yourself driving north to the Colfax area for shoots. If you cannot get a reservation in Pullman the town of Moscow, Idaho is only five miles away and has good services.

 


Here is an overview map showing some of the better known shooting locations in The Palouse:

To view the map larger please click on the box in the upper right corner of the map.

 


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