I’ve photographed in the Palouse in spring, summer and fall, but to finish up my soon-to-be release Palouse photography guide, I needed to photograph there in the winter. To be honest, I have shot in the Palouse in winter before, but not when there was snow. So all winter long, I’ve been waiting for snow to coat the Palouse hills (and for some free time for me to make the journey). When I did go last week, I found the Palouse is incredibly beautiful when covered by snow.
Winter in the Washington State has been very mild (that is up until about eight days ago), and snow has been rare in eastern Washington. Finally, several weeks ago, the weather forecasts were looking favorable, so I made plans to do a quick trip over. My plan was to drive over the evening of Thursday, February 8th, shoot on Friday and Saturday, then after a quick visit to my Step-mom in Spokane, drive back to Tacoma on Sunday. It was a good plan, except it didn’t account for the largest snow storm to hit the state in decades. The photography part of the trip went great (though I didn’t get to as many spots as I would have liked), but the driving home on Sunday part was not so good.
The snow coverage in the Palouse was uneven. Down near Uniontown, there was less snow (and in some places, almost none – though earlier this week, I’m sure this changed), while up near Tekoa, the snow cover was much thicker. My journeys on Friday were hampered at times by falling snow, which greatly cut visibility and made scenes look foggy. Saturday provided much better light, but brought its own special challenges – high winds and drifting snow.
Many of the back roads in the Palouse are “all-weather” gravel roads. I found many of these barely passable because of the drifting snow. In my mid-sized, all-wheel drive SUV, I plowed through many snow drifts as long as they weren’t too tall – it was fun. While this allowed me to get to some good shots, it later came back to haunt me. By mid-afternoon Saturday, the light was wonderful, but the wind had really picked up, and even the paved highways were being drifted over.
Throughout Friday and Saturday morning, I had visited spots I thought might look good with snow (as well as a couple new spots). My plan by mid-afternoon on Saturday was to go shoot the Lone Pine grain elevator then try to get up on Steptoe Butte. Lone Pine road was heavily drifted, but we made it in. The vantage point I wanted was a short distance from Lone Pine Road, on Chase Road (another all-season road). Tanya and I turned onto Chase Road and almost immediately stopped because the snow was so thick. But then, a tractor plowing the road crested the hill. It went by us and back up the hill. I figured we could now make it, with the road being plowed. I was wrong. We got about 100 meters or less up the road and got stuck. We were stuck for at least half an hour, even with the farmer, Donovan Chase, helping us out. He finally was able to get us out of there, and I didn’t even get the shot I was looking for (the 30+ mph wind was blowing snow straight at us from the direction of the grain elevator – the shot was not possible).
After freeing us from the snow, he asked us to check in at C&D’s Bar & Grill (which he is an owner) to let them know we made it out okay since the conditions on Lone Pine Road were sketchy. We made it out to Tekoa and stopped at C&D’s to have a drink. We decided it was probably best stop the photography for the day and head to Spokane (we probably couldn’t have gotten very far up Steptoe anyway). However, not a mile outside of town on the highway to Spokane, the road was restricted to one lane by snow drifts and that lane was blocked by a tow truck pulling a car out of a drift. Right then, a Department of Transportation truck appeared and told us the highway was closed. We eventually did make it to Spokane by heading east out of Tekoa into Idaho first before heading north. The normally 50-minute drive to Spokane took about 1.5 hours. On the drive, our car was running rough and making unusual noises.
But we made it to Spokane and checked into our hotel. After dinner with my Step-mom, we decided our SUV should probably go to the auto shop before we drove back across the state to Tacoma. You know how many auto shops are open in Spokane on Sundays in winter? Maybe two. We still hoped to drive to Tacoma Sunday, so I got the car to the Firestone shop when it opened at 8 a.m. Sunday morning. However, with the storm, their power had been out all day Saturday, and they were very backed up. They’d get to my SUV when they could.
About 3 hours later, I got a call from Firestone. They had the car up on the lift and the mechanic saw something he had never seen before. Apparently, the total undercarriage of my SUV was coated with over 1 foot of ice. They said they’d need to thaw the car before determining what was wrong. Needless to say, we did not drive to Tacoma that day. Around 5 p.m. Firestone called back and said they had finally melted enough of the ice to check the car out. They thought their might be a problem with the transmission and suggested I take it to a transmission shop in the morning.
So Monday morning, I picked the car up at Firestone and drove it to the transmission shop. It took them a couple of hours to determine nothing was wrong with the transmission. Though they did call me into the shop and under the lift to show me ice still packed into the nooks and crannies under my car and asked where I had been driving. They thawed more ice and sent me on my way. We hit Interstate 90 toward Seattle at around 10:30 a.m.
However, the car was not totally fine. I had a dead headlight (obtained while plowing through snow banks on Saturday morning) and the wiper fluid was frozen. Driving on the interstate freeway in winter without wiper fluid does not work very well. So, we stopped in Ritzville (about an hour west of Spokane) to get the headlight replaced and the wiper fluid unfrozen. It took about 2 hours – they had to thaw a block of ice in the wiper fluid reservoir, the wiper fluid lines, and the wiper fluid motor. But finally we were back on the road.
All went fine until we were about half way up and over the Cascade Mountains on Snoqualmie Pass. It was around 5:30 p.m., was snowing heavily, and very dark with almost no visibility (I was glad I got the headlight fixed). Not surprisingly, the State Patrol closed the road. Unfortunately for us, they closed it about 10 cars in front of us. If we had left Spokane 5 minutes earlier, we could have got over the pass. Instead, we found a hotel room for the night in Cle Elum.
Tuesday morning, we packed up and learned that the pass was still closed and Interstate 90 was closed both ways. We decided to try for White Pass (good thing, Snoqulamie Pass didn’t open until a day later). He had to first take back road east to Ellensburgh because the freeway was closed. But once at Ellensburg, we got back on the freeway and drove east and south to Yakima. There we got on the US Highway 12 to White Pass. The pass was open, but conditions were not good. However, we finally made it over the Cascades. Unfortunately, the highway to Tacoma from Highway 12 was closed due to snow and downed trees, and we had to take the long way around. We finally got home around 5:30 p.m. – a full two days later than we had planned. It had snowed about 13 inches at our house and we needed to shovel the berm created by the snowplow in front of our house to park.
So, was all this worth it for some winter shots of the Palouse? You be the judge and let me know what you think of these shots.
The Palouse region of Washington State is famous for its verdant spring hills and red barns. Steptoe Butte is a must-visit destination for many travel and nature photographers. I have shot in the Palouse several times, and blogged about it several years ago (see here and here). But one of the highlights of the region I missed until earlier this week – Palouse Falls.
Palouse Falls perhaps gets a bit less traffic than Steptoe Butte and the rest of the Palouse because it is a bit out-of-the-way, more of an outlier to the Palouse region than being in it. It is an hour and 45 minute drive from the falls to Steptoe Butte, and just a bit less to the town of Colfax, where many photographers stay during their trips to the region. If you are staying in Colfax, do you really want to get up at 3:30 a.m. to drive to Palouse Falls for sunrise when you could sleep an hour later and still get sunrise shots at Steptoe Butte?
But Palouse Falls is worth a visit. Perhaps the best way to visit, at least for prime photography times, is to camp there. Palouse Falls State Park has 11 tent camping spots (no trailer hookups; trailers and RVs are sometimes allowed to park overnight in the parking lot during non-peak periods) that are within 100 meters of prime viewpoints for photography.
The Palouse River falls about 185 feet over the edge of a canyon of basalt. Unlike the verdant hills of the Palouse further east of the falls, the falls are in desert. But there is plenty of green in the canyon below the falls, making a wonderful contrast with the black basalt and brown hills (or in spring, brown and green hills). The canyon below the falls is scenic on its own accord and would be worth a visit even without the falls. The canyon curves to the south just downstream from the falls. The campground is perched on the western canyon rim, and it is easy to walk to viewpoints that either look eastward directly toward the falls, or southward down the canyon. These southerly looking viewpoints are north of the parking lot and provide the best view – encompassing the falls and the downstream canyon. Be warned though, they are right on the edge of vertical drop of at least 250 feet straight down to the canyon floor, beyond the fence on the canyon rim near the campground and parking lot, and are not for those who are faint of heart or afraid of heights. To get the falls and downstream canyon both in single composition will require a wide-angle lens of about 18 mm or less on a camera with a full-frame sensor. My 17-40mm zoom worked well, but if you want more sky in the frame, you may want an even wider angle (or stitch together more than one shot).
The falls face west-southwest and receive direct sunlight in late morning through most of the afternoon during the spring (reportedly in summer they may be in partial shadow into the early afternoon). In the evening, the shadow of the canyon wall climbs up the falls, and before sunset, they are completely in shade. Similarly, the falls are completed shaded at sunrise. And, once the sun is up, it shines through and lights up the mist created by the falling water, making early morning shots of the falls more difficult.
However, if the clouds to the south light up during either sunset or sunrise, excellent photo opportunities await. You may want to use a split-neutral density filter to help control the contrast between the sky and the dark canyon below. Similarly, you may consider using HDR.
The falls are also a great location for Milky Way nightscape shots like I’ve discuss recently, and in fact that was the prime reason for my recent visit. In spring, the best viewpoint is again north of the parking lot, on the canyon rim (just be extra careful in the dark, it’s a long fall down). The falls will be completely dark, so light painting is recommended. When I was there, for the image above, I worked with a photo partner. One of us tripped the shutters on the cameras while the other used a spotlight to light paint the falls and canyon from the fenced viewpoint area near the parking lot.
It is possible to hike to the top of or bottom of the falls, though the trails are not maintained by the park. These unofficial trails are steep, so if you do take them, be extra careful. The one in from the south steeply drops off the canyon rim and circles midway along the canyon wall to the the top of the falls. At one point, almost directly below the main viewpoint by the parking lot, it is possible to get down to the river in the bottom of the canyon by dropping down a steep scree slope. The trail from the north, drops into the upper canyon from the railroad tracks that run west of the park. This is reportedly the easier way in, though you must hop a fence along the tracks to reach the trail and the descent is still steep. You should also be careful along the tracks because it is an active rail line. If you do take the northern route into the canyon, you will pass by a nice stretch of white water above the falls. There is certainly no need to take these trails into the canyon to get good photographs, the views from the top are spectacular (and indeed, during my recent trip, we did not hike into the canyon). Reportedly the trail continues several miles up canyon to Upper Palouse Falls, a fall of less than 20 feet, and during the spring, when the flow in the river is greatest and the area has plenty of blooming wildflowers, this may be a good day hike option.
Marmots are active around the main falls viewpoints, and with a bit of patience, you can get rather close to take portraits of these groundhog relatives. The park is also home to many types of birds. When there recently, I saw several varieties I had not seen before.
Overall, Palouse Falls is a great place for photography. It is worth a quick stop on your way to or from the Palouse; or better yet, spend the night there to experience the falls at sunrise and sunset. You won’t be disappointed.