Quick photo guide to the Palouse
This is part of my Photo Location Guide series. To see them all, visit this page.
My first trip to Washington's Palouse region was way back in 1995, just a few years after I started getting into photography, in fact. I didn't know a whole lot about it other than some pictures I'd seen by John Shaw as well as some pictures from local Seattle photographers. I however did know of one spot to go: Steptoe Butte. So, armed with that vast knowledge and a Washington State DeLorme map, I drove east to spend a few days on the other side of the state.
For a first trip to an area, I didn't do too badly. I manage to get two images that were eventually published, one of those in an Audubon calendar. But at the time I didn't care about that, I was just enjoying my time exploring, getting lost, and finding some great light along the way.
On this first visit to the Palouse I based myself out of Colfax, WA. And it's such a good base that I now base all of my annual Palouse photo workshop in Colfax. Other options include the much larger towns of Pullman, WA (home of the Washington State University Cougars) and Moscow, ID. But for being right in the middle of all the good stuff, it's hard to beat staying in Colfax.
On that first trip I spent a lot of time in the middle of the day just driving around and taking pictures in bad light. Needless to say, most all of those pictures have been tossed. But it did give me a feel for the area and I found some places I wanted to return to in better light.
As an aside, having a compass and knowing the azimuth of sunrise and sunset was what enabled me to get one of my all-time favorite and successful shots. Now I always scout an area with my compass in hand and the sunrise/sunset bearings written down (or in an iPhone app).
If you're thinking about or actively planning a trip to Palouse, I've got some suggestions and a few resources to share.
First about the roads. There are basically three types of roads in the Palouse: paved roads, gravel roads, and dirt roads. Whatever you do, avoid the dirt roads if it's been raining. The dirt roads will turn into slick mud that can either get you stuck or make you slide into some farmer's field. The farmers in the area all have stories about using tractors to pull out stuck cars. Don't become one of those stories.
There are plenty of paved and gravel roads to explore though, so you'll have plenty to see even if it's wet out.
Some favorite Palouse locations
Steptoe Butte State Park is located north of Colfax. It's justifiably famous for its aerial views of the surrounding farmland. Give yourself about 20 minutes or so from Colfax to drive to the top of the butte. This is a Washington State Park and does require a parking permit. There's an envelope station near the entrance to the park and an automated pay station in the parking lot at the very top. The fee is $10/day. If you plan on several visits during your stay, it may be more economical to just purchase a Washington State Discover Pass for $30, which is good for a year at all Washington State Parks. You can get one online here. Or you can purchase one at the Chevron station in Colfax at the intersection of Hwy 26 and Hwy 195.
The Dahmen Barn is in Uniontown, about 20 minutes south of Pullman on Hwy 195. This location is actually pretty good in the morning or the afternoon. If there are big puffy white clouds in a blue sky, it looks great in the afternoon.
The big attraction is the Wheel Fence, made from hundreds of old metal tractor wheels, gears, and other round things. You'll have a lot of fun photographing this. The barn also houses a local artists' co-op so make sure you go inside too.
Continuing south on 195 for just a couple of minutes and you'll see the red "Palouse Country" barn on the west side of the road.
This is one of those classic Palouse locations.
If you're into old trucks, don't miss Tom Hennigar's display of a vintage gas station and loads of old cars and trucks. It's located between Endicott and St. John on the Endicott-St. John Road (go figure).
Be sure to sign Tom's guest book to thank him.
Note: On my latest visit (June 2017) there were barriers and signs stating "NO TRESPASSING, NO PHOTOS."
From what I was able to piece together, a photo workshop group showed up at 6 a.m. one morning and may have even gone into the Hennigar's front yard. I heard rumor that other disrespect was shown to Tom's property at that time, perhaps even climbing on equipment. I don't know the whole story. But having met Tom, and knowing how proud he is of his collection and how generous he was about allowing people to come out to see and photograph his collection, the offense given must have been egregious. (Read a story about Tom here.)
I've been hearing other stories of trespassing photographers and it's becoming an issue with the local farmers and land owners. If you do visit the Palouse, be sure to show the respect you would expect from others visiting your neighborhood.
Tony Sweet has written more about the increase of this kind of behavior here.
There's a great old abandoned house south of Pullman near the intersection of Weber and Whitman road. Traveling south of Pullman on Hwy 195, turn left on Chambers Road. Then Left on Johnson and right on Weber. Turn right on Whitman and you'll see the house.
This house is on private land and you'll see a sign in front of the house telling you to not go beyond that point. Please heed this sign. You'll be able to get great pictures from that point or even back on Weber Road.
This is such a picturesque old house that people have stolen a post that supports the overhang on the front porch. People have been known to enter the house to take things. A well known photo tour leader once published a picture taken from inside of the house. The owners had a talk with him about that the next time he was out there with a group.
At one point the owner was about to have it bulldozed but his daughter talked him out of it. She and her husband now own the property and live across Weber road in full site of this house. So if you stop by to photograph, one of them may just come out for a chat. They're very friendly people and want to keep the house available for photographers and sightseers. So don't abuse their kindness.
Here's one of my favorite sunrise routes:
From Colfax, take State Route 272 towards the town of Palouse. About two or three minutes after leaving Colfax you'll come across a very nice red barn with an old truck (or maybe two!) parked in front of it. There's room on the right hand side of the road for parking. There didn't used to be. But so many people stop to see this barn that I believe the owner made a little extra room on the side of the road to accommodate a few cars. I have no first-hand knowledge that this is true, but it sure looks that way.
Get there a few minutes before sunrise to check the area out. It will actually take the sun a little bit of time to fully light the barn, but in the mean time you'll see the first light touching the rolling fields to the east. There's also a nice shot of the road and telephone poles looking to the east.
After the sun has risen and lit the barn and you've gotten your shots, keep driving on State Route 272 for another five minutes or so and turn left on Glenwood Road. Follow Glenwood as it turns into a gravel road, takes a sharp right turn, and then starts a gentle climb. Look for a red barn on the right hand side. In June, this barn gets fully lit perhaps an hour after sunrise. And the light on it stays pretty nice for quite awhile. If you're lucky, you'll have big puffy white clouds in the sky to the north and west.
(Sadly, this barn has collapsed. I leave it here in memory of some good photos!)
After you're done here keep going on Glenwood for just a little bit and look for Brose Road. It's a dirt road (remember what I said about dirt roads!). Turn left and drive to the top of the hill for a great view. After this, continue on Brose and at the bottom of the hill veer right on Crumbaker Rd. up another hill to a great "Tuscany" like view of rolling hills with Steptoe Butte in the background.
Palouse Falls isn't actually in the Palouse farming area. It's about 90 minutes from Colfax, but it's worth the trip. If you've got a cloudy/rainy day, might as well take the trip to Palouse Falls. That Washington State Discover Pass will get you in to this state park as well.
This location can also be a great sunset spot. Or, if you've got some moonlight to light up the landscape, a night location.
You'll probably want a wide angle lens here. If shooting at night, I'd use my Rokinon 14mm.
From Colfax, travel west on HWY 26 to Washtucna (about 50 miles) and turn left. Follow the signs to Palouse Falls State Park.
Those are just a few of my favorite spots. If you visit my Palouse gallery, you'll find that many of the images have been geo-tagged. Click on the thumbnails to open larger images and look for the little map symbol in the upper right of the page. Clicking on this will take you to Google Maps and you'll have the GPS coordinates to that location. On some images the icons will be grayed out; they don't have GPS coordinates. I'm not keeping secrets; it's just that some of these are from slides and some I simply can't remember exactly where I was.
One of the best map/guide to photo locations to the Palouse you can get is the Photography Hotspot map that the Pullman Chamber of Commerce puts out. You can download it as a pdf or write to the Chamber and they'll mail one to you. Or, when you're in the area, just stop by the Chamber of Commerce and pick one up.
If a trip to photograph the Palouse is on your bucket list but you don't want to go it alone, click on over to my Workshops site; chances are I'll have a trip to the Palouse on the list.