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Shadow, Light & Color in Washington’s Palouse

Purple Haze, Palouse, Washington State

These are the elements that can change a photograph into art. When they coalesce, they are a photographer’s dream. The enduring search for that special combination and hoping that my timing and location will be perfect, makes up a great part of my photography planning. Including being in place by first light and often remaining until after the sun has set.

Palouse, Washington State

But in addition to these elements, I look for something even more special. I look for all of this, plus attitude. If you are in any beautiful place, and can capture shadow, light, color, and nature’s feisty, aggressive, defiant, and sometimes uncooperative attitude in your viewfinder, it is hard not to get a great image.

The forecast as I planned my last trip was calling for a mix of sun and rain, with some major storms rolling in. While rain can be miserable for driving and camping, there is no doubt that storms, with sunlight breaking through the scudding and eclipsed clouds, raindrops coating everything, and dynamic skies and landscapes, offers spectacular photo prospects.

Sunburst! Palouse, Washington State

The Pacific Northwest has an abundance of natural areas that can capture this magic. Sunset on the Olympic Coast, on the bluffs overlooking the Salish Sea and San Juan Islands, sunrise over Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, or capturing mist and fog along the Columbia River Gorge or other numerous and beautiful rivers, lakes, and shorelines.

But looking towards eastern Washington State, absolute and astounding beauty can be found in the rolling hills and fields of greens, golds, yellows, and browns of the Palouse Region.

Palouse 2, Washington State

South of Spokane, the Palouse (also known as the Inland Empire) is some 3,000 square miles of primarily agricultural lands located in southeastern Washington and encompassing parts of northeast Oregon and northcentral Idaho to the foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains. It is framed by the Snake River and Blue Mountains to the South, the Palouse River to the north, and the Columbia River a few hundred miles to the west. The Palouse River has its headwaters in Idaho’s St. Joe National Forest, and it runs west, then south, then back to the southeast until it merges with the Snake. On its travels west, it hooks around and runs through the center of the Palouse region.

Palouse Falls, Washington State

On its way, the Palouse River drops 198 feet over Palouse Falls, carved by glacial floods. It flows onward through a spectacular river canyon, and the falls and canyon offer a ton of attitude with basalt cliffs, yellow-bellied marmots, gradient, and striking colors and shadows at sunset. It is Washington State’s official falls and well worth the visit.

Palouse River Valley, Washington State

A rich farming area defined by gently rolling and deeply shadowed hills, the Palouse is emphasized in every direction by green fields of wheat and barley, yellow fields of winter canola and mustard, with additional color splashes from lentils, chickpeas, onions, spring wildflowers, and increasingly, grapes as you move south towards Walla Walla. It is the top wheat producing county and second highest barley producer in the US.

Attitude! Palouse, Washington State

The shadows, light, color, and farming communities combine uniquely in the Palouse, and they are a major reason it is one of Washington State’s Seven Wonders. Driving along the more than 200 miles of the Palouse Scenic Highway, you visit small communities such as Colfax, Pullman, Palouse, and Moscow Idaho, nestled along roads and hills that are just a kaleidoscope of colors. In spring, before all the fields are planted, the just plowed, patterned, brown fields, along with red barns and pretty farms offer a perfect backdrop to the rolling landscape. Add in storm clouds, and weather’s wild attitude and you experience phenomenal and changing visons over each rise, fold, and curve.

It is an area to visit again and again, as the shadows, light, and color are constantly changing. Greens turn to gold in fall, then to white as light snow blankets the Palouse during winter. It is a place of art, dreams, and beauty, regardless of your background or the reason or circumstance that allows you to immerse yourself in the Palouse.

“It is a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Bilbo Baggins.

North Cascades Mist! Diablo Lake, Washington State


As with any trip, getting there and back is equal fun. For this trip, I traveled over the just opened North Cascades Highway, stopping at Diablo Lake (home of North Cascades Institute and another of Washington’s Seven Wonders), and sighting my first black bear of the year. Across Washington Pass at 5,476 feet, and then winding down through the Methow Valley. Returning to my whitewater paddling roots, I took a side trip from Palouse Falls, briefly followed the Snake, up Idaho’s Clearwater to the free-flowing and Wild & Scenic Lochsa River in Idaho (Lochsa is a Nez Perce word meaning “rough water”). I spent time sitting beside Pipeline rapid, one of the best surfing waves anywhere. Coming home, I was up early to catch sunrise at the Palouse’s Steptoe Peak, and by afternoon was past done with driving. I spent an afternoon resting alongside Icicle Creek Gorge that flows out of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and into the Wenatchee River just downstream of the amazing Tumwater Canyon (a Chinook word that also means “rough water”).

Icicle Creek, Washington State

“Rivers are places that renew our spirit, connect us with our past, and link us directly with the flow and rhythm of the natural world.” Ted Turner

Cinnamon Black Bear. North Cascades National Park, Washington

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