The Palouse is a remote farming area in southeastern Washington state and western Idaho. The endless softly rolling hills are home to vast wheat fields, scattered small towns and friendly folks. It’s the type of place that evokes memories of the “Norman Rockwell” America we imagine it was long ago.
You’ve probably never heard of the Palouse…unless you are a wheat broker, a local resident or a landscape photographer.
Why landscape photographers? Well, those hills I mentioned are blessed by a soft, flowing, nearly sensuous beauty when viewed thru a camera. As a result, photographers from across the world flock there during the summer when the fields are covered by colorful waves of wheat. Images of this area captivated me for years and I finally had the chance in June to experience it for myself.
And here’s what I found:
What do you think? Unreal? Surreal? I’d never seen anything like it but for some odd reason when I first gazed upon the Palouse landscape, I was oddly reminded of a painting by Dali …
I thought Dali was Spanish but maybe he spent some time in western Washington before he started painting?
The Palouse seems to encourage random, strange thoughts like that…it just doesn’t seem real somehow. It is all just so pretty…so green and the people are just so incredibly nice. Boy, I thought the folks in my town were friendly …but the Palouse? Have you ever had one of those road-workers that holds the “Slow/Stop” signs actually walk up to your car and start talking to you? This happened to me twice in the Palouse. If this occurred in some other parts of the country, I’d be rolling up my windows and frantically looking for a way to get away…but here it didn’t seem odd or threatening. It quickly became clear that the locals just don’t seem to have the ‘shields’ that those of us from urban areas take for granted.
Okay…okay…enough with my ramblings about how the Palouse made me feel. What does it look like?
Well, first of all the landscape is best appreciated from the vantage point of height. Fortunately, there is a tall hill (butte) smack dab in the middle of the best part of the Palouse. It is called Steptoe Butte and as part of the Washington State Park system, it is open to the public. In the hours before dusk and after dawn, the low angle of the sun creates wonderful shadows around all those curvy hills.
Steptoe tops-out at 3612′ and you can park on the summit and see an absolutely unreal 360º vista. With a pair of binoculars you can see the occasional red barn, farm house or grain silo…but those are the exceptions. Nearly everything you can see in every direction is just soft, curving hills covered with rippling waves of grain.
Well, you will also notice the 58 turbines of the Palouse Wind Farm built in 2012. They are a good distance north of the butte so they don’t look huge but they are actually about 500′ tall and produce quite a bit of electricity.
Every direction you look reveals more details and different perspectives:
If you come down from the Butte, the perspectives from ground level are still captivating…just not jaw dropping.
So, if you ever want to travel back in time to a simpler, friendlier time while being surrounded in a landscape that only a crazy Catalonian surrealist artist could envision, make your way to the Palouse next summer. It will be a memorable experience.
Tips and suggestions for my Fellow Photographers:
When to Visit?
May and June are usually peak for the yellow and green of the fields. A very different look can be seen in July and August when the wheat turns gold and brown. Harvesting usually begins in late August.
Where to stay?
Colfax is the town closest to Steptoe. It is about 30 minutes south and you can choose from 4 or 5 hotel/motels.
Where should you go for your shots?
Steptoe Butte As mentioned, Steptoe Butte is the primo place to be in the Palouse.
The best light is near sunrise and sunset. Be on Steptoe for both….the same features can look totally different at the opposite ends of the day. Plus, by visiting twice you will increase your chances of photographing during partly cloudy conditions when dappled sunlight accentuates the incredible shadows created by the low angled sunlight.
When you first get to Steptoe, pay your $10 at the unattended kiosk (or you can buy a full year pass online for $30), then drive to the summit. There is a large parking area just below the actual summit and many folks pull in here mistakenly thinking they are at the top. The actual summit is accessed by a narrow (a little wider than a single car), unmarked road on your left as you pull into the larger pullout. It looks like a service road used to get to the cell towers on the summit. Once you get to the top, scout out your potential shots by using your binoculars. Look for nice perspectives and find the farm houses, barns and silos that you will want to incorporate into your shots.
Don’t stay at the summit the whole time. There are a number of pullouts along the road that winds around the butte and they will give you significantly different perspectives. It only takes a few minutes to drive from one to the other and you will be surprised how different your shots look from the lower elevations.
The park is officially open from dawn to dusk but I’ve never had an issue being there earlier or later than the posted hours.
During the day, drive around: Get off the paved roads, slow down and just drive. There are some wonderful vignettes to be found. Be respectful of private property and be aware that some big farm equipment rolls down the gravel roads. Also be aware that most of the roads around here have sharp drop-offs right at their edge….you can’t just pull over everywhere. You may have to drive a bit further and hike back a short ways.
Dahmen Barn: Located in Uniontown (about an hour south of Steptoe) this is an antique barn that is now a co-op for local artists. Photographers adore the fence that surrounds the property which is made from hundreds of old metal tractor wheels, gears, etc. Here is a link with more info and directions.
T.A. Leonard Barn: You will see a lot of quaint red barns in the Palouse, but how many round barns have you ever seen? This beautifully restored gem is 40 minutes south of Steptoe in Pullman right off of Old Moscow Road. It’s a private farm and not open for tours but you can photograph it from the road. This site will give you more info and directions.
Kamiak Butte: Actually a bit taller than Steptoe but you can’t drive to the summit. There is a hiking trail to the top (about 3.5 miles roundtrip). If you are visiting for more than a day and you have already got all the shots you want from Steptoe, then it is certainly worth a visit but if your time is limited, Steptoe is the place to be. Great place for a picnic lunch. Kamiak is about 29 miles (55 minutes) from Steptoe. Click this link for more info.
Palouse Falls: About an 90 mile drive west of Steptoe is the magnificent 197′ Palouse Falls. Perhaps best seen at sunset, you can also take wonderful Milky Way shots here. I’ll be writing a full article about this location later in the fall.
Other locations: Teri Lou, a local photographer has put together a detailed map showing locations of barns, old cars and other photographic points of interest. She sells the map via the internet for $25. It is quite detailed and worth your money if you are going to visit. Here is a link. And no, I don’t get a commission! Short of hiring a full time local guide, this is the best resource I’ve found to help visiting photographers find potential locations
How long should you visit?
If your time is tight, you can cover the highlights in a day. That will give you a sunrise and sunset on Steptoe and the middle of the day to explore the countryside. Of course, the Palouse is a big area, so you would need to spend much longer to cover it thoroughly. If you do decide to take a few days, I’d suggest you hire one of the local photo guides or book a photo tour. Many of them have relationships with the farmers who will allow you to access to locations on private property that would otherwise be unavailable to you.
Lenses: When you think of landscapes, you naturally think of wide angle lenses and they will come in handy when you are driving around the farm roads. But on Steptoe, you need long lenses. As I reviewed my photos taken on the butte, I noticed that nearly all of them were taken somewhere between 300-500mm on a full frame camera (450mm to 750mm on an APS-C crop sensor camera).
Polarizer: You will often have some haze on Steptoe and a polarizer will help reduce that issue and make your colors ‘pop.’
Tripod: The Palouse can be a bit breezy. On Steptoe, the wind can really rip. I have a heavy duty tripod and head that had never, ever had a problem even with my monster 200-400 beast of a zoom lens. At least it never had a problem until I was on Steptoe. As I checked my shots in the LCD, I noticed that some of them were not quite as sharp as others…the wind was shaking my rig ever so slightly. I’d suggest you weigh down your tripod, take 2 or 3 shots of every scene and check every single shot fully zoomed in to ensure that your shots are sharp.
Dynamic Range: Full frame cameras, HDR, blending layers in Photoshop….many of us work hard to show the full dynamic range in our shots. Oddly enough, the Palouse is one of those venues where that might not be necessary..or even preferred. Those dark shadows contrasted by the brilliant crests of the hills seems to me to be a big part of the beauty of the Palouse. Do yourself a favor and try processing some shots where you can’t see every detail in the shadows…you might like the result.
Haze: I found that I had to use the clarity slider in Photoshop liberally to combat this issue.
Palouse Photography Tips: A Guide for Visitors