I’ve seen a few blogs and online guides for photographing the Palouse, but none that were comprehensive enough to answer detailed questions that photographers have about this region. So, I decided to fill that void and write one myself. What makes me qualified to write a photography field guide to the Palouse? For starters, I grew up in Idaho and spent four years at the University of Idaho which is smack dab in the heart of Palouse country. During those college years, I explored the area and all its back roads, state parks, remote towns and bars. Many of my college friends are from the Palouse area and still live there today. Thirty something years later, I still return to the Palouse every year to either visit my sister-in-law, attend alumni events, and to photograph this beautiful landscape.
I took up nature photography shortly after college and have spent hundreds of hours since then taking images of this region. The Palouse is a short half-day drive from my home near Seattle, and I can’t wait to go back each year. Every season is different, and I always come back with new and fresh images. I think I’ve been on every dirt road in the county and know many of the twists and turns of the rolling hills by heart. Sometimes I will see a photo of an old barn or even a tree, and chuckle since I know exactly where that subject is. It’s almost to the point that I can’t get lost on the backroads anymore. I hope this article helps you answer the following questions, and please shoot me an e-mail if you have any questions.
Let’s start with the basics. The Palouse is a unique geographic region rich in agriculture that encompasses parts of eastern Washington and northern Idaho. Although I’ve heard it covers as much as 5000 square miles, the photogenic area is closer to 3500 square miles. I consider the prime photography range to be from Lacrosse, Washington to the west to Troy, Idaho on the east. From north to south, I would stay between Oakesdale, Washington and Uniontown, Washington.
Special Notes: There is a small town in Washington State named Palouse, which is within the boundaries of the general “Palouse area”. This can cause confusion, so it’s best to clear that up right away. Also, Palouse Falls is an extraordinary waterfall that most people have heard of, but it is outside the general boundaries of the Palouse area, and will be covered later as an individual topic.
The Palouse is an agricultural mecca, primarily producing wheat, legumes, lentils, barley, and chickpeas. In fact, it’s widely recognized as the most productive farmland in America for wheat. Canola is also grown here, which is easy to identify in the spring due to its vibrant yellow color. These gentle rolling hills were formed over tens of thousands of years ago from wind-blown dust and silt, called “loess”. The dust bin of last Ice Age was primarily to blame, as winds picked up the fine sediments from glaciers and deposited them in this region, creating a landscape of rolling hills that resemble sand-dunes in shape and size. The Palouse is truly unique both in geology and fertile farming grounds, and it is now recognized as one of the top places in the United States for photography.
It’s all about the rolling hills. The Palouse landscape is what photographers flock here for. What makes the Palouse so unique and visually striking are the rolling hills and fields. Texture, color, and shape make this a paradise of sorts for landscape photographers, especially those seeking pattern and abstracts in their images. In the spring, the rolling hills are mix of green wheat fields, yellow canola fields, and deep brown soil. In summer, fields of gold dominate the landscape. The image below titled "Land Waves" is typical of the type of photos you can expect to return with.
You may not have considered other photography opportunities besides the landscape. But there is so much more. Here’s a list of other possibilities that can be found all over the Palouse.
Old barns and farmhouses – There are old barns and abandoned farmhouses scattered throughout the region which make striking subjects all by themselves, or great foregrounds surrounded by the rolling hills and fields. Some of the barns are known to be over 100 years old. My all-time favorite barn was along a dirt road I stumbled across back in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, time took its toll and it is no longer standing. But there are plenty of barns still around.
Farm Equipment – Some of my favorite images from the Palouse are farmers riding in their tractors and combines working their fields. As they plow the steep hills and valleys, dust and dirt kick up from the machines and make for some dramatic scenes. I find It rather amazing and I assume a little dangerous that they can plow this steep terrain. There are also plenty of standing farm equipment all over that can be easily used for foreground material in your photography.
Granaries – Many of the Palouse photos you see include granaries, especially those taken from Steptoe Butte. They certainly add context to your images.
Crop Dusters – Many of the farmers here are also pilots. Crop dusting is still the primary way of spreading pesticides, and crop dusters are easily spotted and photographed. They fly very low to the ground to spray and the white plume often makes for striking images as pass right overhead.
Wildlife photography isn’t why nature photographers visit the Palouse, but there are a few opportunities.
Whitetail Deer - As you might expect, deer love this area. You will certainly see the Whitetail deer in the wheat fields especially closer to dusk. I can’t tell you how many times I have rounded a corner and come across a beautiful scene with deer close by, only to come away with no images. That’s because I usually have a wide-angle lens attached to the camera for landscapes, and by the time I switch to a longer lens, the deer are halfway across the county. It might be worth taking an extra camera with a long lens attached just for this reason.
Coyotes – You can certainly hear the coyotes during the sunset hour at Steptoe Butte. They stay out of sight during the day. But if you are an astrophotographer, its likely you will encounter one or two.
Hawks – Red-tailed Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks frequent the area. They love to perch on fenceposts and can be easily spotted.
Quail - You are very likely to see quail at some point during your trip. I love these birds, but they are very skittish (and fast), so getting quality photos is challenging to say the least.
Pheasants - I think Ring-Necked Pheasants are one of the more stunning birds in North America. They used to be everywhere in the Palouse. Sadly, their numbers have dwindled and it takes a little luck to see them anymore. But they are still reside in the area, so keep an eye out.
Great Horned Owls - There is another species that lives here which may surprise you, the Great Horned Owl. Specifically, they like to hang out in the forested area of Kamiak Butte. Kamiak Butte requires a bit of a hike through a forest area to reach the top and get spectacular views of the valley below. While hiking up the trail, keep a close eye out for the owls that live in the treetops. I see them more often than not when hiking this trail, and sometimes at close range. I must say my best image ever of a Great Horned Owl was taken at Kamiak Butte. I titled this photo "Stare-Down" for obvious reasons. For a complete listing of all the birds of the Palouse, take a look here.
Perhaps photographing college campuses isn’t your thing, but there are two campuses in the Palouse if you want to try something different. During the harsh mid-day sun, I often look for other photography options anyway.
Washington State University resides in Pullman, which isn’t a small college since it has over 29,000 students. It’s a Pac-12 school which happens to be in a rather small town.
The University of Idaho is just across the state line in Moscow Idaho. It's only nine miles down the road from Washington State University. It has approximately 12,000 students and is a member of the Big-Sky conference. In my opinion, the University of Idaho campus is more photogenic. Photographing its Greek row of fraternities and sororities is a fun way to spend a few hours. Since I am an alumni of the University of Idaho (Go Vandals!) I fully admit to being biased. Autumn is usually the best time to take images of college campuses, but you can have the entire campus to yourself if you visit in June or July.
There's not a major city within 100 miles, which means dark skies. The eastern side of Washington State is nothing like its more famous Pacific Northwest counterpart on the west side. The cascade mountain range separates the Seattle area and its notorious cloudy rainy weather with the more open terrain, sun drenched farmland, and clear skies on the east side of the state. It's a very underrated location to shoot the night sky.
For astrophotographers, the Palouse can be a gold mine. I typically find an old barn or interesting country road to use as foreground material, then frame the Milky Way over it. Check out the image on the left. For this one, I stood in the middle of a highway for half an hour to get this shot. I never had to move due to an approaching vehicle. The only other thing around was a few coyotes.
The most difficult aspect of astrophotography in the Palouse is trying to find a structure like an old barn which has some separation from the private residence. Private residences will have their lights on which definitely interferes with night sky photography. So planning is key. While out on your photo shoot during the day, it’s important to make mental notes of possible locations for a return trip that evening. Arrive before sunset at your pre-determined location, get set up, then wait it out. Trying to find a good spot after dark will be next to impossible.
I should mention the northern lights as well. The aurora borealis can make an appearance in Washington state, albeit not very often. It has to be a very strong show for us to see the northern lights at this latitude. But it does happen. When that event occurs, the east side of the state gives you a much better opportunity than the Seattle area due to fewer clouds.
I love photographing thunderstorms. Seattle rarely has these types of violent fast-moving storms with thunder and lightning, but the Palouse has them. Dark clouds on the horizon and a change in weather can move in fast and create extraordinary opportunities for dramatic landscape images. Granted, a late afternoon storm may ruin your pre-visualized idea of that beautiful sunset image at Steptoe Butte, but it can open up more eye-popping possibilities. Last June I was fortunate enough to watch a thunderstorm move in over the rolling hills, and the light and drama it produced will stay with me forever. I almost thought this is what it must feel like in the Midwest during one of these. The point is don’t be discouraged because of weather. Go with the flow and you will be rewarded. Most likely the next day will be gorgeous.
How do I get there?
If you require air travel, the closest airport is Spokane International Airport. From Spokane, it’s only a one-hour drive to reach the Palouse area, by taking I95 south to Colfax Washington. There is a very small regional airport in Pullman, Washington (Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport) which is closer but requires smaller planes and has limited arrival & departure destinations.
If driving, I recommend using Google Maps and plug in Colfax Washington or Pullman Washington as your destination. More on specific accommodations in the next section. From Seattle, take I90 to the small town of Vantage, then WA-26 all the way to Colfax or Pullman. If driving from the east on I-90, take US-95 south near Coeur d’Alene Idaho, then it’s another 90 minutes to the Palouse.
Where should I stay?
There are three towns to choose from: Colfax Washington, Pullman Washington, and Moscow Idaho. I’ll discuss each briefly and provide links to recommended accommodations.
I prefer Colfax since it is more centrally located in the prime photography areas, and closest to Steptoe Butte. Steptoe Butte is where you often end up for sunset, so Colfax provides the shortest drive back to the hotel at the end of your day. There is a caveat. Colfax has very little in terms of restaurants, pubs, etc. It’s not completely void of food, but Zip’s Fast Food Drive Through is rated their 4th best food option. Just saying. Personally, I can load up with a free breakfast at the Best Western, have a Subway Sandwich in my car for lunch, and put up with the same restaurant in Colfax for a few nights. That inconvenience is worth being close to the prime spots.
Best Western Wheatland Inn - My favorite spot to stay when photographing in the Palouse. Clean rooms, reasonable prices, a free breakfast, and most importantly, it is the most central location to photography hotspots. There are a few other accommodations in Colfax. but if I can’t get a room here I would book a room in Pullman.
Pullman is a great second option. In fact, I’ve stayed there many times and have no complaints. If Steptoe Butte is not on your photo agenda for sunset, then Pullman may actually be a better option than Colfax. There are many restaurants and a few pubs here, so it’s a nice place to wrap up your day. Pullman is very close to the main backroads you will be exploring.
Holiday Inn Express– My first choice in Pullman. I prefer this Holiday Inn Express because it’s located on the edge of town right off Highway 27, making it very accessible. It also provides a free hot breakfast and is walking distance to the Birch & Barley pub. This hotel is a little pricey and should be booked far in advance, especially if you visit while Washington State University hasn’t ended school yet.
Quality Inn Paradise Creek– A nice alternative is the Quality Inn, just a short walk from the Holiday Inn Express. It also has a free hot breakfast and is usually more reasonably priced than the Holiday inn Express. It doesn’t have quite the amenities the Holiday Inn Express has. But then again, how much time will you be spending at the hotel? Probably not much.
There are several other accommodations in Pullman, if these two don’t meet your satisfaction.
Moscow is nine miles east of Pullman and on the eastern edge of the great photography hotspots of the Palouse. This means staying in Moscow will result in more driving around than is necessary. Since it’s likely you will be in your car most of the day anyway, additional driving is something you want to avoid. I love Moscow but consider it my last option when visiting the Palouse to photograph. If you stay in Moscow, I recommend a hotel on the west side of the town.
La Quinta Inn - A very nice hotel on the west side of Moscow. Free breakfast is included. I’ve stayed here before and have no complaints, other than the additional driving as I mentioned above.
There is only one answer, by automobile. Photographing the Palouse is done by driving. This is rural America and you need a vehicle to get around. You will be in the car most of the day and will travel down a lot of roads. Some are highway, many are well maintained gravel roads, and there are dirt roads. The dirt roads are challenging due to rocks and possible heavy mud after a rainstorm. I highly recommend an SUV since some of the old country dirt roads can be a bit rough. Another benefit of an SUV is being able to spread out your gear, especially if you have a few other photographers with you.
One thing is for sure. Your vehicle will get dirty. There’s just no avoiding dust and mud kicking up from the gravel roads and painting your car silky grey. Part of the fun!
What lenses do I need?
Enough logistics. Let’s get to the fun stuff. Since this is primarily a drive and shoot excursion, there’s no need to restrict your gear. A typical day is spent driving around the countryside, locating a great scene, parking the car on the side of the dirt road, and getting out right there to take some images. The vast majority of your time photographing will be within fifty yards of your vehicle. That means all your gear can be thrown into the car and accessed as needed.
There are no lengthy hikes (with the one exception of Kamiak Butte) or even many long trails to walk. Since most of the fields are private property and you can’t just go tramping through their wheat and canola crops, I usually photograph from the dirt roads close to my vehicle.
As you might suspect, a wide-angle lens is a must. If I was forced to use one lens for a day in the Palouse, I would grab my Nikkor 17-35. I love those images which showcase the grandeur of the area, with barns or granaries included as a subject of interest. My next go-to lens might surprise you. I would reach for a mid/long range lens, such as 300 F4 or 80-400 F5.6. There are so many occasions when you want to isolate an area on the Palouse, compress a scene to its bare bones, and highlight dramatic abstracts or patterns in the fields. This is especially true on Steptoe Butte, where a long lens is essential to isolate sections of the Palouse countryside below. Finally, that 24-70 will be useful for those shots in-between wide angle and isolated areas.
That’s a long-winded way to say all lenses can be used effectively here. In fact, I think you may be surprised at how often you change lenses in the Palouse. If you have two cameras, the ideal situation is to have a wide angle mounted on your prime camera, and a long lens on the other. That way you can avoid changing lenses which increases the risk of dust getting into your camera.
How long should I stay?
Three or four days should be sufficient to see most of the area and come away with some great images. That does not include a trip to Palouse Falls, which will be a special topic later in this article. Some photo workshops last one full week, but that certainly isn’t necessary.
Best time to visit
The undisputed best time to photograph the Palouse is late spring. Late May through June are considered the prime time because the wheat fields turn a gorgeous green, canola fields are bright yellow, wildflowers have emerged, and the weather is very nice with temperatures typically in the 80s. If canola fields are a priority for you, I suggest Late May or early June. The overwhelming number of photographs taken in the Palouse are from this time of year. It is very popular now with photographers now, so be sure and book ahead.
Another fantastic time to visit the Palouse is during the wheat harvest. Wheat harvesting begins mid-late July and extends until roughly mid-August. The fields change from their brilliant green hues to a beautiful gold/amber color and the entire region takes on a completely different feel. The farmers are extremely busy during this period, the temperatures are hot, and the Palouse seems more dynamic and active. I think more dramatic and stark images can be captured in August. This is also the time for more frequent thunderstorms, which can result in amazing images for your portfolio.
The rest of the season is mostly ignored by photographers, although a nice snowfall during the winter months can reward you with some unique images of the Palouse.
Let’s get to the heart of this blog. Listed below are my favorite locations to photograph in the Palouse, some well-known and some lesser known. Lets' start with more popular locations. Here are the top hotspots that every photographer needs to hit.
Steptoe Butte State Park
Steptoe Butte is by far the most popular location in the Palouse for photographers, with good reason. The 3,612-foot butte towers above the entire Palouse region and provides a 360-degree view of the countryside below. At the top, the butte is approximately 1000 feet above the rolling hills and is part of a 150-acre state park recreation area. A narrow-paved road winds around the butte, leading to a parking at the summit. There are several small turnouts on the way up. This makes Steptoe Butte accessible to everyone.
The views here are unobstructed and quite breathtaking. Sunset here is a must, but not so much for the orange colors that can occur at sunset. The low light paints the rolling hills with a beautiful soft glow that lasts for about an hour. Since the butte is quite a distance from the hills below, I prefer a longer lens (e.g. 300 F4) here to isolate sections of the rolling hills and granaries. Most of the jaw-dropping images you see from the Palouse were probably taken from Steptoe Butte, including the image titled "Field of View" below.
Back in June of 1995, I remember photographing at the summit with slide film and I was the only person there. Nobody photographed this area back then. But the secret is out, and those days are long gone. Steptoe Butte now attracts hundreds of photographers on any given night each spring. There’s probably no image you can capture from this vantage point that will be unique. But nonetheless, it’s a bucket list destination for every photographer. Plan one or two evenings at this spot.
Dahmen Wagon Fence Farm
The Dahmen Wagon Fence Farm is an old farm that now houses a very small gift shop just north of Uniontown, Washington. It has a very unique fence made from rusty wagon & tractor wheels that encompasses the entire farm. I’ve never seen anything else quite like it. It’s definitely worth an hour or two of your time. I enjoy walking around the perimeter of the fence and getting images of various fence spokes with the barn included in the scene.
The drive down to Uniontown is worthwhile as well. You will find more rolling hills, curvy roads, and farm scenes to photograph around Uniontown. Don’t forget to make a stop in the small town to grab an ice cream cone or two.
Heidenreich Dairy Barn & Truck
One of the most popular photos from the Palouse is an old classic orange truck in front of a picturesque red dairy barn. You probably know the image I’m referring to. This is the Heidenreich Dairy Barn, which is located on State Route 272 just north of Colfax, Washington. The owners of the property are very friendly and are happy to welcome photographers to take pictures, as long as they keep some distance from their home. I find this is the case with most residents of the Palouse. As long as you respect their property and show common courtesy, they have no problem sharing their local roads with the photographers that flock there every year. There is no parking at the Dairy Barn, so your vehicle needs to be parked alongside the highway as far as possible off the road.
Let’s talk about Palouse Falls. It deserves a special attention, because the falls ARE NOT LOCATED within the general Palouse region we have discussed up to this point. Palouse Falls State Park is located approximately 70 miles southwest of Colfax. If you plan to go, dedicate most of the day for this excursion, since several hours will be needed to drive back and forth from Colfax. It is outside the photogenic area of rolling wheat fields, and the surrounding area near Palouse Falls resembles more of a desert with sagebrush and dry weeds. So, is it worth a day? Absolutely!
As you make your drive into Palouse Falls State Park, you will be wondering where the falls are. The miles leading up to the park are relatively flat with no water in sight. But once you arrive and take a short walk to ledges, you will be peering down into the canyon with the Palouse Falls gushing 198 feet into the river below. From a photography perspective, it’s actually best mid-morning or mid/late afternoon. The early morning hours and sunset hours cast dark shadows into the canyon and the scene has too much contrast. What you hope for are high thin clouds, then you can shoot all day long.
If you are into astrophotography, don’t miss this opportunity. A short hike takes you up a ridge where you can set up before sunset and wait for the Milky Way to make its appearance. You will be standing precariously close to the edge, so exercise extreme caution if you decide to do this. Take note of the photographer in the scene below. That's where you want to be. A wide angle lens (e.g. 14-24) can get the waterfall and Milky way in the same scene. You will want to take separate images for foreground and night sky, then blend them together in Photoshop later. But there’s not many places I know of where you can get Milky Way images emerging over a waterfall like this.
I also want to point out a few lesser known spots that are fantastic. These locations do not have crowds or hoards of photographers nearby. The best thing about the Palouse is you can escape to any area of the region and find somewhere you have all to yourself. I love those moments.
Uniontown Red Barn
Just south of Uniontown lies one of my favorite barns in the entire Palouse area. It’s a large Dutch-gambrel style barn sitting in the middle of a wheat field with a low rising hill and big skies behind it. What makes it so striking is the bright red paint, green wheat fields (spring), and hopefully bright blue skies.
Moscow to Troy Backroads
The vast majority of photographers stay on the Washington state side. But I’ve found some hidden jewels just east of Moscow, Idaho along Highway 8 all the way to Troy. You can find canola fields, old barns, and roads that lead to elevated hillsides with nice vistas.
Pullman to Palouse Backroads
I strongly advocate getting lost on the backroads. This is probably the best way to experience and photograph the Palouse. I guarantee you will find some incredible images with this not-so-precise strategy. A great plan for the day is get a full tank of gas, head north from Pullman, and turn down any dirt road you can find. Get as lost as you can be. So where to start? My favorite backroads are north of Pullman all the way up to the town of Palouse. There are so many gravel and dirt roads to explore. This image titled "Sunbeam" was captured in this area during an approaching storm. I wish I could tell you exactly where I was, but I honestly don't know.
Is there a photographer’s map to the Palouse? The answer is yes. The best detailed photography map of the Palouse can be found with the link below. Teri Lou has assembled over 150 specific locations contained in a map and the $25 will save you a lot of time. Unfortunately, the Pullman Chamber of commerce has “borrowed” many of Teri’s maps and now gives them away for free. I hope people can appreciate how hard it was for someone to assemble a photographer’s map like this, and should reward Teri for her amazing work that helps us all.