Photography locations - Washington

Photography in the Palouse

05.17.10 | 2 Comments

Palouse Region, as seen from Steptoe Butte

The Palouse area of eastern Washington is a photographer’s mecca, especially in the spring.  Miles of gently rolling hills, multicolored fields, and scattered farmhouses are the main attractions.

Traditionally, the Palouse region was defined as the fertile hills and prairies north of the Snake River which separated it from Walla Walla Country, extending north along the Washington and Idaho border to just south of Spokane, and centered on the Palouse River in Washington.  Sometimes the Palouse is defined more broadly and refers to the entire wheat-growing region, including the Walla Walla Country, the Camas Prairie of Idaho, the Big Bend region of the central Columbia River Plateau and other smaller agricultural areas in Asotin County.

The picturesque rolling hills that characterize the Palouse Prairie were formed during the ice ages.  Silt, sand, and clay were blown in from glacial outwash plains to the west and south to form the Palouse.  It’s this rich soil that makes the area so productive for agriculture.  This productivity was discovered during the 1880s, and by 1890 nearly all of the Palouse had been converted from short, perennial grasslands to wheat farming.  The native prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the U.S.; only about 1% of the original prairie still exists.

The last week of May and the first two weeks of June are the best times to photograph the green hills.  I’ve been to the area during mid-May and had very good luck with the green and yellow of early growth.  Early morning and late afternoons are the best times as the low sun casts shadows of the rolling hills across the landscape.  In early July the hills will turn golden with ripening wheat.  The harvest starts in mid-August and continues into September.  Even the winter months can produce wonderful photographic opportunities, when snow, frost, and fog blanket the area.

Undulating furrows of early spring growth; taken 4/2 in Walla Walla County
Sunrise finds a light fog over the Palouse; taken 5/22 from Steptoe Butte

Besides the rolling hills, the many farms, old homesteads, grain elevators, and single trees or small clumps of trees amid open fields and hillsides provide great views for the camera.

Palouse Farmland; photo taken May 25
Lone tree in the Palouse; taken near sunset on May 9
After the Harvest; taken October 5 of the same area (note the single tree)
Tracks across a harvested hillside creates a semi-abstract pattern; taken 10/5

Long-time veterans have their favorite areas.  I simply get a Washington State Atlas & Gazetteer and follow the backroads.  This can lead to some wonderful discoveries.  Steptoe Butte State Park is the highest point in the area and offers a commanding view of the landscape; it’s locate NE of the town of Steptoe and SW of the town of Oaksdale.  If you want some guidance, some photographers offer workshops in the Palouse.  I can recommend Alan Caddey, who has been exploring the Palouse for many years and who is an outstanding photographer.

Palouse country, as seen from the backroads; taken 5/12

A strong note of caution about the roads:  The dirt roads of the Palouse often consist of clay, and they become completely impassable when it rains.  DO NOT attempt to drive on these roads when rain is threateneing, during a rainstorm, or just after a rainstorm; you will get stuck, even in a 4WD Hummer.  These same roads get dusty in the summer, and that can be a concern to digital shooters who like to change lenses frequently.

Tree and old barn, converted to B&W; taken 1/30 in Walla Walla County

There are motels in the towns of Moscow (Idaho), Pullman, and Colfax.  I like to travel in a camper on a pickup truck (very comfortable and very mobile).  The city of Colfax allows RVs to stay overnight in a city park on the north end of town.  It’s free of charge, and it’s something I greatly appreciate.  Kamiak Butte (which is either a county park or state park — I get conflicting information), located SE of the town of Palouse and directly north of Pullman, offers camping, but they close and lock the gate until 7:00 a.m., which greatly affects early morning exploration.  I wish more park managers were also photographers.  However, there are great views from Kamiak Butte, and it’s worth at least a night’s stay.

Frosted and foggy hills in the winter; taken 12/26 in Walla Walla County
More frosted and foggy hills; taken 12/26 in Walla Walla County


  • On 10.12.10 Jack Brauer wrote these words:

    Amazing! The first “Frosted and foggy hills” bw is a jaw-dropper. They’re all great though!

  • On 10.12.10 Stephen Penland wrote these words:

    Jack, thanks very much for the comment. Coming from you, it means a lot. Sure hope I can get to Colorado in the near future. I have a very good friend from college who is now a physician, mountain climber, and photographer living in Denver. He’s thinking of doing a website, and I’ve referred him to your site — sure hope he does it.

    Steve Penland