Loose in the Palouse: Steptoe To Falls

One thing was made quite clear by our photography workshop leader when he gave us an introductory briefing on the Palouse.

We would be making multiple trips to Steptoe Butte.

The geology of the Palouse is interesting. While its base is volcanic basalt, what makes the Palouse unique are the undulating hills. The formation of these had nothing to do with volcanos.

Back in the ice age days, a huge glacial lake called Lake Missoula formed in western Montana. We’re talking extra big here; at its greatest extent, Lake Missoula’s depth exceeded 2,000 feet and may have held 600 cubic miles of water – as much as Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined. The surface area covered over 3,000 square miles.

On its western edge, an ice dam blocked the flow of water into Idaho, south central Washington and northern Oregon.

Until it didn’t.

Between the tremendous mass of all that water, and the warming that came at the end of the ice age, the ice dam failed violently and all that pent up water created a cataclysmic flood. This carved up sections of Washington and created the Columbia Gorge, along with other areas of interest to geologists or geologically curious.

It also ground up a lot of rock, and created many tons of silt. A lot of the silt landed in eastern Washington and Idaho, but some made it all the way to the Willamette Valley in western Oregon. Home sweet home now, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be around when the flood hit.

At one point, geologists thought this was one big flood for the ages. More recently, evidence suggests that it happened multiple times. Once Lake Missoula emptied out, it was still cold enough to form another dam and back up more water. This flooding cycle may have happened as often as every 50-60 years until the ice age was done. It may have also spanned multiple ice ages across millions of years, with flooding to mark their ends. Evidence suggests as many as 40 floods may have occurred.

(Click on any picture for a larger view)

Have a look at these pictures. Do the rolling hills remind you of anything? Sand dunes, maybe? How about silt dunes? The silt even has a fancy name – Loess. It’s mostly created by wind erosion and glaciers grinding away at rock, with wind patterns shaping the dunes. All this mineral rich silt also makes for very fertile soil – great for farmers. It’s literally loess in the Palouse here.

But the best place to get an eyeful of all these loess dunes is Steptoe Butte, which rises several thousand feet above the surrounding area.

Steptoe isn’t a giant dune, it’s a quartzite island that somehow survived the Missoula Flood’s pounding. It also has a road that circles up, and places you can park on various sides. The best view isn’t necessarily the one from the top – sometimes it helps to be closer to your subject.

A telephoto lens can help extract little slices of goodness from all that bump and roll.

The late afternoon sun adds to the colors of spring, giving warmth. The shadows add texture and depth.

Even without the color, the contrasts of infrared B/W can emphasize the textures.

And the late afternoon can be a sign to the farmers that it’s time to hit the road, and raise their own loess in the Palouse.

We spent four days in the Palouse. It wasn’t all Steptoe Butte and rolling hills.

Ok, there were still a lot of rolling hills. But depending on where we were, the dunes, which could be as much as 250 feet deep, were thin or missing entirely. This left nearly bare basalt behind – an area called the scablands. But this basalt, scoured out by the Missoula floods, wasn’t all sanatized boredom.

In the scablands, about 45 miles west of Colfax where we were based due to proximity to Steptoe, was one of the nicer waterfalls in the Pacific Northwest – Palouse Falls.

As our second day’s weather was on the overcast/rainy side, trying to milk Steptoe and the dunes for goodness had a lower chance of success. This was a great excuse to visit the falls on day two rather than the original day three plan. That’s the nature of nature, sometimes you have to reschedule.

As it turns out, waterfalls are easier to shoot on overcast days. You don’t get the bright reflections, blown out highlights, and dynamic range issues that sunny days introduce. It’s also easier to shoot long exposures.

Under normal circumstances, I rarely carry a tripod. I like to travel light. But waterfalls are almost always an exception. (So are photography workshops. Being without a tripod at one of those is almost like being naked in public.) Because of the overcast, and with the help of ND filters (strong, color neutral sunglasses for camera lenses), with a tripod I can slow the shutter way down. The shots above were all about 30 seconds – ergo the misty/flowy look.

Shooting faster is a whole different look. But not necessary a bad one.

As workshop days go, the second was pretty low key. A morning photo review. A bit of cruising. A nice falls. Diner in Pulman – a college town. And a not too late night, which is a good thing. The next morning started with a really early Steptoe call…

But that’s a story for another day. For now, we’ll sign off with a sunset from Steptoe on day one.


33 thoughts on “Loose in the Palouse: Steptoe To Falls

    1. Northern Lights, eh? Even though I grew up in a cold climate, I’ve become a wuss. Don’t know if I could hack it, but I bet the view will be incredible, weather permitting. Happy New Year!


  1. Beautiful shots, all those smooth curves and folds are very appealing. I like that B&W infrared one in particular, like looking at Mars when they start farming there in the future. And the next shot with the long dust plume, a nice feathered accent, and the 30-sec. exposure of the falls.
    I’m surprised I’d never heard of Palouse Falls, it’s pretty impressive and must sound great echoing up from that rocky bowl.
    Happy New Year, Dave!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. More shots from Steptoe are coming – I kinda went nuts with the panoramas. I wasn’t too familiar with Palouse Falls either. It was a nice discovery, and gloomy enough that day to really go for longer exposures.
      Happy New Year, Robert!


  2. Superb photos, Dave. I’m reasonably familiar with the geology as well as the story of Lake Missoula, but I’m going to have to re-read up about it all, now. You definitely wouldn’t have wanted to have been hanging around when it decided to empty itself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Going into this I knew of Lake Missoula (although I’m may have not remembered its name off the top of my head.) I knew its flood carved out the gorge and the scablands. I didn’t know they’d decided it had flooded multiple times – learn something new. Seems like blogging is like going to school – I’m always researching something.
      Happy New Year, Mick.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The thing I remember most about Palouse Falls is how out of place it seemed in the surrounding countryside! Most waterfalls are associated with gorges or mountains, not farm country. It’s pretty spectacular, though.

    I also remember Tara got way too close to the edge for my comfort!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. On the local PBS station, a Washington State geologist has a feature that talks about the geology of the region, and how the floods scoured it out. Seeing the scope of it blows my mind. It’d be amazing to see happening – from maybe 2000 feet up.


  4. It’s a beautiful landscape, and you certainly did it justice. The history of the area’s fascinating. The world has been forming and re-forming itself on a scale we hardly can imagine: not for centuries or millenia, but through eras. It’s fun reading the landscape on that scale, and rather different than checking the garden to see what happened over the weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Your explanation of the land and the history of how it was formed was a joy to read… In college, my geology class visited this area, and I had forgotten much of the geological history, but your words brought it all back 🙂 Understanding the history, add to the context of your photos… especially the one where the late afternoon sun and lighting bring out the warmth and stunning features of the land. Simply beautiful. And kudos to your Palouse Falls shots… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Geology can be interesting – ages of things happening very slowly, interspersed with moments of, whoa Nelly!
      Shots like that late afternoon one were the prime reason for this trip. The next post in the queue will have more of that, panorama style.
      It was fun doing longer exposures on the waterfalls – usually I run around 1 second rather than 30.


  6. Pingback: Loose in the Palouse: Panorama – Plying Through Life

    1. It kind of makes me wonder why it took me so many years to finally go there. I suppose it’s one of those, get in a rut and forget to go to all the spectacular places we have at hand. We really need to explore more in the USA.


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