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Palouse Falls
posted by John : May 10-11, 2014


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Palouse Falls


Last year I took a gamble and literally threw gear into the truck for a hastily planned overnight adventure east of the mountains. Not only did we pioneer the up and coming sport of sandshoeing in the state, we figured out that we could indeed survive camping without weeks of planning. Needless to say, this left me eager for more.

Winter's extremes doesn't lend itself to poorly thought out adventures, but now it's Spring. Spring, when the west side is wet and nasty and the east side is dry and blooming. Spring, when the girls head to Girl Scout camp leaving us boys to our own devices. Spring, when we are off!

This wouldn't only be a test of our ability to survive with minimal planning. We'd also be testing the new adventure wagon. A 2002 Subaru Outback with obligatory gear stickers is new to the fleet. If there was ever a doubt we were truly an outdoor family, this should cement it.

Our destination was Palouse Falls State Park. Way, way on the other side of the state. And not just "other side of the state" like Spokane, all the way on 70 mph freeways. Getting to Palouse Falls, outside Starbuck, WA (population 127, curiously devoid of mermaids and Frapaccino), involved a lot of small, twisty roads. It took us three and a half hours to get there.

The park is 105 acres, but has only 11 tent spaces concentrated in a small treed area. Most of the park is undeveloped. The main attraction is the stunning punchbowl-style waterfall visible almost from the lower parking lot. That alone is worth the cost of admission. ($10 or a Discover Pass)

We got lucky and pitched our tent in site #6, the best spot. It's on the edge of the camping area farthest from the parking area. Our minimalist setup was in stark contrast to the other campsites. The most elaborate had an actual oven with stovetop, powered by a huge propane tank. Quite a step up from my simple JetBoil, even if it was the Group Cooking System.

However, we weren't there to compare the size of our stoves. We were there to hike. Right away we were confronted by the yellow-bellied marmots that are everywhere. Surprisingly, they didn't mind Treen. Treen was not so nonchalant. She strained at the leash, desperate to go "play" with her new friends. Clearly, we have succeeded in undoing all the training her puppy raisers worked so hard to provide her with. (Oops.) Throughout our stay, the marmots would whistle and popup up from time to time, reminding us we were in their home.

From the campground there's a paved path that leads to the edge of the cliff, protected by a fence. From the viewpoint to the river below is more than the 198 feet the waterfall drops and you can feel it. We walked along the fence reading the interpretive signs that told us about the ice age floods that changed the course of the river. Looping back past the parking lot, we began the hike in earnest.

A well-maintained, gravel path leads into the scrub without any markers or signs. We avoided following any of the social paths that diverged from the main until the gravel... ended. The only way looked to be down a tight little slot to a set of railroad tracks. Really?

Before I could look for a better plan Henry was already half way down so of course I followed. At the bottom we could see the trail dropping from the tracks to the valley below and the river and WOW! Do you see that waterfall? (And these were just the upper falls.)

The upper falls felt kind of like one of those exotic waterfalls in Africa where the river spreads out over a wide area and there are multiple drops across the span of the river. In total, it wasn't much. Perhaps 20 feet. But it was incredibly scenic. Across the river a basalt wall rises straight up forming an impressive backdrop.

There are some great places to play in the water here, though it was running pretty high and could be dangerous if you got out in it. Poor Treen stayed on leash and Henry wished he'd been on leash when he slipped and soaked his boot. We lounged a bit and explored upstream, but there isn't much there at least as far as the next bend in the river.

The trail continues downstream along the river, below the cliffs we'd walked atop before. The river is tightly channeled until it pools behind a set of rock spires called Castle Rock. Then, woosh! Down it goes. 180 feet to the plunge pool. Standing above and looking down is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.

As we prepared to head back, Henry suggested we complete the loop. What loop? The map doesn't show a loop. Yet, clearly there was a trail along the inside of the bowl. We watched as a couple of hikers made their way along. For the most part, they strode confidently and quickly. In one or two spots they paused and carefully moved ahead.

Henry and I discussed the rules. He would do exactly as I told him. If I told him to go we would go. If I said stop he would stop. If I told him we were turning back we would turn back. (I told Treen the same thing, but we've already covered her obedience issues.) I told myself that while I might be willing to take some risks, I wouldn't take any risks on behalf of Henry. If I thought there was even a slight chance it would turn out badly we'd turn back.

As we walked, I held Treen's leash loosely in my left hand while she followed. Henry walked in front with his right arm extended. I had his right hand in a death-grip that actually left a mark. We never slipped even a bit and there were no spots I felt in danger. We chatted the whole way along and he really enjoyed it. Such a difference from just a few months ago when he balked on the zip line in the back yard or the climbing wall at Gear Up Expo.

Plus, we got a killer view and a rainbow in the mist. AND we climbed out of the canyon through a slot barely wide enough for me to pass through that required Treen be lifted up twice.

It was a short loop, but one with adventure all around. But wait, it's not over yet! Remember we were staying the night. A well stocked adventure wagon saved my bacon... er... macaroni when I realized the lighter that's supposed to be in my bag had been removed for the flight home from Arizona. Thankfully, I had stashed a lighter and a couple of candles in the car so we had cooked mac and cheese. We finished off our gourmet dinner with hot chocolate and a walk along the top of the cliffs overlooking the river. Sleep came quickly for me and Treen, but not so much for Henry. He last woke me around 10pm.

And he woke me in the morning at 5:30am. Sleeping is not his priority. We had a quick breakfast of champions (donuts, bacon jerky, hot cocoa) had another quick walk and jumped in the car. It was a long drive home made longer in that we weren't heading straight home.

I figured that since we were already way down in the southwest corner of Washington we might as well go a little further and check out the Whitman Mission National Historic Site. I vaguely remember it from my childhood and Henry is seriously into his Junior Ranger program even when he has to learn something like he did at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Site.

Unfortunately, my definition of "summer months" and the National Park Service's don't sync up. As a result, the visitor center was closed. No Junior Ranger badge today. However, the outside park and exhibits were still open. We toured the site and talked about what happened all those years ago. I was worried Henry wouldn't be able to really understand what it all meant, but I think he got the big picture. If the NPS winds up sending him a booklet as requested we'll see how much he absorbed.

From there it was just driving to get home. Lots of driving. In total, we drove about 550 miles over two days. It was the longest Henry's been in the car without either the girls or a movie to entertain him and he did remarkably well.

It's another sign he's growing up and becoming a more capable adventurer. It won't be long before he'll be able to put up miles like the girls and we'll take on multi-day backpacking trips together. I'm already planning for the Wonderland in 2017. Ten years old isn't too young for 90 miles, is it?

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