Camping at Palouse Falls
Saturday morning I woke up with the intention of going for a long run and then spending my day writing at a coffee shop. As I got out of bed I heard the familiar sound of rain on my window. I’m a Seattleite now, so rain does not phase me or cause me to adjust my plan, but as I let Nym out to the bathroom I was greeted by a hard and freezing wind. Something broke within. The resolve I had to run my seven mile loop to downtown dissolved like the Wicked Witch of the West hit by a bucket of water. “BUT IT’S MY SPRING BREAK!” I shouted at the storm. There was really only one option after that: drive to a place where it wasn’t supposed to rain. Queue the mad searching on AccuWeather! If you aren’t familiar with Washington’s weather, let me explain something to you… If it is raining in Seattle, it is most likely raining in the entire state, Oregon, and Vancouver as well. After checking around twelve cities I have bookmarked in the app, I got down to Palouse Falls. No rain! Check drive time in Google Maps… FOUR HOURS. Moment of hesitation and dread at having to drive that far, then a realization that I have an amazing audiobook and an awesome dog to keep me company.
Backpack, granola bar, and Nym in the car and off we went! The drive makes you realize that Washington is a really diverse state. You go through Snoqualmie Pass which is a mountain range with thick growth and huge trees, then through what looks like Southern California (vineyards, rolling hills, cows dotting the horizon), until finally you get to open plains that could be a more green version of the Lion King gorges. You would absolutely never guess that just off to your left, hidden amongst the plains, lies Washington’s official waterfall. Even when you get to the parking lot next to the campground it is hard to believe there is any place tall enough for a waterfall to be hidden nearby.
The pounding sound that hits your ears as you hop out of the car is almost a shock. Is it really that close by? I’d like to say I maintained composure and walked calmly over to check it out, but that would be lying. We’ll call it "frolicking at a unladylike pace." Queue breathlessness, vertigo, and the realization that I had to pee so badly. Running water, too much coffee, four hours in the car, and giddy excitement hit me at once. Now a completely humiliating dash to the bathroom, and then onto the car to get my camping gear to set up.
The campground is an open field with eleven first-come-first-served sites. Luck was with me, because I snagged the last site just as another car was pulling in. My tent takes around two minutes to set up, so I had a bit of time to kill before sunset. Nym and I wandered back over to the edge of the falls and she noted with disdain that other humans had brought their dogs as well. It’s not that she doesn’t like other dogs, she just does not relate to them at all (I wonder where she gets that from…). We walked around the edge looking for the best seat in the house, then settled down to watch the sunset.
The waterfall is positioned so that when staring at it, you are looking east. This means that the sunset is not behind it, but in front of it. However, the effect is that your lighting is great for photos and you still get to see a dazzling sunset over the ridged plains. Pause for a brief moment of “awe.”
In my rush to set off on this unplanned venture, I completely forgot to bring cash to pay for the tent spot. I also forgot to bring food for myself, but not Nym because she’s too cute. I remembered seeing a sign saying that a town called “Starbuck” was only twelve miles away. Back into the car we went! The road to Starbuck was lined with almost as many deer as cows, it’s a wonder I didn’t hit one with the curviness of the roads.
If I would’ve blinked at the wrong second, I would have passed Starbuck without noticing. Thankfully my eyes were still wide with wonder from seeing the falls. I noted one restaurant called “Rawhide” that looked like a classic midwestern salon, did a lap around the “town” and realized it was literally the only place there. It would do!
A black lab greeted me as I walked in the door and I was immediately sold. I sat at one of the huge communal style tables and the pleasant waitress came over to say “howdy.” Just then a rowdy cheer broke out and I looked up to see an old man taking the microphone to sing karaoke. His voice was dead-on Johnny Cash. The crowd of around twenty locals were clapping along and waving their beers with the music. It was infectious.
“Coffee by donation, full menu, would you like to sign up to sing, do you mind if these lovely people sit with you?” And I sit there grinning at my fortune to have happened upon such an awesome place in the middle of nowhere. A toothy smile is peering shyly at me from across the table, an adorable little girl sitting between her young parents. For a few minutes none of us talk to each other. Just go through the motions of ordering meals and fixing out drinks (I’ll opt for diner coffee from Starbuck, WA over Starbuck’s coffee any day). Then the ginger dad asks if I’m from around here. I tell him that I drove over from Seattle to see the falls and discover that he and his wife had moved to Starbuck to work for the railroad company. I asked what the population of the town was and if they get many visitors from the falls. He hazarded a guess that there were around 250 residents, but was chided by his wife who said he was trying to make it seem much larger than it really was, which she said was around 150 people.
I later discovered that the friendly black lab was their neighbor’s dog that had somehow found it’s way into the restaurant to beg for food and attention. Judging by the dog’s girth, I think she was a frequent customer.
After eating a rather delicious salad, I decided that if the pool was free, I’d be a dolt not to play a round. I was joined by the town drunk and a snaggle toothed old man. They were incredibly friendly but forgot they were playing about midway through the game. After listening to one last singer, I returned to my table to say goodbye to my dinner friends. The little girl had found her tongue and exclaimed, “I got new shoes! They are pink and purple on top, AND they have purple on the bottom too! See!” She had the biggest smile and huge, expressive eyes. I stayed for one more cup of coffee while she told me all about her game on the phone.
When we got back to the campsite, what seems like every star in the sky was there to greet us. With no major cities for miles and miles, the light pollution was almost nonexistent in this area. I quickly found all the familiar constellations, and then found myself laying in the grass like Timon, Pumba, and Simba gazing up at the stars and trying to bring clusters of them to life. As the temperature dropped, we headed to the tent to cuddle and read until at last we dozed off to the sound of fires crackling, people laughing, and a a waterfall 20 yards away.
I absolutely love camping. As a little tomboy growing up, I camped almost every weekend with my brothers and dad. The one nagging part of camping that I do not enjoy, is having to pee in the middle of the night. This problem was not helped at all by the proximity of an enormous waterfall. I swear all of my dreams were fantasy style quests to find the golden toilet at the back of a dragon’s lair. I persevered and managed to stay in bed until just before sunrise.
It was freezing! Why do I never remember to bring my gloves? However, after an hour long attempt to capture the sunrise in 6 degree weather at the Grand Canyon this winter, this was not going to stop me. I stood jumping in place for twenty minutes to keep warm until I saw the sun start to peak out behind the waterfall. After rubbing some warmth back into my fingers I started taking pictures while taking in the pure delight of the sun’s warmth on my face as it spread its tendrils over the scattered plains.
Now it was time to find a way down to the base of the waterfall. When you are looking over the edge from the top, it does not look conceivable that there is a route down. We made our way to the Upper Falls area which is by a very active train track. I let Nym off her leash, lest she kill us both on the scramble down. We made it to the upper level of the falls where the gorge had a beautiful stream bubbling over smooth rocks running through it. The moss and brambles here were so interesting.
Continuing on, we arrived at the tip top of the waterfall. I put Nym back on her leash and then left her behind on the trail as I went over to stand on the rock that jutted out above the falls. Thank goodness I am not afraid of heights! Just one wrong step on the loose gravel would mean falling over the edge to the rocks and thundering water below. After safely making it back to Nym, I scoped out where the trail led from there. The “trail” turned out to be this tiny brown line along the top of the ledge I was on. It was maybe… two foot wide, wet, and covered in loose rocks that shifted under your feet precariously. As we started down the trail I noticed something scampering in front of us. A marmot! Nym’s heart must’ve jumped into her throat at this because she suddenly became very excited. She tugged me along the edge of the cliff trying to sniff out which rock the marmot had hidden itself in. “It’s going to pop out and scare us both so much that we plummet to our death. Don’t look down. Don’t slip. Nym, stop pulling!”
At last we made it to the final stretch. Just one more steep trail to slide down and we’d be victorious! Spoiler alert, we made it! Once down Nym immediately scoped out the best stick on the rocky shore and brought it to me for a game of fetch. I swear my dog has played fetch in some of the most beautiful places in Washington! No matter how pretty our surroundings are, she only has eyes for whatever she finds to fetch. We explored the base of Palouse Falls for an hour before starting the climb back to the top of the canyon. I tried to capture a bit of the most dangerous hiking area on my phone’s camera as we walked along the edge. You can watch that video here.
We packed up our gear and chose a slightly different route back to keep things interesting. Yakima and Posser were along the way. Vineyards sprawled across the horizon and we took a little detour up a winding trail of a road to the top of the hillside. I’ve never been so glad to have a Jeep instead of my Prius C! Wow, what a view and fun drive. The road was insanely steep and in some places just dropped off. I had to turn around at two different places and was seriously beginning to wonder if I’d have to get towed down. People had hiked to the top and were flying kites in the strong wind on the top of the ridge. Surreal. I made this video of the trip back down so you can see how exciting/scary the road was.
The drive back to Seattle was pleasant after this. Nym was tuckered out in the back seat and my mind was racing with its one constant thought, “Where will we go next?”