The Palouse and Steptoe Butte, Washington

One of Washington state’s seven wonders, the Palouse is a 4,000 square feet area of rolling hills near Spokane, Washington. From the summit of Steptoe Butte, standing at 3,612 feet above the ground, one can admire the Palouse’s beauty: shades of green from the lush fields of barley and wheat in the spring, and the sparkling shades of gold and brown during harvest time.

The Palouse formed over many years much like dunes: from dust carried by wind and meticulously deposited over a large area at the border of Washington and Idaho. During multiple ice ages, glaciers advancing south from Canada ground up the bedrock, creating a fine dust known as glacier flour. Cataclysmic glacial floods known as the Missoula Floods, pushed the glacier flour into newly formed temporary lakes. Eventually, the lakes drained, leaving behind large quantities of silt. Constant winds from the south-west molded the silt and dust into rolling hills of loess resembling giant sand dunes.

Surprisingly, the Palouse is one of the most fertile soils in the United States and in the world. This region produces the most white winter wheat of any other place on Earth, and most recent crops even include grape vines.

We took the short drive up the Steptoe Butte’s winding narrow road and took in the 360 view and its highlights: Mt. Spokane to the north, the Big Bend Columbia River Valley to the west, and the Idaho Rockies to the east. The hills gave a gentle vibe, displaying shades of earthy brown, gold, and taupe, dotted by patches of green. In the distance, several dust clouds swirled up as the combines harvested the slopes.

Although the area was interesting enough in the fall, it seems it would be more interesting in the spring or summer. Here are some photos I found showing the colorful hills.

By Lynn Suckow from Walla Walla, WA, USA – Hills, grain elevator, and little yellow plane (really), CC BY-SA 2.0,

The natural beauty of the Palouse attracted the attention of locals and travelers alike, and led James “Cashup” Davis to build a unique lodging place atop the butte in 1880. For a while, the steady flow of curious visitors kept the small hotel busy. The Cashup Hotel could welcome up to fifty visitors and even contained an observatory above the second floor, offering guests a majestic view of the Palouse hills. Eventually, the novelty wore off, and the visitor stream thinned, leading to the hotel’s closing in 1902. In 1911, an unfortunate smoking incident destroyed a large part of the building, which had to be leveled. A few years later, a local conservationist donated the property to the state for safe keeping. That’s how Steptoe Butte State Park came to be, offering visitors once again the chance to admire the Palouse in all its beauty.

On our way to Spokane we stopped in the small town of Oaksdale, with a population of about 400 people and a good collection of visually enticing vintage buildings.

In downtown Spokane, we savored a cup of freshly-ground coffee and a pastry, and admired the skillful murals adorning the Howard Street underpass beneath the railroad viaduct.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.