Amazing Places: A Vanished Waterfall, and a Hidden Waterfall in Washington

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Palouse Falls, WA. Can you spot the people in the photo, for scale?

It was once the largest waterfall, ever in the world, but today it’s a massive dry cliff. Dry Falls Washington is just one of the amazing sights we visited on a roadtrip through Washington state.

The other very cool hidden place is Palouse Falls, a well-hidden gem in the middle of nowhere that stuns when you finally find it.

 Dry Falls, WA

Dry Falls, WA. Photos copyright Erin Lawrence.
Dry Falls, WA. Photos copyright Erin Lawrence.

It was once the largest waterfall ever to have existed on earth, but unless you’ve stumbled accidentally across its now-dusty shoulders, you’ll likely never have heard of it.  Dry Falls Washington is a massive three-miles-wide ridge of sheer 400-foot tall cliffs that centuries ago would have been the edge of the world. Dry Falls would have been Goliath to Niagara Falls’ David, since Ontario’s pride is just a mile wide  and only drops 165 feet.

The views over the top and into the desert below are spectacular, and very few places I’ve ever been have made me feel so small.  Especially when you realize you can get down to the bottom and look up, pondering the absolutely unimaginable volumes of water that would have been crashing and roiling over top.

This basalt chasm was left high and dry thousands of years ago as the last of several Ice Age floods swept through the Grand Coulee.   The US Parks Service explains the formation this way: “One especially large lake, covering a portion of northwest Montana, played an important role in the formation of Dry Falls. As this lake grew in size, it eventually broke through the ice dam, unleashing a tremendous volume of water to rush across northern Idaho and into Eastern Washington. Catastrophic floods raced across the southward-dipping plateau a number of times, etching the coulees or ravines that characterize this region, now known as the Channeled Scablands.

The view from the bottom of the falls at Dry Falls.
The view from the bottom of the falls at Dry Falls.

“Dry Falls is the skeleton of the greatest waterfalls in geologic history. It is 3.5 miles wide, with a drop of more than 400 feet. By comparison, Niagara, one mile wide with a drop of only 165 feet, would be dwarfed by Dry Falls.”

This natural marvel is just a 10 hour road trip from Calgary, and is so worth the visit. However since it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere approximately 2 hours’ drive from Spokane, it’s largely unknown and there’s no fighting tourists for a photo.

 

The massive swoop of where the wide waterfalls would have been. Only small pools of water remain.
The massive swoop of where the wide waterfalls would have been. Only small pools of water remain.

Palouse Falls, WA

20140702-080656-29216837.jpgTucked below the horizon, across miles of rolling spearmint hills of winter wheat, is a hidden gem; a giant waterfall, spilling millions of litres of water over a sheer stepped cliff. This is no ordinary waterfall. Carved by decades of erosion, the 198-foot tall waterfall is tucked well below level ground, and it drops even further into a vast gorge and tumbles into a swirling river.

It’s the kind of natural wonder you’d never find if you were just driving by. Even its name, Palouse Falls, after the river that feeds it, just seems ordinary; Hidden Canyon Falls would be more appropriate, but I digress.

The falls are located off a secondary highway about 2 hours’ drive from Spokane, and the nearest towns are one-horse affairs with populations that would have a hard time forming a basketball team. A short winding road leads you from extremely flat, dry scrub and grassland, down to a small parking lot, and a short path takes you the rest of the way. The roar of the falls finds you before you find it, and the first glimpse is spectacular. The falls are tall and wide, and clearly very powerful. What makes them so breathtaking is how deeply they’ve carved their way through the rocky landscape. A column of rock lines the area above the falls like castle spires, and the weathered stone winds down in layer-cake lines to become softly rounded.

River valley above the falls.
River valley above the falls.

The area used to be called Aput Aput, but was renamed to honour the local Palouse indian tribe. Legend has it four giant brothers, were hunting a mythical creature called Big Beaver. According to the Palouse Falls State park website, they “speared the great creature five times. Each time Big Beaver was wounded, he gouged the canyon walls, causing the river to bend and change. The fifth time he was speared, he fought the brothers valiantly and tore out a huge canyon. The river tumbled over a cliff at this point to become Palouse Falls. The jagged canyon walls show the deep marks of Big Beaver’s claws.” The geological explanation is a little more subdued; “The exposed walls of the river channel are columnar basalt, the basalt is layered from different flows some as much as 100 feet thick,” explains the SCC Geology website  “You can actually see 200 feet of columnar basalt (that castle spire formation I mentioned) exposed at Palouse Falls.”

We found a path around the back of the falls that leads down to river level and is a gorgeous, albeit steep hike. At the bottom is a set of small falls and rapids that winds its way behind the rocks, before bursting out into the canyon even further below. We followed the river backwards though an impressive and steeply walled canyon that looked like it would be a great swimming spot. The water was invitingly warm on a hot day, but we passed on swimming the unfamiliar waters. Up and out of the river bed, we hiked up to an even higher viewpoint for a look way down into the canyon and Palouse Falls. It’s a spectacular sight worth the detour.

Flat grassland leading to the steep gorge where Palouse Falls is.
Flat grassland leading to the steep gorge where Palouse Falls is.
Campground at Palouse Falls State Park.  Just 10 spaces!
Campground at Palouse Falls State Park. Just 10 spaces!

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2 thoughts on “Amazing Places: A Vanished Waterfall, and a Hidden Waterfall in Washington

  1. Hi Erin,

    RE: Self-Clear

    I had a package come in from Italy via FedEx this morning. The charges were about $120 on a $350 item so I told the driver that I would be self-clearing. I called FedEx a few minutes ago and told them that I needed the invoice/waybill. First thing the guy tells me that he can’t issue the invoice because it is generated 5 days after the item is delivered. Then I say OK my bad I give me the waybill, he puts me on hold and tells me he can’t do so because it was charged from the shipper’s commercial account and contains sensitive information. I’m lost and hope you can give a hint or two in getting this thing resolved. Everyone out there has info on how to deal with UPS but nothing on FedEx.

    Thanks!

    Y

    1. My best advice; call back and try again with a different staffer. I find the people on the phone to be poorly trained sometimes. Escalate to a supervisor if you need to. Those 2 steps have worked for me 100% of the time. Be firm.

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