Palouse Falls: the beauty and the danger


Daily Evergreen File

Palouse Falls, a popular hiking and camping destination, has seen two people die in separate incidents earlier this year.

Long a tourist magnet for hikers, photographers and nature enthusiasts, traffic to Palouse Falls has been on the rise in recent years.

The number of visitors each year has grown significantly since the falls became the official state waterfall two years ago, said Virginia Painter, Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission communication director. It nearly quadrupled from 46,000 visitors in 2005 to 170,000 in 2014.

While there is plenty of free space for visitors to roam, it’s not entirely safe or legal. Designated areas for visitors include a parking lot, a campground and an overlook alongside the edge of the canyon. All paths beyond the signs are restricted.

“They’re what we call social trails,” Painter said. Rather than being maintained by park officials, the paths are created by visitors who learned about them through social media.

Unofficial trails lead to closer and more intimate views of the falls, such as the rapids above and the ridges of the canyon, which Painter said is a tricky thing to manage.

“It’s a fantastic feature not everyone is able to see,” she said.

These trails are accessed down a dirt slope heading off of a maintained trail that ends near Union Pacific railroad tracks. The trails continue along the upper portion of Palouse Falls to the crest of the falls, along the edge of the canyon, and down to the base of the falls.

From late 2015 to March, temporary fencing was placed by the entrance of these trails until the State Parks and Recreation Commission could install trespassing signs warning visitors of potential risks.

Visitors are expected to remain in designated areas or be responsible for all rescue costs if they venture beyond these signs, which state what expenses trespassers are liable for.

While people have traveled off-trail for decades, it has become more of an issue recently as the park was declared Washington’s official state waterfall in 2014, Painter said. The number of calls local fire districts now respond to because of visitors going off-trail has doubled each year as well.

Instances of people being injured or dying at the falls are not uncommon. The most recent accident was a drowning at the base of the falls in early May. A man was pulled under the water and dive teams were unable to recover his body because of currents below the falls.

The parks and recreation commission wants to please all its visitors, Painter said, however, it also wants to protect them and meet the needs of local partners.

Painter said the falls is an area bordered by other ownership. The area is a historical landmark with rich history, a center of cultural resources and a home to wildlife among other things.

“There are many different perspectives that need to be taken into consideration,” Painter said.

The park trail plan, which may begin to be formulated at the end of summer, will work to communicate with locals and anyone interested in improving accessibility at Palouse Falls. The plan will possibly improve and expand trails to get people safely and appropriately closer to the falls, Painter said.

Anyone interested can participate in a survey or apply to serve on an advisory committee for the park’s trail plan. Contact info can be given at 509-337-6457 or left in the pay box at the park.