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Covering more than 6,000 square miles of southeastern Washington and northwestern Idaho, the Palouse was named by the French when they came across this area of rich topsoil that lies across bucolic, rounded knolls and hillocks. The largest prominence, Steptoe Butte, offers a 360º panoramic view of the mosaic patterns of the hillsides. Deer, the occasional moose and coyote are oftentimes found in the nooks and crannies of Steptoe Butte. In the spring, wildflowers fill the hillside, giving a beautiful foreground for the quilted landscape. Kamiak Butte is another good vantage point for capturing the essence of the area. Many roads in the Palouse are packed gravel and considered “primitive,” and it’s not advisable to travel them during the winter or after a rain. The gravel roads that lead off into the hills offer the best vantage points. Heavy farming equipment travels these roads, so drive with caution. Large combines come over the tops of hills quite unexpectedly.
The climate is generally mild in summer, with temperatures in the 60s, and cold during winter when temperatures tend to be in the 30s. August is the hottest month, with an average high of around 81ºF, and January has average lows of around 21ºF. Daily temperature variations during summer can be big, so have appropriate layers with you. The annual average precipitation is about 26 inches, and rainfall is fairly evenly distributed throughout the year. Occasionally, snow falls in the area, and the patterns of the stubble breaking through the soft white blanket produce unique images of the landscape.
Steptoe Butte is 3,618 feet in elevation and Kamiak Butte is 3,641 feet in elevation. Kamiak is more protected with trees and brush, and Steptoe is quite exposed, and the wind can be strong with hard gusts. A sturdy tripod is essential, as well as the ability to protect your lens and camera with a plastic or cloth cover. A polarizer and a neutral-density filter are good to bring along. There’s little hiking on Steptoe Butte, so you’ll be mainly working from your car, and there are plenty of parking areas. Kamiak Butte, on the other hand, has a lower parking lot, and to reach the top you need to hike up approximately a mile.
Spring is an ideal time to be in the Palouse; the different stages of the crops as they emerge from the brown earth create a quilt of greens, browns and, if you’re lucky, bright yellow canola flowers. If you time your visit right, you’ll have a foreground of wildflowers on Steptoe Butte.
During harvest time, the dust and grain particles fill the air, creating spectacular red sunsets. Photographing a sunset from the top of Steptoe can be a magnificent experience, and not only photographically; just watching the sunset and listening to the coyotes call to each other is an evening not to be forgotten. The farmers often harvest into the night, and watching a series of the large combines working in the field is a beautiful opportunity for some unusual photos.