Loose on the Palouse

March 9, 2016

3 rides along the infamous wind-carved hills

Story and photos by Aaron Theisen

Photo at right: Late-afternoon sun highlights a cyclist among the endless scalloped slopes of the Palouse.


The Palouse landscape of eastern Washington and northern Idaho boasts 4,000 square miles of wind-sculpted hills unfolding under an endless sea of wheat and beans. Outside the raucous Greek Rows and stadiums of Washington State University in Pullman and the University of Idaho in Moscow, life is pretty quiet in this corner of the Northwest.

Exploring the Palouse’s rural roads on two wheels closely matches the area’s rural pace of life. Winding roads —well paved and light on traffic— link tiny farming communities and make for a myriad of connect-the-dots loops.

Ride long enough in the Palouse and you’ll start to wonder if there’s always a headwind no matter which direction you go. Since the wind blows primarily out of the southwest, as documented by the northeast-trending hills, your best bet is to ride close to sunrise or sunset for calm winds and cooler temperatures in the summer.

As an added bonus, you’ll see the Palouse in its best light, the low angle sun highlighting the endless scalloped slopes—the reason cyclists and shutterbugs revere the region.

Many veteran Palouse cyclists agree, the riding tends to be more reliable between Spokane and Pullman alongside the Idaho border.

Further west of Pullman and the town of Palouse, the scarcity of towns makes linking roads and finding supplies more challenging.

Although you can find a good cup of coffee or some Cougar Gold Cheese in most communities, bike parts, if needed, can be scarce, so plan accordingly.

Palouse Loop

Balsamroot enlivens the steep side of Kamiak Butte in springtime on the Palouse.

This 25-mile loop begins in the town of Palouse, a dozen miles north of Pullman and the Washington State University campus.

Ride south of town on Highway 27 on a wide two-lane road that tends to be quiet except for WSU football game days. After three miles, turn right on Clear Creek Road. The pine- and fir-forested Kamiak Butte looms ahead.

Kamiak Butte County Park boasts one of the last remnants of intact natural Palouse landscape—arid undulating hills and expansive prairies —and is worth a detour either mid- or post-ride.

To reach Kamiak Butte, take a left on Fugate Road just after turning onto Clear Creek and look for the park entrance on the left.

Otherwise, continue for a rolling ride past expanses of alfalfa to the intersection of Highway 272. After turning right on this highway, a short hill climb precedes 10 brisk miles back to the town of Palouse.

Afterward, take a few minutes to browse Palouse’s downtown. In addition to the requisite antique shops, the Roy M. Chatters Newspaper & Printing Museum is worth a browse.

Valley Chapel Route

For riders based in Spokane, the 40-mile Valley Chapel route is a classic conditioning ride; local bicycle groups pedal all or part of this loop nearly year-round.

Beginning at 57th Avenue in the Moran Prairie area on the south edge of Spokane, head south on the wide-shouldered, well-paved South Palouse Highway. Where this road changes to East Palouse Highway, turn right on Valley Chapel Road and descend into the Latah Creek valley, an idyllic ponderosa-shaded drainage.

In May, blooms of golden currant, serviceberry and elderberry enliven the surroundings. A thigh-cramping half-mile climb 10 miles into the ride deposits riders into a quintessential Palouse prairie, complete with whitewashed cemetery and clapboard farmhouses.

No steep climbs here, but plenty of rhythm-robbing hills will keep you from coasting. At 21 miles, turn left onto Highway 27, and at 29 miles turn left on to the East Palouse Highway for a fast return trip of long, low-angle climbs and descents. The communities of Rockford, Freeman, and Valleyford, make well-spaced rest stops.

Steptoe Butte

Not for the faint of heart or lung, or the vertigo-inclined, the 23-mile one way ride from the town of Palouse to Steptoe Butte rewards riders with the best vista in the Palouse.

From the town of Palouse, ride north on Highway 27 through Garfield. Cross the railroad tracks, turn left on Hume Road and follow the signs to the park. The last three miles steadily corkscrew up and around Steptoe Butte, providing views all-around to distract from
the pain.

At the top, more than 1,000 feet above the surrounding hills, enjoy a vantage point that’s graced many a calendar. To the west stretches hundreds of miles of farmland and to the east rises the Clearwater and St. Joe Ranges of north Idaho, the western outposts of the Rocky Mountains.

With a road atlas and plenty of water a cyclist could string together a lifetime worth of rides through the unique and beautiful terrain of the Palouse.

Aaron Theisen is an outdoors writer based in Spokane, Washington He is the co-author with Craig Romano of Day Hiking Mount St. Helens (Mountaineers Books) and is currently working on the book Day Hiking Glacier National Park and Western Montana.