Parts of Palouse Falls State Park, WA, will close permanently
The public will be banned from hiking in potentially dangerous areas of Palouse Falls State Park in eastern Washington after four people died in the park in recent years.
The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission voted on January 27 to permanently close the pool at the bottom of the falls, the cliff sides with narrow pathways above the pool, and the top of the falls.
The closure also includes the Castle Rock formation, or Coyote’s Puppies as the Native Americans call it, which juts out of the ground not far from the top of the falls and sometimes attracts climbers.
Staff at the state park, which includes lands in Franklin and Whitman counties, have tried several means without closures in recent years to curb unsafe behavior, trespassing and vandalism.
The secluded 105-acre park is especially popular during the spring snowmelt, when the Palouse River is at its highest and most of the water plunges from a basalt plateau into a bubbling bowl nearly 200 feet below. .
The park has three vantage points to view the falls in areas that remain open to the public.
But some visitors don’t stick to developed areas, despite strong warnings about the dangers.
Deaths of visitors
Four men, all in their 20s, died in the park in separate spring incidents between 2016 and 2018 after following unofficial trails in undeveloped areas.
A Colville, Washington man and a Lake Stevens, Washington man drowned while going for a swim in the pool at the bottom of the falls.
And a Spokane man and a Colfax, Wash. man died from an unofficial worn-in-the-ground trail that takes hikers up the bluffs above the Palouse River above the falls.
Visitors are warned on social media and on the park’s website prior to their visit that areas of the park are potentially dangerous and that they will be responsible for all rescue costs if injured.
In the event of an emergency, Pasco Fire Department crews can be called in, making the one hour and 45 minute trip each way, and sometimes spending all day there for technical rescues, with the District of Franklin County Fire 3.
Fences were erected in an attempt to discourage visitors from taking unofficial trails outside of the small developed area of the park, but the undeveloped areas had not previously been officially closed.
The new signs displayed after the most recent deaths are blunted.
“Warning – People have died here,” said one. “We want you to live – Stay off the edge of the cliff.”
Vandalism in the park
Safety is the main reason for the permanent closure of parts of the park, park planner Laura Moxham said during the commission meeting.
It should also help prevent vandalism, such as graffiti painted on rocky cliffs, and other damage to the park.
The closure would also make it easier to prosecute those who violate or destroy natural or cultural resources, the commission was told.
New temporary closures are also being put in place in the park, covering the north and south ends that some visitors use to reach the water.
Plans are underway to develop safe trails in these areas.
Those wishing to visit these areas during the temporary closure will need to apply for a special activity or research permit.
The park changes its name
The commission also gave it a new name – the Palouse Falls State Park Heritage Site.
The new name “provides a clear understanding for visitors before setting foot in the park that this is a special place,” Moxham said.
The geology of the falls was sculpted by Ice Age flooding more than 13,000 years ago, giving the waterfall national significance, she said. It is one of the last active waterfalls in the way of the Ice Age floods.
People come from all over the region, including Idaho and Portland, to see the falls, according to park officials.
Because crowds in the park have increased over the past eight years, the commission voted to end tent camping and refocus the park on scenic viewpoints.
Palouse Falls was named a state waterfall in 2014, a milestone that helped push the park from 46,000 visitors about a decade ago to 200,000 state park visitors annually just before the pandemic.
But state park officials said the increase in visitor numbers also coincided with the growing popularity of social media.
People are sharing their adventures and photos of the falls, and more people are planning tours.