Washington’s official state waterfall was created by cataclysmic forces, and in one Native American legend, Palouse Falls was the site of an epic battle.
Five giants were chasing Beaver. They wanted to kill him for his oil, so they could grease their hair.
Beaver dodged them in the Palouse River Canyon, but they speared him at the site of the present-day falls. His claws left vertical gouges on the rock walls and the thrashing of his tail created the 187-foot plunge pool.
On Friday, Eastern Washington University’s Chad Pritchard told a different story to geologists on a field trip to Palouse Falls State Park. It was no less dramatic: There were lava flows, catastrophic flooding and, finally, a waterfall.
Millions of years ago, lava oozed out of vents in the earth’s crust, forming Eastern Washington’s basalt rock layers, said Pritchard, an assistant geology professor.
Then came a series of giant floods. About 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, Glacial Lake Missoula’s ice dam broke repeatedly, sending torrents of water over the landscape.
The floodwaters scoured out the Palouse River Canyon, which lies above a fault line. Movement along the fault had created fissures in the basalt, weakening the rock and allowing water erosion to form the canyon, Pritchard said.
The force of the ice age floods also created Palouse Falls’ 187-foot drop. Over time, the waterfall retreated six miles from the river’s confluence with the Snake.
Because of the Missoula Floods, “Palouse Falls has a huge plunge pool for a fairly modest waterfall,” Pritchard said.
The feature helps provide evidence for the Missoula Floods, he said.
Friday’s field trip drew instructors attending a Geological Society of America chapter meeting at the University of Idaho. They hiked around the state park, studying different layers of basalt and snapping pictures of rocks.
“I’m always looking for good examples of Columbia River basalt to show students,” said Kerrie Weppner, a research associate at Boise State University’s Geosciences Department.
She was taking pictures of the basalt formation featuring “claw marks” from the Beaver story. The lava cooled faster on top, creating the cracks in the rock that look like deep scratches.
Columbia River basalt is “unique in the world,” said Juk Bhattacharyya, a geology professor at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. “No one knows why such a large amount of liquid came up.”
In the Palouse River Canyon, the geologists studied Grand Ronde and Wanapum basalt layers, which formed between 14 million and 16 million years ago.
Archeological evidence suggests that people have lived near Palouse Falls for at least 10,000 years, said Larry Cebula, an EWU history professor.
The Lewis and Clark expedition stopped at a nearby Palouse Indian camp, but didn’t make it to the falls. A few years later, fur traders were visiting Palouse Falls. By the late 1800s, it was a tourist attraction. In 1951, Palouse State Park was dedicated.
Getting to the park requires a two-mile drive down a dusty road. But the parking lot was full Friday. Visitors peered over a chain-link fence to watch the Palouse River plunging over the cliff and sending up spray.
“It’s been a site of wonder for whites and Natives,” Cebula said.
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