Anyone who’s used those AAA state maps is familiar with their dotted lines, indicating a scenic highway. I follow those highlighted routes whenever I can, because they’re a pretty reliable indicator of a fabulous drive, often on a winding, uncrowded secondary highway. But occasionally, I’m left scratching my head.
For instance, I was recently driving north of Moscow, Idaho on Highway 95. Pretty enough, I guess, but hardly worthy of its exalted dotted status.
But just to the west, across the Washington border, are the Palouse Hills, crisscrossed by a network of secondary and smaller highways. Nary a one of them has earned the precious dots. Now, this is a crime.
Forget California’s Big Sur, Utah’s red-rock Highway 12, Sedona’s Oak Creek Canyon or the Canadian Rockies’ Icefields Parkway. All fabulous western North American drives. But all hyped to the heavens and crawling with motorhomes, motorcycles, rubberneckers.
I’d put Highway 195 between Spokane and Pullman up there with any of them. Yet aside from local traffic between the two eastern Washington cities, you won’t find many vehicles on this hour-plus stretch of superb blacktop. Heck, you can often pull over on the shoulder and get out your camera without fear of being run over.
And you’ll want to be stopping a lot, or at least gazing in wonderment at the landscape you’re floating through: the Palouse Hills. Never heard of them? You’re scarcely alone. Most of my road-tripping friends haven’t, either, with no plans to see them, despite my raving.
The Palouse Hills harbour some of the most gorgeous farmland you’ll ever see. That might not excite the mountain, seaside and redwood crowd. Yet it’s equally mesmerizing to pass through these tightly rolling hills of green, brown and occasionally yellow, accented by impossibly tidy farmhouses and old train bridges. These loess-blown hillsides are so steep that special farming equipment had to be developed to work them.
The visual show starts about 30 minutes south of Spokane on Secondary 195 and keeps getting better as you get closer to Pullman. The northern section is somewhat marred by the recent introduction of wind turbines along ridgelines, though these peter out soon enough.
But Highway 195 is really just a sampler. If you’ve got time, it’s magical to follow winding side roads to tiny communities like Rosalia and Albion or wander along good gravel roads in the heart of this rich farmland. Perhaps the most spectacular drive might be quiet Highway 272 between Colfax and the oh-so-charming wee town of Palouse, about 20 minutes to the east. Another worthy detour is to the top of lofty Kamiak Butte for a panoramic overview.
Really, you can’t go wrong whichever way you point your vehicle. While the hills are at their colourful peak in spring, late summer and early fall ain’t too shabby, either. There’s a reason discerning landscape photographers call the Palouse Hills the American “Tuscany”.