The public will be prohibited from hiking into potentially dangerous areas at Palouse Falls State Park in Eastern Washington after four people died at the park in recent years.
The Washington state Parks and Recreation Commission voted Jan. 27 to permanently close the pool at the bottom of the falls, the cliff sides with narrow trails above the pool and the top of the falls.
The closure also includes the Castle Rock formation, or Coyote’s Puppies as it is known by Native Americans, which juts from the ground not far from the top of the falls and sometimes attracts rock climbers.
Staff at the state park, which includes land in Franklin and Whitman counties, have tried multiple ways short of closures in recent years to curb dangerous behavior, trespassing and vandalism.
The remote, 105-acre park is particularly popular during the spring snow melt when the Palouse River is at its highest and the most water plunges off a basalt rock shelf to a churning bowl nearly 200 feet below.
The park has three viewpoints to see the falls in areas that remain open to the public.
But some visitors don’t stick to developed areas, despite strong warnings about dangers.
Four men, all in their 20s, died at the park in separate springtime incidents between 2016 and 2018 after following unofficial trails into undeveloped areas.
A man from Colville, in Stevens County, and a man from Lake Stevens, drowned when they went swimming in the pool at the bottom of the falls.
And a man from Spokane and a man from Colfax, Whitman County, fell to their deaths from an unofficial trail worn into the ground that takes hikers to the cliffs over Palouse River above the falls.
Visitors are warned on social media and on the park website before they visit that areas of the park are potentially hazardous and that they will be responsible for any rescue costs if they are injured.
In emergencies, Pasco Fire Department crews may be called out, making the 1 hour and 45 minute drive each way, and sometimes spending all day at the park on technical rescues, along with Franklin County Fire District 3.
Fences have gone up to discourage visitors from taking unofficial trails outside the small developed area of the park, but undeveloped areas had not previously been officially closed.
The new signs posted after the most recent deaths are blunt.
“Warning — People have died here,” one says. “We want you to live — Stay back from cliff edge.”
Safety is the main reason for permanently closing parts of the park, said Laura Moxham, park planner, at the commission meeting.
It also should help prevent vandalism, such as graffiti painted on the rock cliffs, and other damage at the park.
The closure also would make cases against those who trespass or destroy natural or cultural resources easier to prosecute, the commission was told.
New temporary closures also are being put in place at the park, covering the north and south ends that some visitors use to reach the water.
Plans are being made to develop safe trails in those areas.
Those wanting to visit those areas during the temporary closure will need to apply for a special activity or research permit.
The commission also gave the place a new name — the Palouse Falls State Park Heritage Site.
The new name “provides a clear understanding for visitors before stepping foot in the park that this is a special place,” Moxham said.
The geology at the falls was carved by ice age floods more than 13,000 years ago, giving the waterfall national significance, she said. It is among the last active waterfalls on the Ice Age floods path.
People come from throughout the Pacific Northwest to see the falls, according to park officials.
Because crowds at the park have increased over the last eight years, the commission voted to end tent camping, the only kind allowed there, and refocus the park on scenic overlooks.
Palouse Falls was named the state waterfall in 2014, a step that has been credited with contributing to the jump from 46,000 park visitors about a decade ago to 200,000 visitors annually just before the pandemic.
But state park officials said the increase in visitors coincides with the increasing popularity of social media.
People share their adventures and photos of the falls, and more people plan visits.