Greening of the Palouse

Visit idyllic countryside surrounding two college towns along the Idaho-Washington border
Julie Fanselow
I've never been to Vermont. But when I travel to the Palouse, I imagine it must be the inland Northwest's answer to that pocket of New England. From its voluptuous landscape to the environmentally aware, politically progressive people who call the area home, the Palouse ― a region of small communities and farmland radiating from the two neighboring college towns of Moscow, Idaho, and Pullman, Washington ― is proudly green.

Spring is a great time to visit. The Palouse's rolling hills look like a topographic map that has sprung to life, and the collective energy of more than 30,000 students helps travelers return, even if just for a few days, to the pulse of college life. You'll find funky shops, creative cafes, and hiking and biking trails that are perfect for witnessing the region's annual rebirth.

The area takes its name from the Palouse Indian tribe, whose major village sat at the nearby confluence of the Palouse and Snake Rivers. Pullman and Moscow have always had robust agricultural economies. These days, however, the region is just as well known for the forward-thinking academic community and thriving arts scene surrounding the Washington State University and University of Idaho campuses. A bit of strip-mall sprawl mars the two cities' outskirts, but vital downtowns and lively campuses make Moscow and Pullman the sorts of places people want to stick around long after they graduate.

My first morning in Pullman, I wander into Ric-O-Shay, an eclectic shop run by Yvonne Skinner and Walt Zylowski, both 1980 Washington State University grads. Skinner designs custom beaded lampshades on antique bases for a far-flung clientele, while Zylowski does fine wood-, metal-, and beadwork and moonlights as a computer consultant. They both love the Palouse's blend of artistic verve, college-town vitality, and natural beauty.

EXPLORING THE TWIN CITIES

Mitch Chandler, a former Pullman mayor and owner of a downtown floral and gift shop, says that Moscow and Pullman (and their two campuses) work together in many ways, sharing a public transportation system, an airport, and doctors. "We understand that we're each small, but together we're big," Chandler says.

The Bill Chipman Palouse Trail is one visitor-friendly project linking Pullman and Moscow. Completed in 1998, the paved bicycle-pedestrian path, named for a University of Idaho graduate and WSU volunteer who was killed in a car accident in 1996, spans 7 bucolic miles between the two towns. Although it's an easy bike ride, you'll want to stop at the trail's way stations, where interpretive panels share Palouse area geology, poetry, and local lore. One panel tells how the region, with its mild winters and rich, deep soil, can produce twice as much wheat as the national average. Although the trail parallels busy Moscow-Pullman Highway (State 270) on a onetime railroad bed, it's far enough away from traffic to give riders a feel for the fertile folds of the agrarian landscape.

Moscow attractions include the McConnell Mansion, a Victorian home built in 1886 for William J. McConnell, who served as Idaho's governor from 1893 to 1897. McConnell wound up going broke and losing the house, but a vintage machine lets visitors stamp facsimile checks from the Moscow State Bank for up to $99,999. "They make great birthday presents for kids," docent Barb Hipple says. Too bad the bank no longer exists.

In Pullman, it's worth getting up early to visit WSU's bear center, where visitors can watch director Charles Robbins and his students feed and tend to about a dozen resident grizzly bears. The bruins here either were born in captivity at WSU ― like cubs Mica and Luna, whom I watch Robbins bottle-feed ― or for other reasons cannot survive in the wild.

Both towns are packed with fast-food and pizza restaurants catering to students, but more adventuresome palates will find a few fine-dining spots. In downtown Moscow, the art-filled Red Door Restaurant is packed even on weeknights. Diners choose from the ever-changing array of French-, Asian-, and Northwest-influenced dishes emphasizing fresh ingredients; during the growing season, produce is culled from local organic growers. In Pullman, Swilly's serves similarly inspired food, with patio seating as the weather warms. But for a quick bite, locals often head to WSU's Ferdinand's Ice Cream Shoppe, which serves cold, creamy treats and packages of Cougar Gold cheese, a nutty cheddar made on campus by students. (See Dining listings.)

One of my favorite times to visit the Palouse is during the Moscow Renaissance Fair, an annual event heralding the start of spring. The town's East City Park throngs with revelers listening to music and browsing wares ranging from the usual ― candles and tie-dye clothing ― to the truly offbeat. Last spring I watched, impressed, as one vendor, with what is known as the Dr. Vortex Traveling Medicine Show, hawked an aesthetically irresistible multicolored concoction (not intended for drinking) that he touted as "peace of mind in a bottle" to a crowd gathered around the booth. Here on the Palouse, a fanciful outlook on life springs eternal.

In Pullman, it's worth getting up early to visit WSU's bear center, where visitors can watch director Charles Robbins and his students feed and tend to about a dozen resident grizzly bears. The bruins here either were born in captivity at WSU ― like cubs Mica and Luna, whom I watch Robbins bottle-feed ― or for other reasons cannot survive in the wild.

Both towns are packed with fast-food and pizza restaurants catering to students, but more adventuresome palates will find a few fine-dining spots. In downtown Moscow, the art-filled Red Door Restaurant is packed even on weeknights. Diners choose from the ever-changing array of French-, Asian-, and Northwest-influenced dishes emphasizing fresh ingredients; during the growing season, produce is culled from local organic growers. In Pullman, Swilly's serves similarly inspired food, with patio seating as the weather warms. But for a quick bite, locals often head to WSU's Ferdinand's Ice Cream Shoppe, which serves cold, creamy treats and packages of Cougar Gold cheese, a nutty cheddar made on campus by students. (See Dining listings.)

One of my favorite times to visit the Palouse is during the Moscow Renaissance Fair, an annual event heralding the start of spring. The town's East City Park throngs with revelers listening to music and browsing wares ranging from the usual ― candles and tie-dye clothing ― to the truly offbeat. Last spring I watched, impressed, as one vendor, with what is known as the Dr. Vortex Traveling Medicine Show, hawked an aesthetically irresistible multicolored concoction (not intended for drinking) that he touted as "peace of mind in a bottle" to a crowd gathered around the booth. Here on the Palouse, a fanciful outlook on life springs eternal.