4 deaths at Palouse Falls. Can the state make it safe?

Palouse Falls State Park is about 20 miles east of Kahlotus in Franklin County. Four people have died at the park since 2016.
Palouse Falls State Park is about 20 miles east of Kahlotus in Franklin County. Four people have died at the park since 2016. File

Emergency crews were searching Thursday for a hiker who fell off a cliff at Palouse Falls State Park in Franklin County.

It would be the fourth death in three years at the park, coming less than three weeks after a young Colville man drowned below the falls. The park had just reopened a week ago and was closed again Thursday.

Washington State Parks already had planned another look at safety at Palouse Falls State Park in Franklin County after the April drowning.

Thursday afternoon emergency crews were searching for the 26-year-old who reportedly fell into the river above the state waterfall.

The Franklin County Sheriff's Office had not released the identity of the young man early Thursday evening, but Sheriff Jim Raymond said he apparently had some ties to the Kennewick area.

In this 2016 photo at Palouse Falls, a woman holds a child in her arms standing close to the cliff above the 200-foot drop. Tom Foster Special to the Herald

On Thursday afternoon about 100 people were at the park when a hiker walked out on a ledge above the upper pool at the park, Raymond said.

Witnesses said the ledge gave way and the man fell 50 to 100 feet and rolled into the water, according to Raymond.

A friend called 911 and said he had disappeared beneath the water.

The Pasco Fire Department was at the park with its ropes team, which has the ability to set up a rope system to reach the water.

Columbia Basin Dive Rescue also was called out.

Initial reports were that conditions were too hazardous to send in a diver, but that a boat might be launched.

Every time there is a serious incident at a state park, an assessment is started to look for ways to improve safety, said parks spokeswoman Toni Droscher. It's not clear when that report will be finished.

After Palouse Falls was named the state waterfall in 2014, the park's popularity dramatically increased. In just over a decade, annual visitors have jumped from 46,000 to 200,000.

It's particularly popular in the spring when snow melt fills the Palouse River as it makes a dramatic 198-foot drop off basalt rock in the desert about 20 miles east of Kahlotus.

The state maintains a half-mile of trails at the park, but unmarked and unofficial trails along ledges and steep cliffs tempt visitors..

Hikers use them to reach the water at the base of the falls, the crest of the falls and the rapids of the Palouse River just upstream from the falls.

Temporary fencing was put up in late 2015 to keep people off potentially dangerous paths.

But it was removed in 2016 as new signs were posted warning hikers of the risk of using unmarked trials.

"Travel beyond this point is on potentially hazardous trials," the signs say. "Users assume all risk associated with travel beyond this point. Rescue costs will be at the expense of the injured party."

A hiker took video Saturday, April 21 of the men swimming in Palouse Falls in Franklin County before one of them disappeared under the water. The state park remained closed Monday while officials search for the body of Isaac Engell, 23, of Colville.

The most recent deaths at the park all happened during the months of April and May, said Candice Hermanson, Franklin County chief deputy coroner.

More people appear to visit the park when the falls are at their most impressive in the spring and the weather has just turned warm, she said.

"The falls are already dangerous. But when the water flow has increased, it is deadly," she said.

The National Weather Service also has been warning that water in Eastern Washington river water remains cold in the spring for weeks after air temperatures warm.

Even experienced swimmers can quickly lose muscle control in cold water as hypothermia, or a sudden loss of body temperature, set in, according to the weather service.

Deaths in recent years at the Palouse Falls State Park have been caused by falls from cliffs and drowning.

In early May 2016 James Hopkins — a 22-year-old Lake Stevens, Wash., man — went swimming with friends at the park and drowned, according to coroner records.

Last year on Memorial Day, a Spokane man, Cade Prophet, 25, was hiking on a cliff above the falls and fell into the Palouse River upstream of the falls.

This year on April 21, Isaac Engell, 23, of Colville drowned while swimming in the churning water below the falls.

palouse falls from state.jpg
Palouse Falls State Park is about 20 miles east of Kahlotus in Franklin County. Four people have died at the park since 2015. Washington State Parks

Dorothy Prophet, the mother of Cade Prophet, told the Spokesman-Review that she wants more warning signs posted around the unofficial trails.

She said she spent a recent weekend at the falls and watched people hiking on potentially dangerous trails in flip flops.

In addition to the safety assessment being conducted by Washington State Parks now, it also has been working on long-term plans for Palouse Falls State Park and two others in Southeast Washington — Lyons Ferry State Park in Franklin County and Lewis and Clark Trail State Park near Dayton.

The state is studying the right level of recreational use for each park to develop a management plan.

The study is in the second of four phases. The first phase identified issues and concerns with public input and now officials are considering alternatives to address them.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533