Puget Sound Energy's Wild Horse Wind Farm, northeast of Ellensburg, offers 11,000 acres of rocky scrubland for bikers and hikers to explore — while getting a close-up look at 350-foot-tall wind turbines.
The Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office was halting cars on the Vantage Highway as I drove out from Ellensburg, and I realized I was too late for that morning’s Whiskey Dick Triathlon. Also too old, and too weak.
Fortunately, I was on a more modest mission: to ride among the monumental, sturdy trunks that punctuate the windswept skyline near Whiskey Dick Mountain. Not the broad, leafy trees that shelter where the Yakima River snakes through the adjacent valley, nor the scraggly pines growing partway up the ridge — the angular, 350-foot-tall monsters I was looking for were wind turbines.
This nonnative species has sprouted in profusion on the Kittitas County hills. From Interstate 90, the wind turbines seem like toothpicks. But up close they are massive, and there may be no better place to learn about them than the Wild Horse Wind Farm, Puget Sound Energy’s power plantation 18 miles northeast of Ellensburg.
Its privately owned 11,000 acres of scrubby brush and ravines are accessible to the public for hiking or biking, even hunting; just complete the paperwork. What distinguishes this stretch of rangeland, however, is the opportunity to check out the 149 turbines.
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There’s a tour that will take you inside one of the turbine towers, and a ridgetop visitor center packed with displays about the technology and the area’s natural history.
Crickets and cow pies
A bike ride among the bright-white towers seemed just the right pace at which to ponder their strange, mechanical beauty.
After the last of the triathletes, who’d started their morning with a swim across the Columbia River, passed the sheriff’s roadblock on the Vantage Highway, I finally reached the Wild Horse turnoff. Although you can drive to the visitor center, I chose to ride up.
Crickets and cow pies were the only things sharing the road as I ascended some 900 feet over 3 ½ miles. Thanks to the 2,600-foot starting elevation, the winding route offered good views of both Mount Adams and Mount Rainier poking up from beyond the nearby Cascades. The rocky slopes were dotted with sagebrush, desert parsley, phlox and prairie lupine. A few flowers still held their color in the late summer dryness.
At midmorning only a few turbines were turning indolently; the slight breeze carried the pungent scent of sage, but generated no juice. The turbines need a 9-mph wind to operate effectively — something the hills here reliably provide on most summer days.
Past the visitor center, the paved road turns to gravel. Its ups and downs take you past neatly aligned arrays of turbines and entirely unaligned clusters of cows.
The turbines — reaching higher, with their upturned blade, than the Statue of Liberty’s outstretched arm — are such unfamiliar objects that the mind plays tricks on you. Glimpse a group from a corner of your eye and they seem like a flock of weird, three-winged seagulls. Pass close by and the long, sharp-edged shadow of the blades swooping by every 3 to 4 seconds is unnerving, as though a large bird is reaching down to snatch you skyward.
Trails up and down
For bikers or hikers, there’s a 5-mile gravel road running along Beacon Ridge, and several rocky side trails and old, unmarked roads that range across the hills and canyons. One trail leads up to the Whiskey Dick peak and a big array of solar panels, another goes down through Bluebird Canyon, which is said to harbor elk, deer and coyotes as well as the birds for which it’s named.
Riding the primary maintenance road on my cross bike was not prohibitively bumpy — the only hazards were two or three cattle gates and the aforementioned meandering cows — though I wouldn’t bring a standard road bike beyond the visitor center. And the side trail I took was rocky enough that I felt I was endangering my bike and perhaps myself; such exploration is perhaps best left to hikers or hard-core mountain bikers.
Had I studied the excellent maps Kittitas County has online (see “If You Go”), I could have made a long loop by taking one of the dirt roads that descend from Beacon Ridge Road beyond the Wild Horse property. As it was, I just had the utility’s guide to its own trails — so I simply retraced my path for a total ride of 20 miles.
Bouncing along I reflected on the unexpected things I’d learned on the tour, conducted by a student intern from Central Washington University. The rectangular box of gears and controls atop each turbine is the size of a small bus and weighs 75 tons. The tapered, curved turbine blades are hollow and delicately balanced in matched sets of three; when one was dinged during installation, the whole set had to be scrapped — hence the blade on display outside the visitor center. The wind farm has the capacity to power 70,000 homes.
Many in the county weren’t happy to see the turbines march across their hillsides. And with one neighboring wind farm idled at times this spring and summer because the Bonneville Power Administration says it has plenty of hydropower, there’s room for debate about the area’s suitability for wind power.
But to this city dweller, there’s something preternaturally attractive about these tall, bone-white stalks. Wandering close among them for a few hours only underscored how they oddly combine sturdiness and fragility, high-tech and basic nature.
Rami Grunbaum is The Seattle Times’ deputy business editor.