Hello to the summer of road trips.
Always a favorite American pastime, miniature expeditions are the way to get out this summer, as the coronavirus pandemic and Gov. Jay Inslee’s ensuing stay-home order has many of us eager for a way to travel (at an appropriate physical distance).
Luckily the Pacific Northwest is a beautiful place, and there’s more to the region than mossy forests and alpine lakes. Bring a mask, hand sanitizer and a camera: These are just a few places to get a change of scenery while keeping your contact with people low — a conscious precaution as counties in Washington move through the phases of reopening.
The route: Take Interstate 90 about 100 miles east, to Ellensburg, then follow signs for Route 97, which will take you straight south to Bend. It’s about 20 minutes slower than taking Interstate 5, but rather than finding traffic on the interstate, you’ll pass through scenic stretches of farmland and earn a really lovely high-up view over the Columbia River Gorge. On a clear day, you can see the Three Sisters, Broken Top, Mount Jefferson and Mount Hood in a single panoramic sweep as you roll into Bend.
When you’re there: For a city of fewer than 100,000 people, Bend itself has quite the urban sprawl. Your best bet remains heading for nature, such as at nearby Smith Rock State Park for easy-to-access views, short but challenging hikes and world-class rock climbing. (Check here for the latest from Oregon State Parks, which has yet to close any nature sites.) On weekends, you’ll see other people there, but maintaining a distance of 6 feet shouldn’t be an issue — especially if you arrive early or get there just before closing. Alternately, take a stroll along the mostly-flat Deschutes River Trail through town. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, pick up a bowl of brothy goodness (takeout or delivery!) at Miyagi Ramen, or check out The Lot or On Tap, Bend’s two permanent food-truck lots. The Lot is open for takeout as of March 17; the On Tap lot is closed, but its individual trucks remain open for takeout.
Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park
The route: It can’t get more simple than this: Head east on I-90, then take Exit 151 to state Route 283 North to Park Lake Road.
When you’re there: Get your fill of sagebrush and water sports at Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park. While the park is about 4,000 acres, only 15 miles of trails exist to explore it — the best way to see most of the park is via the lakes. Bring a kayak, paddle board, or full-on boat to get up close with the area’s geologic wonder carved by glaciers in the last ice age. With pools closed, swim in the blessedly nonfrigid lake water. Tent camping is available through the park, and you can find both RV camping and 69 cabins at Sun Lakes Park Resort, which is privately owned but within the park’s boundaries. Options are limited as far as food and drink in the area, so plan to bring most of your supplies with you.
The route: Take I-90 east from Seattle about 140 miles to state Route 26, just east of Vantage. The farmland around state Route 26 is pretty gorgeous, so be ready to stop for photos on the 100-mile drive east to Palouse Falls.
When you’re there: You won’t find much beyond adventure at Palouse Falls State Park, so plan to pack your own food and evening entertainment. Both sunrises and sunsets are beautiful here, and on a clear night, it’s hard to beat the stargazing opportunities (I visited on a cloudy day back in December, unfortunately). A short path leads along the rim, the only official trail in the park. User-created trails lead to the top of the waterfall and to the bottom of the canyon, but use extreme caution — they’re not endorsed or maintained by the park.
The route: Head east on I-90 then south on state Route 243 at the Columbia River. Stop at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park, which has one of the largest diversities of petrified tree species in North America. (Washington parks are still fully operational.) Consider another detour to the Hanford Reach National Monument, where plutonium reactors remain that once fueled the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The area is now home to undisturbed wildlife, including commonly spotted porcupines. After heading south about 35 miles on state Route 243, take state Route 240 east and follow signs for the U.S. Route 12, headed east to Walla Walla.
When you’re there: Wine is the name of the game in Walla Walla and it would be a shame to miss it. Consider staying on the property at a winery, like the Inn at Abeja, so you’ll never be far from the vineyard but can time your visit for low crowds. (Tasting rooms have reopened statewide, and the Inn at Abeja and other hotels remain open and available for reservations.) Or pick up a to-go bottle (or two) from The Thief Fine Wine & Beer (offering delivery and curbside service) and relax on your hotel’s patio with cheese from Walla Walla Cheese Company. When you’re ready for adventure, rent wheels from Allegro Cyclery ling (yes, they’re still rolling, and offering a “bike pick-up and delivery” service) and take a scenic ride on one of the local paths outlined by Walla Walla Valley Cycling. Just need an afternoon in the sun? Pioneer Park has several walking paths and a duck pond to keep you (and kids, if they’re with you) entertained.