Editor’s note: Given the rise in COVID-19 cases due to the spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus, safety protocols and other information for venues may change quickly. It’s best to check websites for the latest and to heed local health authorities’ safety recommendations as they’re updated.
PULLMAN — Last year, there was just one home football game at Washington State University, played in a stadium with empty stands. The second scheduled game got called off at the very last minute because of a positive COVID-19 test.
This year, Pullman is more than ready for football season at 100% capacity. (The Cougs open their 2021 season Saturday, Sept. 4, in Martin Stadium against Utah State.) The college town, with a population of 34,850, typically doubles in size during home game weekends. A healthy contingent of fans come from Seattle — in King County alone, there are more WSU alumni than there are residents in Pullman.
I lived in Pullman as a child; my family landed in Eastern Washington from Taipei, Taiwan, and you couldn’t have asked for a more Americana experience. Pullman is relentlessly sunny and friendly and compact. On a recent visit, we saw the Cougars’ football coach in a parking lot. The volunteer at the historic train depot turned out to be the English department chairperson. The mayor gave me his cellphone number. (Can you imagine Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan doing that?)
The beautiful rolling hills of the Palouse alone make Pullman worth a cross-state road trip. And when you’re used to Seattle prices, it’s shocking how much fun you can have with the family for very little money.
Another big plus: At rush hour, it’d take 15 minutes, max, to drive across town, and only if you hit every stop light along the way. We laughed at the yellow “Congestion Area” warning signs. It’s not quite the 405.
“Boy, after a couple years, you don’t miss a freeway, I’ll tell you that,” says Glenn Johnson, who’s in his fifth term as Pullman mayor and his 41st year as the Voice of the Cougs. “You talk to a lot of people around here who come here as a professor. ‘Pullman, I’ll give it three years.’ Then, 40 years later, they’re still here.”
He might as well have been describing himself. A Sacramento, California, transplant, Johnson taught communications at WSU for 35 years and stayed and stayed. The allure of Pullman: It’s a small town with metropolitan amenities. For example, Johnson sings in a church choir alongside professors from the music department.
“You’ve got all these experts in town,” he said. “Fortunately, many of them share their talents with the community.
“We’re a great community, a great region.”
You can catch a direct flight from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Alaska Airlines, which will get you to Pullman in an hour. The airport is currently undergoing a $150 million upgrade, and will eventually include a brand-new terminal.
We opted for the much cheaper scenic route: a five-hour drive east on Interstate 90 to Highway 26, then south on U.S. Route 195 to Pullman. Make sure to get gas in Ellensburg and time your rest stops; more than half of the drive is a two-lane highway surrounded by fields. You’ll know you’re getting close when you start seeing “GO COUGS” painted on barns.
Places to visit
It’d been three decades since I last saw Pullman, and the city has grown considerably since. We wanted to hit the quintessential Palouse landmarks (Ferdinand’s, of course) and new-to-me attractions like the science center.
Start at this iconic old-fashioned ice cream parlor. Ferdinand’s, located in the Food Quality Building, sells ice cream made fresh daily using milk from WSU’s own dairy cows. This is also where you can buy tins of that famous Cougar Gold cheese and fresh cheese curds. Don’t miss the observation window where you can watch the cheese- and ice cream-making in action.
You know you’re from Seattle when you look at the prices ($2.50 for a cake cone, waffle cone or a cup) and ask how much the ice cream costs. That price includes a huge scoop in the flavor of your choice. (Try the Apple Cup Crisp!)
Parking: Buy a campus parking pass for the day ($7.50) at Brelsford WSU Visitor Center. The visitor center is a gorgeous new facility with helpful staff who apologized that parking was so “expensive.“
2035 N.E. Ferdinand’s Lane, Pullman
You can see grizzly bears up close — really close — at WSU’s Bear Center. It’s the only program in the world to house adult grizzlies for research.
Two chain-link fences, 3 feet apart, are all that separate you from the 11 grizzly bears who live in this 2-acre facility. We watched two bears tussling in a bear-size wading pool with their water toys, not unlike some children I know.
You can see the bears right from the parking lot until October, when they hibernate in their dens. To get ready for hibernation, bears can eat 20,000 calories a day, which includes bear kibble, roadkill and produce donated by Safeway.
Want to see more animals? Like, 700 more? The Conner Museum, located at the south end of Abelson Hall, holds the largest display of taxidermied birds and mammals in the Pacific Northwest.
Bear Center: Grimes Way and Terre View Drive, Pullman
Conner Museum: 301 Abelson Hall, Pullman
When you’re used to seeing mountains and evergreens (OK, and traffic), the Palouse, with its rolling green hills, is an entirely different world. The Palouse is so beautiful, no wonder it’s a huge draw for photographers.
Head to Kamiak Butte County Park (20 minutes outside Pullman) or Steptoe Butte State Park (40 minutes outside Pullman). At Kamiak Butte, you can hike a 3.5-mile loop trail to the summit at 3,641 feet. Or just park at the base, where there’s a playground and picnic shelters with a view. Bring hot dogs and marshmallows to roast, and stay for the sunset.
Option B: Follow a 3.1-mile drive that spirals 3,612 feet up to the top of Steptoe Butte. More than a century ago, an entrepreneur built a hotel up here. (Unfortunately, it was a commercial flop and was abandoned when it burned down in 1911.) Now the big parking lot and 360-degree panorama of the Palouse attracts legions of photographers with tripods and long lenses. We loved taking in the view without a hot hike (all of the glory, none of the guts).
Kamiak Butte is free. Discover Pass needed for Steptoe Butte.
Pullman Discovery Science Center is small but heavenly to kids who hadn’t been inside a science center since … well, you know. We were warmly greeted and politely but firmly directed to wash our hands before entering the exhibit area. Interactive exhibits include those on the human body, optical illusions, music and aerodynamics.
The most popular attraction is the machine where you can print counterfeit money with your face on it. Just don’t spend your millions all at once.
Admission: $7.50 adults, $6 kids.
950 N.E. Nelson Court, Pullman
The 7-mile Bill Chipman Palouse Trail connects Pullman and Moscow, Idaho. It’s flat and paved, perfect for biking, rollerblading or walking. After staying home all year, my kids were thrilled just to cross a state line. The Idaho end of the Chipman trail dropped us off at the beautiful University of Idaho campus — Go Vandals! — where we petted some resident horses.
1281-1299 Bishop Boulevard, Pullman
This legendary burger joint, opened in 1973, does its business in volume, because it certainly isn’t price gouging anyone. You can get a Bag O’ Burgers — five burgers for $10 — every day after 8 p.m. Which would make a terrific dinner for you and your four friends, or just an exceptionally hungry you.
The $6 kids meal comes with five items: a burger, fries, a drink, a toy and an ice cream dipped in chocolate. Cougar Country Drive In is coming to the WSU campus this fall; I’m going to start a petition to open a branch in Seattle, too.
760 N. Grand Ave., Pullman