Take a drive to a college town and ranch country beyond the Cascades.
Editor’s note: Got college loans to pay? Are Seattle rents pinching your pocketbook? This recurring feature, $99 Road Trip, is for anyone on a budget. We’ve taken a day trip from Seattle to see just how much fun two people can have for less than a hundred bucks.
ELLENSBURG — The Altapes Creek interpretive trail that loops from the old farmhouse and barn to the outbuildings and antique farm equipment provides not only sweeping views of a landmark homestead but a glimpse into Kittitas County history as well.
On this weekday morning we had Olmstead Place State Park (parks.state.wa.us/556/Olmstead-Place), a 217-acre day-use park and pioneer farm four miles east of Ellensburg, all to ourselves. It was the first stop on a day trip to explore Ellensburg’s historical highlights and then take a meandering route back to Seattle through upper Kittitas County’s coal-mining towns of yesteryear, Cle Elum and Roslyn.
Our day’s budget: $99, which included gas, food, souvenirs, parking and entry fees for two.
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Ellensburg, home to Central Washington University and known for its Ellensburg Rodeo, an annual Labor Day weekend event, was long-ago a contender to become the state’s capital. It is the county seat and largest city in Kittitas County, which stretches from Snoqualmie Pass to the Columbia River.
An early start
We headed out at 8:30 a.m. and reached Olmstead Place in just over two hours. Most of the 115 miles we traveled were on Interstate 90, a route on which driving time in summer 2016 is being impacted by road construction, with possible rolling slowdowns at Snoqualmie Pass and work between Roslyn and Cle Elum.
Leaving the freeway at Exit 109 (Canyon Road), we took a right onto Canyon Road and after a few blocks took another right onto East Mountain View Avenue (which becomes the Kittitas Highway). We drove this bike-friendly road for about four miles to Ferguson Road, where signs directed us to Olmstead Place. Here, a state parks Discover Pass is required to park. If you don’t have an annual pass ($30), a $10 day pass can be purchased at the kiosk at the north end of the parking lot. (Our first expense: a Discover day pass, $10)
The Olmsteads, among Kittitas Valley’s first homesteaders, arrived in 1875 and lived on the farm for nearly a century before donating it to Washington State Parks in 1968. I’d first visited when the park was still in its infancy. Clareta Olmstead Smith, who with her sister donated the property, told me back then, “Olmstead Place is important to the area because it is old and it is a heritage. It is one of the first homes built in the Kittitas Valley.”
Today she’d find it a comfortable blend of a park with picnic tables and a heritage site showcasing her home and farm buildings. There’s fishing in nearby Altapes (also known as Coleman) Creek (with license, June through October). The small Seaton Cabin School House, originally built in the 1870s a few miles away, has been moved here. Park rangers conduct free guided tours of the heritage buildings and equipment Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.
$99 Road Trips
- Langley on Whidbey Island
- Soothing sights on Olympic Peninsula
- A maritime day in Gig Harbor
- Million-dollar Anacortes views
- Zoo, fort and forest of Point Defiance
- Art, food and beer in Skagit Valley
- To Ellensburg for history and a good steak
- A Yakima Valley fruit loop
- Whiskey and fritters on Olympia's back roads
- Lutefisk tacos in Scandinavian-flavored Poulsbo
- On the road to Mount Rainier
Running total for our budget day trip: $10.
Bite of history, bit of art
A local favorite since 1997, the Yellow Church Cafe (111 S. Pearl St., theyellowchurchcafe.com) was our next stop. A few blocks south of Ellensburg’s historic downtown, this brightly painted yellow-with-purple-trim church is hard to miss. Built in 1923, it was home for decades to the Good Hope Lutheran Church congregation and is now home to some of the best food in Ellensburg.
We chose the combination plate, with a hearty quiche, salad and a serving of their homemade “heavenly loaf” — think oversized savory roll made with cheese and herbs ($11 + .88 tax = $11.88) — and a mouth-stretching bison burger on house-made ciabatta bread ($16 + $1.28 tax = $17.28). Portions are large and could easily be split.
A block north of the cafe we lingered at Dick and Jane’s Spot (101 N. Pearl St., reflectorart.com), a home where Dick Elliott and Jane Orleman redefined yard art. It’s been nearly four decades since the two artists began turning their corner-lot home and its yard and fences into an outdoor art gallery.
Quirky, whimsical displays incorporate some 10,000 bottle caps and reflectors. The works of more than 40 Northwest artists have been added over the years. It doesn’t cost a penny to view this “Spot” dedicated to the philosophy that “one hearty laugh is worth 10 trips to the doctor.” (Just respect residents’ privacy and stay on the public sidewalks and alley that border the home.)
Running total = $39.16.
Using the list of historic buildings we’d gotten in advance from MyEllensburg.com, we took advantage of Ellensburg’s two hours of free on-street downtown parking and set out on foot to see the many brick heritage buildings that still make up its core. Many house stores, galleries and museums.
One of our favorite independent bookstores, Pearl Street Books and Gifts (421 N. Pearl, pearlstreetbooks.com), is housed in the 1888 Building, the only structure in downtown Ellensburg to survive the July 4, 1889, fire that destroyed much of the town.
Across the street, the old Ramsay Hardware Building is home to the John Ford ClymerMuseum and Gallery (416 N. Pearl St., clymermuseum.com), a showcase of the work of the hometown son, American artist and illustrator who lived 1907-1989. Among the museum’s permanent collection are illustrations Clymer did for corporate advertisements and paintings featured in the Saturday Evening Post magazine.
Clymer once said of his work, “I like to do, and always did, what you call storytelling pictures.” Two galleries to the side of the museum feature the work of other artists. You can find items made in Kittitas County and Washington state as well as Western-themed goodies in the museum store. Admission is free, donations suggested. Closed Sundays.
Two blocks south, the Kittitas County Historical Museum (114 E. Third Ave., kchm.org) displays more than 15,000 items in six exhibit rooms that fill the historic Cadwell Building and adjacent quarters. We began in the Military room, with memorabilia dating back to the Civil War and featuring an actual 1945 Willys Jeep; then traveled back in time to local movie theatres, businesses, doctor and dental offices and beauty parlors in the Theatre and Business rooms.
After seeing a display of stone tools, baskets and bags created by Native Americans, we were off to the antique autos gallery, which included an 1899 Mobile Steam Model Dos-a-Dos originally owned by Henry Ford. Allow at least an hour to take in all the displays. Admission is free, donations suggested. Closed Sundays.
Old Highway 10
Leaving town via West University Way, we turned right onto Reecer Creek Road (just before the I-90 interchange), then took an immediate left onto Old Highway 10. We passed only four other cars as the winding two-lane road took us through the scenic Upper Yakima River Canyon, with farms and rolling pastureland, treed areas and rocky cliff faces. A half-hour later, at the junction with Highway 970, we turned left toward Cle Elum.
Cle Elum taste treats
A taste of Kittitas County’s history isn’t complete without stops at two of the Upper County’s oldest businesses. They are conveniently located across the street from each other in Cle Elum on Highway 970 (which becomes First Street in town).
Family-owned Owens Meats, “The Candy Store for The Carnivore” (502 E. First St., owensmeats.com), began in neighboring Roslyn two years before Washington’s 1889 statehood. It moved to Cle Elum nearly a century ago. Don’t be put off by the crowds; wait times here are short and worth it. There’s also a new self-service machine in front of the store. Many customers, like us, are out-of-towners who make this a regular stop when traveling I-90. We picked up a couple of T-bone steaks and some pepperoni, which is sold by the yard (two choice steaks @ $12.59/pound, no tax = $25.81; 6 feet of pepperoni @ $2.25/yard, no tax = $4.50).
Across the street, the Cle Elum Bakery (501 E. First St., Facebook.com/cleelumbakery) has been serving up mouthwatering pastries and bread since 1906. Breads are still baked in its original brick oven. At the cookie counter we focused on our longtime favorites, traditional torchetti — twisted ribbons of a butter cookie — and chocolate-chip Toll House. We purchased a few to take home and to sample with coffee on our drive back(four cookies @ $1 each; four @ .80 each, no tax = $7.20, and two coffees @ $1.60 + .13 tax = $3.46). Running total = $80.13.
Following directional signs on First Street, we took State Route 903 N for three miles from Cle Elum to Roslyn. We circled the roundabout there onto Bullfrog Road, which took us back to I-90, on which we completed our journey. We arrived home in time to toss those steaks on the grill for dinner.
Calculating our mileage at 230 miles round-trip from Seattle, dividing that by 32 mpg (based on a Subaru Forester, one of Seattle’s best-selling cars) and paying $2.68 per gallon, the metro area’s average price of gas the day we traveled, the fuel cost was $19.26.
The grand total for our 10-hour day trip for two through Kittitas County history = $99.39, plus tips and donations where appropriate.
If you go
Ellensburg is 107 miles east of Seattle, just off Interstate 90. Cle Elum is 83 miles east of Seattle, also on I-90.
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Tips and donations, discretionary by nature, aren’t included in this accounting. Be sure to carry extra dollars for the tip or donation jar.
Get road-construction alerts for I-90 at wsdot.wa.gov/traffic.
Look, there’s a quilt square on that barn
Another fun history-focused day can be spent traveling the Kittitas County Barn Quilt Trail, which showcases 100 barns, each sporting a large, colorful painted quilt square. The enormous wooden squares feature the traditional geometric designs used by quilters and are easily visible from the road.
Get a free Quilt Trail map at the Kittitas County Historical Museum or visitor centers in Cle Elum or Ellensburg. Or print out the map at barnquiltswashington.org.