Looking for a picturesque day trip? Nestled in the scenic Kittitas Valley, Ellensburg is about an hour and 45 minutes from the Seattle area by car. Located just east of the Cascade Range near the junction of Interstate 90 and I-82, this endearing area boasts a beautiful downtown full of historical, elegant 19th-century buildings, colorful art and quirky events (ever heard of Junk-tiquen?). From the mighty Columbia River to the massive Cascade mountains, Ellensburg offers impressive views with a mix of small-town charm.  

Whether you’re sipping away at the Ellensburg Canyon Winery or scoping out unique treats at the local Big Apple Country & Gift store (Cougar Gold cheese, anyone?), there’s plenty to explore in Ellensburg. 

Now pack some snacks, grab your hiking gear and hit the road. Here’s a list of things to do if you head out to Ellensburg this fall. 

Unwind at Ellensburg Canyon Winery

There’s nothing better than getting cozy at a winery on vacation. At the Ellensburg Canyon Winery, you can grab a seat outdoors as you sip on award-winning wines while taking in views of their on-site vineyard, the Yakima Canyon and the Yakima River. 

Be sure to try the tasting flight, which includes estate-grown riesling, rosé, cabernet franc du blanc, cab franc and malbec port-style wines. The flight comes in the cutest small tasting bottles that are labeled with numbers to guide you as to which selections to try in order. The tasting flight is $10, or free with the purchase of a bottle of wine.

Pro tip: Have a picnic! There are plenty of scenic spots at the Ellensburg Canyon Winery where you can sit down and enjoy your own picnic basket. Their picnic areas are dog-friendly, too, so bring the pups! Complimentary water and treats are available for doggies who are on their best behavior. If picnics aren’t your jam, grab a quick bite from the gourmet shop.

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Before leaving, you must buy a bag of Harvey’s Specialty Popcorn. There are a variety of quirky flavors, such as truffle and sea salt and “The Big Cheese,” but the real winner is the buffalo and blue cheese popcorn. The buffalo flavor is subtle enough for even the faintest of hearts, and the blue cheese taste adds a soothing finish to the buffalo seasoning. 

Grab a bite at Canyon River Grill

The crispy Alaskan ling cod fish and chips and the grilled S.F.R. American wagyu beef burger at the Canyon River Grill in Ellensburg, Washington, are winners. (Jazmin Tolliver / The Seattle Times)

After sipping on an array of Washington wines, it’s time to fuel up. Situated on the river in the heart of the Yakima River Canyon, Canyon River Grill will make you feel like you’ve been transported to a magical place as you take in the views of the glistening ancestral river while dining on fresh local ingredients. 

Pro tip: I recommend making a reservation online or calling ahead to ensure you snag a seat outside where you can see sensational views of the canyon. 

Start with the pan-seared Dungeness crab cake. The mild, flaky crab is a perfect match for its sidekick, a bright and tangy cabbage salad. And if you’re a sauce enthusiast like me, don’t forget to ask for extra sauce louis — think remoulade without the spicy kick. 

For an entree, I ordered the crispy Alaskan ling cod and chips. It’s important to note that not all fish and chips are created equal. Since moving to Seattle earlier this year, I’ve been sampling fish and chips from a slew of eateries — and so far, Canyon River Grill has the best that I’ve tried. 

I remember grinning in anticipation of diving into the heaping mound of golden-brown fish in front of me. With the perfect batter-to-fish ratio and a gratifying crunch that doesn’t disappoint, their fish and chips are a perfect 10/10. Served up with equally crispy fries and a contrasting, cool and refreshing housemade tartar sauce, this meal will make you not want to leave Ellensburg. 

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I finished off my meal with a sweet slice of chocolate pecan pie topped with Chantilly and caramel. If you’re on the go and would rather eat and dash, consider checking out the breakfast bar for specialty coffee and “Kevin’s famous breakfast sandwiches.” Kevin Davis, the owner of Canyon River Grill, is often seen chatting it up with customers and dishing out ideas for fun things to do in Ellensburg. Or grab a to-go lunch from 8 a.m.-2 p.m., complete with a fresh deli sandwich, pasta salad, Tim’s Cascade Chips, Davis’ river cookie and a bottle of water.

Before leaving, walk off your meal by taking a leisurely stroll around the 35-acre property. The Canyon River Grill is a part of the Canyon River Ranch, a resort development featuring a 10-unit lodge, 20 cabin sites and Red’s Fly Shop. The area is known for breathtaking scenery, diverse wildlife and a variety of recreation options, including fly-fishing, hiking, bird-watching, rafting and hunting.

Go hiking

If you really want to burn off extra calories after a delicious meal, head to one of the many hiking trails in the Ellensburg area. From Rattlesnake Dance Ridge Trail to Robinson Canyon Loop, there are tons of trails to embark on. 

My favorite pick? Umtanum Creek Falls Trail. Rated “easy” for difficulty level by All Trails, this short (only 1.9 miles out and back) hike is family-friendly — and furry friends are welcome, too! The trail takes you through aspen, birch and pine groves until it reaches a small basalt column cirque with a peaceful waterfall. Umtanum Creek Falls Trail is best in spring, but doable in all seasons except the dead of winter.

Pro tip: A high-clearance vehicle with sturdy tires is recommended for driving to this hike. If you visit during wet conditions, four-wheel drive is advisable. 

Find special gifts on your way home

Located only 10 minutes from the Ellensburg Canyon Winery, you won’t want to miss grabbing a sweet treat or souvenir from Big Apple Country & Gift before heading home. 

The gift shop was established in 1974 and is a local favorite. They offer gifts such as fun signs, Cougar Gold cheese and a plethora of sweet treats to snack on as you travel back home. Big Apple Country & Gift is even home to the largest basket collection in Central Washington.  

The shop is currently not shipping during the pandemic, so if you find a gift you like, be sure to snag it before it’s gone!