Perhaps you think you’ve visited most of Washington state. But if you’ve just passed through Spokane or never made the 4-and-a-few-hour trip over, reconsider your expertise. Spokane offers the state’s best riverfront park, plus family-friendly fun — perhaps one of the state’s best insider secrets. As well, the journey itself can easily become a treasured family memory with oddball, only-in-Washington stops.
From Seattle, you’ll drive over the beautiful Cascades along I-90 and Kachess Lake welcomes you to the Dry Side. Stop at the white-painted exterior of Thorp Fruit and Antique Mall for in-season produce and candy on the main floor, and funky finds in the antique mall’s two floors upstairs. Brunch or lunch in Ellensburg, and while in town, drive (or walk) by Dick and Jane’s Spot. The homeowners’ yard is stacked and packed with collected Northwest art and new works made of upcycled materials. Back on I-90, at Exit 136 about halfway through the trip, the curious might pull over to visit the Gingko Petrified Forest to view Washington’s official gem, petrified wood.
Spokane’s walkable, historic downtown makes exploration an enjoyable, relaxed experience. Handsome rose-toned brick and contemporary builds contain a wide assortment of boutiques, theaters, craft breweries, tasting rooms, cafes, chef-owned restaurants, bakeries — not to mention ice cream shops.
The grand jewel of downtown is the newly renovated 100-acre Riverfront Park on the Spokane River, first constructed for the 1974 World’s Fair. Today’s family-friendly options include playing in the 40 jets of the Rotary Fountain, a giddyup on the Looff Carrousel, roller skating, skateboarding, and scootering on the outdoor Skate Ribbon, learning from hands-on science exhibits at Mobius Discovery Center, and slipping down a 12-foot-tall Red Wagon’s slide — which can hold up to 300 people at once (in non-pandemic times).
And if you haven’t yet exhausted little feet, two playgrounds can keep entertaining, including the wholly unique, 40,000-foot Ice Age Flood Playground, which features an alluvial deposit fossil dig, among other ancient-drama-themed play structures. Many are free, such as fountain play, sliding and summer skating if you bring your own wheels). Others are just a solid deal ($7 day pass for any carousel-obsessed child, teen or adult).
But Riverfront Park attracts a wide age of ranges, too. In the day, couples and families board the Numerica Skyride‘s enclosed cabins for a 15-minute pass over the churning Spokane Falls. In the evening, the park’s miles of paths and bridges fill with locals and visitors out for a stroll in the cool night air. Evening is also the best time to wander around the Pavilion’s stunning 150-foot-tall funnel, which reopened in 2019 after $64 million in remodeling. The Pavilion’s evening weekend light shows illuminate the expansive, amphitheater-style seating and new ADA-accessible, 40-foot-high soaring catwalk with Spokane River views.
Outside of the everyday offerings, Riverfront Park’s summer calendar also bursts with concerts, food truck round-ups, movie marathon—just check to see what’s happening when you’re in town.
Nearby, downtown Spokane’s indoor shopping center, River Park Square, contains an air-conditioned theater, along with national chains (North Face, Urban Outfitters, Pottery Barn), NW-grown chains (Pendleton, Nordstrom) and Spokane-only biz such as Polka Dot Pottery and From Here, which features merchandise from local artists and makers. Within blocks of River Park Square, shopping options emphasizing pop culture cool will likely entertain even the most-sullen of tweens and teens at Boo Radley’s, Atticus Coffee & Gifts and Auntie’s Bookstore.
Foodies will find plenty to get excited about. Start the day with savory squares at People’s Waffle or eggs in red-wine-braised tomato ragu at Italia Trattoria. For lunch, consider fresh tacos, guac and chips at Cochinito Taqueria, then eggplant fries and hummus with fluffy pita for happy hour at Baba. At night, dine on anchovy spaghetti on the outdoor patio at the newest Ethan Stowell restaurant, Tavolàta Spokane.
With kids, park your take-out picnic at the shaded John A. Finch Arboretum or Manito Park, which boasts a Japanese garden for strolls and a splash pad for cooling off. Another option sure to delight: breakfast or lunch inside an air-conditioned train car at Frank’s Diner.
The more adventurous and outdoor-oriented might consider hiking and biking the 40-mile, two-state Centennial Trail, wine and dine float trips, Spokane river paddleboard and SUP rentals, whizzing along a zipline tour, and horseback riding tours in Mt. Spokane State Park and Riverside State Park.
Those interested in history, culture and science might want to visit the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture. Exhibits are constantly changing, but this summer’s focus is fascinating—on John James Audubon, including original artworks (and surprising details on how he created those feathered details); examining World War II from diverse perspectives: and the overlap between Indigenous knowledge and Western science. The museum’s Makerspace encourages all ages to fashion hats and other attire from recycled materials. The Campbell House, included in admission, enjoins history buffs to self-tour an elegant 1900s mansion.
When considering where to stay overnight, most Spokane visitors will want to stay downtown, as close as possible to Riverfront Park, for obvious reasons. Several Davenport hotels in downtown core meet this need, each with a different twist. Experience timeless elegance at the Historic Davenport Hotel (families may want to investigate the Circus Room), grown-up luxury digs at Hotel Davenport Lusso, and spacious, modern rooms next to Riverfront Park at Davenport Grand Hotel.
On the drive back to Seattle, you can pull over at any of the stops previously listed—or detour up to the Grand Coulee Dam, about 87 miles northeast of Spokane. The visitor’s center recently reopened, and the dam’s laser light show brightens up the evenings again. Or find your own new and cool stops. Just don’t tell anyone else about them.
Note: Be prepared to respect any local rules or rule changes for recreation, dining, parks, and hotels regarding COVID-19 requirements. Read entry-door signs to find out whether a shop owner expects mask usage inside. Whenever possible, make reservations, which could reduce your chances of disappointment. If you decide to take up a new sport or activity, ensure you understand all safety precautions and concerns. Spokane is considerably warmer than Seattle in summer so hydrate well; during heat waves, some facilities may be temporarily closed.
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