Explore Ellensburg's Hidden Gems
Drive time: 1 hr 45 mins
Admit it: You’ve judged the town of Ellensburg by the truck-stop gas stations and fast-food chain signs you spotted from the freeway. Don’t blame the city for its underwhelming curb appeal; a few blocks off the interstate sits a cozy, historic downtown, the gateway to Eastern Washington.
Past the off-ramp district, nearly everything here is vintage. The free Kittitas County Historical Museum sits in its own beautifully restored nineteenth-century building and sells a poster of the dozens of other classic edifices around town. The Clymer Museum and Gallery eulogizes the Old West in paintings of the myth-ridden American frontier; down the road the Olmstead Place State Park preserves a frontier homestead as a still-working farm with guided tours. Peek inside a refurbished house of worship at the Yellow Church Cafe, where the Holy Moly chicken sandwich provides its own form of salvation: housemade cheddar bun, apple barbecue sauce, and a salty pickle spear.
But not everything in town is antiquated. Just steps from the Clymer collection, the Gallery One Visual Arts Center combines a gallery of modern art with a local crafts shop. A few blocks away, bright folk art and more than 10,000 bottle caps festoon a private home known as Dick and Jane’s Spot, a joyful monument built over more than three decades.
One sign preserved in the Kittitas museum calls Ellensburg “a town that only a mother could love.” While it may never shake its cow-town reputation, the city’s cheerful self-deprecation underplays its undeniable charm.
LeMay Collections at Marymount
Spanaway • Drive time: 50 mins
The Thinker, one of only a few identical sculptures made from Auguste Rodin’s original plaster casts, has a new perch in the woods, sheltered by tall Douglas firs. Donated last year to LeMay Collections at Marymount, it debuts with three other works in the site’s new sculpture garden this spring.
Though the Rodins will be LeMay’s first foray into fine art, collection is clearly nothing new here. The Marymount site, a former nun-run military academy in Spanaway, was once owned by the late Harold LeMay, a Pierce County waste collection magnate who ironically hated to see things thrown away. Some of his more than 2,000 vehicles were spun off into the separate America’s Car Museum in downtown Tacoma; his other treasures went on display at this woodsy retreat.
The school’s old gyms are crammed with unusual cars while its halls brim with vintage radios, dolls, even hundreds of hose nozzles. Visitors can book a Model T driving lesson or attend lectures, and, this spring, tour Rodins. Though the artworks number far fewer than other LeMay collections, The Thinker doesn’t seem to mind seclusion.
Flower Powered: Gardens With a Signature Plant
Named for a German immigrant who settled north of Portland, Woodland’s Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens celebrate Lilac Days April 21 through May 13, the only time Hulda’s farmhouse is open for viewing and lilacs are for sale.
Washington’s state flower gets a showcase at Meerkerk Rhododendron Garden on Whidbey Island, 10 dog-friendly acres with four miles of walking trails.
As one of the largest of its kind in the country, Point Defiance Park’s Dahlia Trial Garden in Tacoma is all about size—the round flowers can grow on stems that top six feet.
The Pacific Bonsai Museum doesn’t trap the tiny trees in windowless galleries; the outdoor display was started by the Weyerhauser Company in the 1980s and still sits on its onetime Federal Way campus. Free public tours are held Sundays.
Patrick Spence, the gardener behind Cascadia Iris Gardens, knows every detail about the plants he breeds, down to the genetic level; his all star is the Siberian 40-chromosome iris. He opens his Lake Stevens display gardens to the public regularly.
Skagit Valley Tulip Festival
Drive time: 1 hour
The Skagit Valley Tulip Festival owns April. The 35-year-old event simply claims the entire month and hopes the county’s famous flower blossoms at some point during those 30 days. But as the festival website acknowledges, “Bloom dates according to Mother Nature,” and in the past few years warm winters have led to an explosion of color in March. The event, fronted by two main growers outside Mount Vernon, RoozenGaarde and Tulip Town, is so massively popular that even an early arrival of colored petals is a welcome way to spread out the crowds that clog the rural valley roads.
A barbecue event, foot races, fairs, and art shows supplement the annual flower worship, but a self-guided drive among the tulip fields is the heart of the festival. RoozenGaarde has walking trails among its half million hand-planted bulbs, Tulip Town runs a trolley, and the Instagram-ready backdrops tempt waves of attendees. Pack your patience and don’t expect peak flowers at the end of the month; the tulips tend to arrive fashionably early these days.
Apple Blossom Festival
Wenatchee • Drive time: 2 hrs 30 mins
Every spring, pink clouds of cherry blossoms transform the Seattle Center into a Japanese cultural fete at the Seattle Cherry Blossom Festival (while the trees at the University of Washington turn the campus into selfie central). But Seattle doesn’t have a monopoly on flowering tree fests; Wenatchee’s Washington State Apple Blossom Festival turns 99 this year with a parade, a fair April 26 through May 6, and a salute to the 100 million apples grown in the state every year.
Everything’s Coming Up Tacoma
Our sister city to the south won’t be the same after 2018—and it’s all for the better.
After years of downtown rejuvenation, endless freeway construction, and plain old mockery, this summer Tacoma will see a slew of openings and upgrades. “It seems like the stars are kind of aligning” for Puget Sound’s second-biggest city, says Metro Parks commissioner Erik Hanberg.
It began in February, when the city decided it was so cool, it was intergalactic: A peninsula in Point Defiance Park, once a Superfund site, will be reborn as a park named after the famous sci-fi novel Dune, its pathways designated the Frank Herbert Trail, for Tacoma’s hometown author. The headland’s toxic slag heap inspired the environmental saga, says Hanberg, a Herbert fan who proposed the moniker. “Here you have this opportunity to mirror what the book is about: reclamation of the environment.”
In summer, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium will launch its new Pacific Seas Aquarium, with a coastal kelp forest and a tank that recreates Mexico’s Baja Bay, complete with hammerhead sharks and green sea turtles. Expect a run on giant novelty scissors down south; late in the year, the Tacoma Art Museum cuts the ribbon on its new Benaroya Wing, which will house some of the 225 works of art gifted by Rebecca Benaroya in 2016.
But the most exciting thing to happen in Tacoma will come when the Ruston Way waterfront is finally linked to Point Defiance Park via an elevated walkway; a ferry terminal dispatching boats to Vashon island once blocked the two pedestrian centers. Wilson Way, a bridge 50 feet off the ground, will soar over the ferry dock sometime in late 2018. The best part is how you get from top to bottom: a series of slides meant for kids and adults alike.
“Why? Because they’re fun,” says Metro Parks spokesperson Michael Thompson. Tacoma, when did you become so cool?
Washington State Spring Fair
Puyallup • Drive time: 40 mins
Significantly smaller than Puyallup’s fall fair bash, Washington State Spring Fair sets up on the same grounds and crams the best bits for a bite-size early season version for one weekend, April 19–22: live music, fair food, carnival rides. But it’s exclusively in spring that the fairgrounds feature racing pigs, dogs performing tricks, and smash-happy monster truck shows. In Sunday’s demolition derby, the vehicles tow boats as they destroy each other—a perfectly chaotic new rite that beats spring cleaning.
Fall City Wallaby Ranch
Fall City • Drive time: 35 mins
Why do kangaroos have tails? Rex Paperd, owner of Fall City Wallaby Ranch and its 11 marsupials, poses the question in his barn and knows that you’ll answer wrong (they’re not for balance). After 15 years of raising red kangaroos and white and gray wallabies, there’s little he doesn’t know about the hoppers. Visits to his ranch start with a slide show of the photos he takes of the marsupials’ unique child-rearing, where baby animals grow in mom’s pouch—images of jelly bean–size kangaroos so unique he’s worked with National Geographic on video of the process.
Paperd first settled on his 10 rural acres because they had access to a private airstrip, but the onetime professional pilot now devotes his time to his unusual pets. (Why kangaroos? “Because pet skunks are illegal in the state of Washington.”) His introductory slide show may resemble a homegrown episode of Planet Earth, but the guided walk that follows, through the animal pens, is nature at its most immediate. Pet a wallaby, feed a kangaroo, and try buying Paperd’s assertion that six-foot Jasper, who sports some impressive guns, is the chillest. Paperd insists his beloved creatures—bottle weaned and raised in his house after spending six or seven months in the pouch—aren’t dangerous. Imagine a cross between a rabbit and a border collie, affectionate but pushy. And those tails? Watch the animals use them as a third leg.
Tours are by appointment only, starting at $60 for six people. Don boots that can navigate a muddy Northwest walk (or wallaby scratches) and pants that can take a little dirt. At this petting zoo, the zoo pets back.
The Washington State History Museum
Tacoma • Drive Time: 35 Mins
A danceable floor piano, like in Big. An Etch-a-Sketch the size of a Mini Cooper. A Lite-Brite whose pegs take both hands to move. Not every toy at The Washington State History Museum’s Toytopia exhibit (through June 10) is supersize, but everything on display probably has larger-than-life significance to someone. The hands-on show celebrates the history of toys, from dollhouses to video games, proving that the somber brick museum in downtown Tacoma has a goofy side.
Ghost Town Resurrection
Drive time: 1 hr 30 mins
The old mining town of Monte Cristo, tucked into the Cascades off Mountain Loop Highway, was more recently haunted by something worse than spirits: toxic waste. A $5.5 million cleanup addressed the arsenic and lead in 2015, and now the townsite is again a favorite hiking destination, accessible on a flat eight-mile road hike along the North Fork Sauk River. A few buildings still stand, with mining equipment and rusted signs scattered about. This year the Forest Service began public meetings to ask about the future of Monte Cristo: More informational exhibits? More camping? A—gasp—reopened road to the historical site, inviting cars back to where the forest is reclaiming the onetime settlement? Plans will likely be sketched out in 2018, but until then the site is open to anyone able to make the hike. Though the cleanup was considered successful, the Forest Service does advise not drinking the water there, lest you be possessed by spirits of the toxic kind.
Bellingham • Drive time: 1 hr 30 mins
The shining treasures of the Jeweled Objects of Desire show at downtown Bellingham’s Whatcom Museum through May 6 range from a 7,000-carat quartz egg to a sardine can made of 14-karat gold studded with Russian diamonds. It’s amazing the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History loans them out, considering the exhibition just begs for a glitzy heist by a jewel thief.
Fortunately the Whatcom has plenty of space (and security) to show off the glitz: Its Lightcatcher building by Olson Kundig’s Jim Olson is basically a jeweled treasure all its own, thanks to a translucent 180-foot curved glass wall. The Lightcatcher serves as just half the museum; classic Old City Hall is a block away, a stately Victorian relic devoted to history exhibits. Admission is two for one, so if you plan to cat burgle, treat yourself in both buildings.
Skagit County • Drive time: 1 hr 20 mins
In between the day trip–worthy towns of western Skagit County—La Conner, Anacortes, Mount Vernon—and the tulip fields that define the rural region are little pockets of protected lands, lush nature at its Northwest best. Kukutali Preserve, the first swath of land co-managed by tribal and state parks authorities, is 83 acres of Swinomish Reservation waterfront with three islands and stretches of beach.
Named for the mats made of cattail that the original inhabitants used to build structures, Kukutali comprises lands that passed from reservation to private ownership to state control. It finally opened as a nature preserve in 2014, guarding the resident bald eagles, harbor seals, and more. Several miles of trail loop through the site, and the beaches are open to hikers.
Mukilteo • Drive time: 30 mins
Don’t plan to steal the secrets of the 777 while on the Boeing Tour, because no cameras, cell phones, or even pens and paper are allowed in this outing at Paine Field, just south of Everett. From the Future of Flight center, right on the runway, tour takers ride a bus to the massive factory; the 90-minute excursion can only cover a sliver of the biggest building ever constructed (it could fit Disneyland under its roof). Viewing stations are many stories above the factory line, and the complexities of airplane manufacturing can be tough to grasp in the maze of turbines and metal tubes.
Even if you don’t exit with the ability to assemble your own $250 million flyer, there’s something about the factory that makes giddy toddlers of us all. They’re making airplanes! As if they were Legos! This site constructs giant 747s and Dreamliner 787s, among others, and is currently making the first-ever 777x. New materials and methods have revolutionized air travel, so the factory floor has fewer rivets and more space-age carbon fiber; even the aluminum is coated in electric green polymer.
Make the tour into a full day with Paine Field’s other flight-based attractions, including Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage Collection and the Museum of Flight Restoration Center. Back at the Future of Flight center, the Strato roof deck offers views of the active Paine Field runways and the Dreamlifter unloading zone next door, where pieces of in-process airplane fit inside megajets like Russian nesting dolls—and cameras are allowed.
McMenamins goes tropical in…Kalama?
Drive time: 2 hours
It’s okay if you haven’t heard of the town; it’s easy to speed past Kalama on a mad I-5 dash to Portland. But 35 miles north of the Oregon border, just over two hours by freeway from Seattle, the port town has changed little since the Nixon administration.
The fanciful hoteliers of McMenamins viewed an industrial roadside and saw potential; their 30-plus facilities across the Northwest are built in old schools, masonic temples, debtor’s farms, and brothels. In Kalama, named for Maui-born John Kalama, their imaginations ran even wilder than usual: a Hawaiian retreat on the working northwest waterfront, next to the town’s totem pole park. Kalama Harbor Lodge and its wraparound porch opens in April, modeled after a historic island hotel in a salute to cross-Pacific trade that dates back more than a century.
McMenamins loves a funky bar, and the lodge will boast one made of salvaged telegraph poles, another one on the roof, and one in a wood cabin down a path from the main building. Outdoor fire pits will do their best to recreate island warmth, and a seven-barrel brewing operation makes the chain’s signature beer. It’s certainly the only joint in town that can say its 40 hotel rooms boast private lanais. With just enough tiki cocktails, it all makes sense, so it’s best to plan on staying the night.
South Sound Coffee Trail
Olympia • Drive time: 1 hr 5 mins
Maybe the state capital has so many coffee roasters in order to keep the lawmakers from yawning through legislative sessions, or perhaps it’s a result of the waterfront town’s vibrant business district—pedestrians love a good cafe. Three java producers make up the self-guided South Sound Coffee Trail that links tastings (or “cuppings”) at Batdorf and Bronson, Olympia Coffee Roasting Company, and Olympic Crest Coffee Roasters. But the brew is everywhere here, from the uber artsy Burial Grounds—even the latte art is edgy—to the treats-first Hawley’s Gelato and Coffee. Olympia was once known for its beer, but it might be time for the coffee scene to adopt the famous “It’s the Water” slogan for its caffeinated brew.
USS Turner Joy
Bremerton • Drive time: 1 hour
Touch just about anything you can reach at the USS Turner Joy, docked next to the Bremerton ferry terminal; the navy may have strict codes of conduct but its museum ship is a wide-open playground. The self-guided tour is more like a loose maze through the cramped hallways and near-vertical stairs of the decommissioned naval destroyer. USS Turner Joy once carried roughly 300 sailors on nine deployments to the scattered battles of the Vietnam War; it took fire in the controversial Gulf of Tonkin incident that began the war, then fired the navy’s last rounds of the conflict in 1973.
John Kieft walked halls just like these from 1963 to 1967 as a fire control technician on a naval destroyer that’s since been scrapped. Now a volunteer docent on the Turner Joy, he explains to visitors that he used computers to target the ship’s guns, even way back then, hitting targets 10 or 12 miles into the Vietnam mainland. “Everywhere I look, I see the old stories in my head,” he says. “It’s familiar territory.”
Drink coffee in the mess hall or touch the thin mattresses that line berths crammed into seemingly every available corner of the ship. Docents like Kieft, most retired military, wander the halls to share stories of life on the 400-foot vessel. Nowhere else in Bremerton’s sprawling naval complex is military life so accessible to civilians, but for all the fun of being let loose on a navy warship, reminders of its sober purpose are around every corner. Number nine on a posted list of Ten Commandments of Damage Control: “Take every possible step to save the ship as long as a bit of hope remains.”