This Central Washington town has art, beauty and charm to spare
written by Michelle Harris
Home to Central Washington University and the state’s largest rodeo, Ellensburg has managed to retain its Wild West allure. Late nineteenth century buildings line the city streets. Local ranchers tend to their horses in the surrounding valley. Trendy cafes dot the historic downtown, where you’ll find college students, artists and cowboys rubbing elbows.
Officially incorporated in 1883, Ellensburg’s earliest settlers were AJ Splawn and Ben Burch, who built the first log cabin there in 1868. They opened a store dubbed “Robber’s Roost” in 1870, which was located on present-day Third Avenue—there’s a placard on the wall designating the city’s first business location. In 1871, John Alden Shoudy bought the store and, along with his wife Mary Ellen, platted the town. Shoudy named it Ellensburg after his wife, and it might’ve been named the state capital if not for a fire that destroyed most of the city on July 4, 1889. Luckily, the town recovered quickly. The historic brick buildings you see downtown embody the city’s rebirth.
While Ellensburg is primarily known for its rodeo culture, its art galleries and museums also define the city as an artistic hub. And even if you can’t make it to the annual Ellensburg Rodeo on Labor Day weekend, a few days here will reveal there’s a lot more to the city than barrel racing and chaps.
HISTORIC BUILDINGS • GALLERIES
Start your day with eggs Benedict and a Bloody Mary at the Palace Cafe, an iconic eatery that’s been serving the Ellensburg community for more than 100 years. Set inside the 1908 Pearson Building, the cozy interior features brick walls and ornate tin ceilings. Steeped in old-timey décor like wagon wheels and rust-worn equipment, the cafe offers a glimpse into the city’s pioneer past. The large portions will fuel you for the adventures ahead.
While downtown Ellensburg has its share of historical structures, the whimsical Davidson building, located on North Pearl Street, is the most eye-catching. Built in 1889, the elegant brick building underwent a major renovation in 1979 and now houses Gallery One Visual Arts Center, where you can learn all about the local art scene. The family-friendly Gallery One not only showcases local work, it offers art classes for teens and adults. For an even quirkier exhibit, stroll down to Dick and Jane’s Spot, where local residents Dick Elliott and Jane Orleman have decorated their home with handmade and local art, such as bottle caps and brightly colored light reflectors. Please keep in mind that it’s a private residence, so respect the fences. Insider tip—visit Ellensburg during the First Friday Art Walk, a monthly event that celebrates local artists and includes food, beverages and live music.
Come evening, sit down to freshly made pasta at Ellensburg Pasta Company. The warmly lit Italian spot offers classics such as spaghetti marinara as well as more adventurous plates like spicy chipotle linguine and braised beef ravioli. There are also gluten-free and dairy-free options.
ROCKHOUNDING • MUSEUMS • WINE
Fill up on giant pancakes at Wild Huckleberry Restaurant. Then try your luck rockhounding at Rock’N’Tomahawk Ranch, a 160-acre spread above town where you pay $5 to search for the Ellensburg blue—a rare gem famed for its vibrant cornflower blue color. Also known as E-blue, the gem can only be found in Kittias County, and has long captivated locals. Most of the existing stones are on private land, and a reservation is required for rockhunting at Rock’N’Tomahawk Ranch. If you’re not looking to get down and dirty, the Kittias County Historical Museum has a large collection of Ellensburg blue, along with petrified wood and old mining tools. The museum also exhibits antique automobiles, war memorabilia, old neon signs and an entire case of vintage elixirs.
Looking to day drink? Pay a visit to Ellensburg Canyon Winery and sip wine while taking in views of the Yakima River Canyon. The tasting room and vineyard, open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., is located 8 miles south of Ellensburg and is the oldest commercial vineyard in Kittias County. Back in town, try crostini and pizza at BRIX Wine Bar & Restaurant. Complement your dinner with one of the restaurant’s signature wines from Elevage Wine Company. If you aren’t a wine fanatic, BRIX also offers draft beer, including selections from local brewpub Iron Horse Brewery.
ANTIQUE SHOPS • WIND TURBINES • BARBECUE
Your trip to Ellensburg just wouldn’t be complete without a bit of antique hunting, and the city’s variety of antique shops makes this very easy. Hidden Treasures, a flea market on Ellensburg’s main street, is worth perusing for random knick-knacks. On your way out of Ellensburg, be sure to make a pit stop at Thorp Fruit & Antique Mall, a grocery store that also houses two floors of antiques. And as far as dining goes, head over to The Yellow Church Cafe for breakfast or lunch. The cafe, which focuses on local seasonal ingredients, was built in 1923 and was once a German Lutheran church. Although the former church has been renovated into a cafe, its vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows remain.
A visit to the Wild Horse Renewable Energy Center, located 16 miles east of Ellensburg, should definitely be on your bucket list while visiting the area. The facility’s 149 wind turbines provide renewable energy using wind and solar technology. Perched atop a ridge, you’ll also get epic views of Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, Mount Adams and the Columbia River Basin. Come a little before 10 a.m. or 2 p.m., when the facility offers free guided tours around the grounds. Just be sure to wear closed-toe shoes. The visitor center also has educational displays inside as well as a gift shop.
Before journeying out of town, head over to the kitschy Rodeo City Bar-B-Q, a saloon-style restaurant that specializes in authentic pit-smoked barbecue. You’ll find freshly baked cornbread that’s made from a secret family recipe. Local beers are served in cowboy boot-shaped pitchers and the saddle-style bar stools provide the perfect photo opportunity—as well as a chance to channel your inner cowboy or cowgirl. Needless to say, it’s the perfect way to send yourself off after exploring Central Washington’s rodeo city.
The Palace Cafe
Rodeo City Bar-B-Q
Wild Huckleberry Restaurant
BRIX Wine Bar & Restaurant
The Yellow Church Cafe
Ellensburg Pasta Company
The Lodge at Canyon River Ranch
Best Western Plus Ellensburg Hotel
Gallery One Visual Arts Center
Dick and Jane’s Spot
Kittias County Historical Museum
Wild Horse Renewable Energy Center