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Northwest Weekend: Visit Ellensburg for Clear Skies, Quiet Trails

Visit Ellensburg for lovely shoulder-season hiking, open skies and a peaceful respite | by Jonathan Shipley

I live in Seattle. It rains from time to time. It gets me down, to be honest, the relentlessness of gray weather. This is particularly true when I want to go for a hike. Yes, I can hike in the rain. I do it, frequently — putting on a raincoat, tugging on a hat and making my way to the weeping forests and soaking beaches.

But sometimes, rather than wander through an aptly named rainforest, I want to feel the sun on my face. I want to walk in flowers and hear the soft sounds of crickets in the grass and the frogs in the bogs. That’s when I start thinking of an escape plan and head over the mountains to Ellensburg. Central Washington is often dry and sparkling when my neighborhood is wet and showering. Especially in the fall and spring, sparkling is what I need.

While for me, Ellensburg is a trip east, it’s worth a visit from wherever you are. There are hikes to be had and beers to be sampled. And you can enjoy quiet nights under blankets of stars.

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Stargazing on the Rattlesnake Dance Ridge. Photo by Rachele Barker.

Any trip to Ellensburg should begin at the Thorp turnoff and a visit to a delightful fruit stand, just a stone’s throw from Ellensburg. Really, though, to call the Thorp Fruit and Antique Mall a fruit stand is like calling a ponderosa pine tree a twig. It’s a go-to stop for camping sustenance. It’s a perfect place to get fresh apples (new fall crops!), sandwiches, ice cream, peaches, smoked sausage and taffy. I like to fill my pack with healthy food, and maybe a used book of poetry — the upstairs is full of a variety of antiques.

When you’re done, head over to set up for the weekend at

Umtanum Creek. It’s a pristine and wild place that’s great for hiking and camping.

Sunflowers, bitterbrush, serviceberry, larkspur, lupine and more can gallop along the river beds and swells.

It’s best out there in autumn. The nearby mountains are becoming drab. But along Umtanum Creek Canyon, the vegetation along the waterway and adorning the hillsides is a riot of colors. Oranges and reds and browns nearly glitter. (I’ve come in the spring, as well. It’s a good season for flowers. Sunflowers, bitterbrush, serviceberry, larkspur, lupine and more can gallop along the river beds and swells.)

After hiking the canyon, you’re likely to want a drink. There’s no better place than in downtown Ellensburg, a short drive from the solitude of camp. Iron Horse Brewery is one of Central Washington’s premier breweries. Their best-selling brew is called Irish Death, but they offer up far more than that — including pilsners, cream ales and hop-heavy IPAs. Their pub fare is as good as their beer. What better combo after a hike than a burger and a beer?

Sweeping hills of Umtanum Canyon. Photo by Sean Aylward.

To walk the calories off, a stroll through the historic downtown area will highlight what makes a small town great. Ellensburg has art galleries and boutiques, antique stores and bookshops.

Return to camp, near the ribbon of the Yakima River, to sit outside with the flittering bats and the glittering stars. I like to use my lantern to read some poetry below the arc of the moon.

The next morning, if you want to eat out, try breakfast at the Yellow Church Café, which is in a (you guessed it) old yellow church. The food is fantastic diner fare — house-made biscuits and gravy, huevos rancheros, and Manastash corned beef hash are good options, perfect for fueling a hike.

For that hike, check out the Manastash Ridge Trail, just outside of town, with great views of farmland. Descending west from the top of Quartz Mountain, you can follow Manastash Ridge, with views all around. In the summer and fall months, it’s incredible up there as you try to decide how many shades of yellow are in all the grasses. A hundred? A thousand?


After a hike, enjoy a lager at Whipsaw Brewery. Or try their Stumpblower IPA, Buzz on Blackberry or Detonation Red. It’s nice to kick back with locals after kicking up dirt on the nearby hills. If your timing is right, you can catch a game at Central Washington University. Depending on the season, you can watch the Wildcats play baseball, women’s volleyball or soccer, or a variety of other sports.

The next morning, it’s time to try another diner. Join the locals fueling up at the Palace Cafe downtown. It’s always wise, in my estimation, to follow the locals to the best breakfasts. Who would know more than they? Try the steak and eggs, Belgian waffles or chicken-fried steak. The cafe has the works and a steaming pot of coffee at the ready.

After fueling up with coffee and food, head to Joe Watt Canyon, a part of the L.T. Murray Wildlife Area. The desert sprawls here and it’s a wonderful place to wander. With more than 25 miles of dirt roads, there’s plenty to explore. Look for quail, grouse, elk and bighorn sheep — and be careful to watch for rattlesnakes.

When you’re done, head home again. Perhaps stop for one more peach in Thorp. The rain might return, but a weekend away will help you weather the winter.

Where to hike

Umtanum Creek: For a pleasant hike up a canyon, walk near the creek for about 3 miles before the trail becomes difficult to follow. Return the way you came, basking in the aspens, through open fields, along basalt cliffs and past old homestead trees.

Westberg Trail: Hike for 4 miles, roundtrip, with 1,700 feet of elevation gain to enjoy beautiful views of Central Washington. The trail is well maintained and easy to follow as it makes its way to Manastash Ridge. Manastash is a Native American word meaning “white earth,” referring to the whitish, shalelike soil.

Joe Watt Canyon: This hike can fit any hiker’s time frame or stamina. It’s 6 miles roundtrip, but a slew of trails and dirt roads can make the hike longer or shorter. One main road passes an old settler’s cabin about 2.5 miles in. The cabin is nestled along a creek, with fields of wildflowers in the spring, and it’s a good turnaround spot.

Taneum Ridge — Fishhook Flats: This 14-mile roundtrip hike is quintessential Central Washington, with the rugged beauty of canyons and scrub. You might even get to see some elk.

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Where to stay

Umtanum Creek Recreation Area: For $15 a night you can stay at a small campground — there are only six sites — tucked into the hills near the Yakima River. There are vault toilets, picnic tables and fire pits, but no water or other amenities.

Yakima River Canyon Campground: Another campground near Umtanum Creek, run by the Bureau of Land Management. It offers no water or other amenities but does have spectacular access to the river, wildlife viewing and starry skies.

Lodge at Canyon River Ranch: If you want to go more upscale and enjoy a comfortable bed, try this lodge along the Yakima River. It offers river-view cabins or suites in the lodge. It also has a restaurant, a fly shop and more.

Suncadia Resort: In nearby Cle Elum, Suncadia offers 40 miles of hiking and biking trails, three golf courses, local wining and dining and a spa, along with other amenities.

Where to eat and drink

Iron Horse Brewery: Enjoy beer or chicken and waffles — or plenty of other tasty options — in downtown Ellensburg.

Whipsaw Brewing: Rooted in the belief that good beer comes from good people, this brewery on a quiet side street in Ellensburg offers fine brews with fine folks.

Yellow Church Cafe: Enjoy American fare in a cozy church with vaulted ceilings. You can even ask to sit in the old choir loft.

Palace Cafe: The cafe has a long and fabled history in Ellensburg, where it has been serving food for more than 100 years. Find it in a 1908 brick storefront.

Ellensburg Pasta Company: The family-friendly cafe has been touted as the best restaurant in the city, with its pasta, steaks and extensive wine list.

A misty morning on the Rattlesnake Dance Ridge. Photo by Sean Flood.
This article originally appeared in the Sep+Oct 2018 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.