Just north of the Yakima Valley of Washington lies the rural western town of Ellensburg. Known for the Ellensburg Rodeo, one of the top 10 in the U.S., Ellensburg also is a great place to get away to for art and history, boutique shopping and delicious food. The historic downtown is revitalized yet you’ll surely get a taste of the Wild West when you wander the streets. We spent a couple of days there and found at least 5 reasons you should visit too.
1. Ellensburg is Authentic
It’s a place for bucking broncos, saloons and ranch families but it’s not a show for visitors. As you approach Ellensburg’s downtown area you’ll be impressed by the container flowers, the cleanliness of the streets and impressive late 1800’s brick buildings. Enough of the historic downtown core remains and some of the shops like the furniture store are Ellensburg mainstays.
They are not all the first buildings. Washington became a state in 1889 and Ellensburg was being considered for the capital. But a fire destroyed most of the city on July 4, 1889. The fire started in a grocery store on the east side of Main Street, between Fourth and Fifth. The town recovered quickly, with brick buildings built to replace the former wood ones. A mural depicting a rising phoenix from the ashes on the side of the Davidson building represents the rebuilding of the town.
The people are friendly and they love their rural lifestyle. The town is not built for tourists although there’s plenty to do there. Having the university in town adds another aspect to Ellensburg life. About 9,000 students attend Central Washington University’s campus. Events and activities related to the university bring a cultural and youthful vibe to the town.
If you go during rodeo time or during the Kittitas County Fair, you’ll get a taste of the area’s rural lifestyle and values. The rodeo is known for its championship bull riding event and at the fair, you’ll see pies judged and 4-H kids showing the animals they have raised just like its been done for generations.
When you visit, be sure and spend some time at the Kittitas County Historical Museum (free entry) on E. 3rd Avenue. It’s a private non-profit museum supported, in part, by rents from the second floor apartments in the historic brick building. They have a historic auto exhibit, collections of dolls and Native American weaving as well as historic artifacts. Watch the calendar of events for their walking tours, especially the popular haunted legends walking tour.
2. Ellensburg is Artistic
We took a public art walking tour of Ellensburg offered by the museum. Murals and metal sculptures were pointed out as well as details most people would miss like trash barrels hand made by a local iron worker and a new installation of art in the bus shelters.
Larger pieces like the Ellensburg Bull, originally entitled The Cowboy, by northwest artist Rich Beyer and the artist’s Coyote sculpture loitering in front of the library exemplify Ellensburg’s dedication to art.
An amazing home/art installation is a short walking distance from the Kittitas County Museum on First and Pearl Streets. Dick and Jane’s Spot, a private home of two artists, has their reflector art and the folk art works of over 40 Pacific Northwest artists on display in the yard. It’s a colorful, fanciful place and I’ll be writing a full article with photos in the coming month. It’s a must-see when in Ellensburg.
There are also some noteworthy art galleries in Ellensburg. Gallery One on Pearl St. supports the growth of the visual arts in Central Washington. The Clymer Museum of Art, also on Pearl, showcases the early Western America art of John Ford Clymer and local rodeo history.
Add in festivals and an annual jazz festival and you’ll soon be surprised by the cultural offerings of rural Ellensburg.
3. Ellensburg has a Hip Beer Scene
Where there are students and cowboys, would you be surprised to find breweries? We visited the small Whipsaw Brewing where they “take their cut and share the rest.”
The brewpub has a decidedly lumberjack theme as the owner worked in the logging industry for over 30 years. You’ll usually find five of their brews on tap plus their own root beer for kids and designated drivers.
It’s a family and dog friendly place with plenty of outdoor seating.
And, then for a huge contrast, we toured the large, high tech Iron Horse Brewery, well known for their “Irish Death.” They make indie craft beer but have all the latest bells and whistles when it comes to the brewing process. They also have a collective sense of humor you’ll notice in their advertising and labels.
While Iron Horse has a brewpub in downtown Ellensburg it’s great fun to take a tour of their production facility just outside town. Tours are offered pretty much monthly. Check their website for a schedule.
4. You’ll Never Go Hungry in Ellensburg
Ellensburg is surrounded by farms and ranches. People work hard and are not shy about ordering large portions. One morning our touring writers group was invited to breakfast at The Wild Huckleberry in downtown Ellensburg. Because of the name of the restaurant I decided to order a huckleberry pancake… just one. Imagine my surprise when the pancake was served, so large it was hanging over the edges of a large oval dinner plate.
One evening, I had to decide between barbeque at Rodeo City Barbecue (they offer “A taste of the west at its best’) or the highly recommended traditional Ellensburg dining spot, The Palace Café, also in downtown. I opted for the historic Palace Café, in operation since 1892, to check out the old photos and memorabilia and enjoy a hearty steak dinner.
The Palace Café lived up to their reputation. It was packed with casual diners enjoying huge burgers, prime rib dinners and salad with house-baked bread. I opted for a Certified Angus Beef New York Steak since I was in cowboy country and added in a serving of mushrooms. The steak was tender, nicely seasoned, cooked how I ordered it and, of course, I had to take half of it home!
The server, a student at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, was super efficient and friendly. I don’t like dining alone but she made my experience a positive one.
For those who are not seeking out a western meal experience, you can get house made pasta from the Ellensburg Pasta Company housed in a converted gas station. They have a wide range of pasta and sauces as well as entrees like salmon and steak. I enjoyed their excellent pasta special of the evening.
Locals suggest having lunch at to Daily Bread and Mercantile. It’s run by local Mennonites serving all fresh made-from-scratch sandwiches and deserts.
5. Ellensburg is Part of the Barn Quilt Trail
You may not realize it but barn quilt trails are huge. Aficionados travel across the United States to follow the colorful quilts painted on buildings and barns.
The quilt trail you can follow around Ellensburg was the idea of local volunteers and is the first in Washington State. There are more than 100 murals on area barns, and each painted quilt block has a story. Many of the barns are historic too. It’s a great excuse to drive the scenic back roads of Kittitas County, see beautiful horses in pastures and seasonal crops being harvested.
When You Go to Ellensburg
You’ll find that Ellensburg is a town of contrasts. There’s the wild west history, rodeo and fair yet the town appeals to those who want to go wine tasting and shop the boutiques and antique stores.
Soon there will be a boutique hotel in downtown Ellensburg, The Windrow Hotel. It’s something to look forward to. It will be a multi-story hotel adjacent to the historic Elks Building, which is used now for offices and ballroom space. With walkability to downtown eateries, shops and cultural sites, it should be yet another reason to visit Ellensburg, Washington.
For more information about Ellensburg be sure and visit the My Ellensburg website. If you are driving from Yakima, consider the Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway. For more information on visiting Washington State see these Washington articles from Wander writers.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was hosted by The Kittitas County Chamber of Commerce and was provided with accommodations, meals, tours, and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.