Slowing down on I-90: Between Ellensburg and Spokane

Ask any Seattleite who’s driven the long stretch of Interstate 90 between Ellensburg and Spokane if there’s anything interesting to see on the way from one to the other and I’ll bet they say no. There’s nothing but sage brush and farmlands, they’ll tell you. And maybe the oasis town of Moses Lake, which is a good midway stop for a fast-food lunch.

Before a recent road trip, I would have told you the same thing.

I was wrong. I’ve always been in such a hurry to get from point A to point B—at 70 miles an hour no less—that I’ve never bother to stop at three places I’ll admit I’ve long been curious about: Thorp Fruit, the Ginko Petrified Forest National Park and the Wild Horses Monument.

Have you seen the road signs for these and been curious yourself? Or in the case of Thorpe, the giant white building alongside the highway east of Ellensburg?

“We should really stop and check those out sometime,” I’ve said to the family many times, and then flown right by. “Maybe next time.”

We’ve had a lot of “next times,” my family and I. But no longer. This last time, we stopped. Here’s what we discovered.

thorpThorp Fruit and Antique Mall. You can’t miss Thorp’s massive white building rising from the landscape 10 miles east of Ellensburg. Nor can you miss their large bold red letters: THORP FRUIT AND ANTIQUE MALL, in all caps.

Sixty years ago, this used to be a simple roadside fruit stand, but this third-generation business has long since expanded. Along with antiques, they carry seasonal farm-fresh fruit and veggies, made-in-Washington specialty foods, espresso, Northwest wines and local ice cream.

Although parking outside looks plentiful, bring your patience during the busy summer months. I witnessed some parking lot rage over a spot up front.

We left with a bag of Bing cherries and two dishes of ice cream of go.

IF YOU GO

  • Open year round, Sunday through Saturday, but hours change seasonally. They suggest calling ahead to make sure they’re open.
  • Phone: 509-964-2474
  • Location: Exit 101 off I-90. 220 Gladmar Rd. in Thorp.
  • http://www.thorpfruit.com

state park

Ginkgo Petrified State Park. With no hint of a petrified forest visible from I-90, this was the site I was most curious about visiting. When we found it less than a mile’s drive from the exit, I wondered what took us so long to slow down and give it a look.

The fossil forest here is recognized as one of the most unusual in the world, for its diversity, number of species and because of the rare Gingko. During the Miocene era 15 million years ago, this landscape was far different than it is now and these logs, buried by volcanic ash, washed in groundwater minerals, and then protected by thousands of years of basalt flows, are the proof of how this area has changed and evolved.

Had it not been over 90 degrees, it would also have been a great place to stretch the legs. There are miles of hiking trails, including the Trees of Stone Interpretive Trail, a one-mile loop with dozens of petrified logs that were discovered during the construction of a highway in the 1930s.

petrified logs

We spent about 45 minutes exploring the petrified logs on display inside and outside the interpretive center on the ridge overlooking the Columbia River. The view alone made it a fun stop— and so did the herd of grazing big horn sheep we saw as we drove into the park.

big horn sheepDon’t get back on the highway without checking out more petrified logs, souvenirs and the photo-op worthy dinosaur statues at the privately owned Ginkgo Gem Shop outside the state park.

dinosaur

And finally, if your kids, like mine, are skeptical of stopping for petrified trees, bribe them into better moods with a stop  at Blustery’s burger and shake shack. It’s right off the exit.

IF YOU GO

wild horses twoWild Horses National Monument. I have long admired the line of 15 life-size horse sculptures atop the ridge overlooking the east side of the Columbia River. While the road sign declares this the Wild Horses National Monument, the real name of these beauties is Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies. Created by artist David Govedare for the Washington centennial in 1989, the original design was supposed to include a large 36-foot basket tipped on its side, with the horses —a gift from “Grandfather Spirit”— spilling out and galloping across this land where they used to roam wild. Funding ran short, however, and it was never completed. In no way does the omission, in my opinion, take away from the scene. The steel horses alone are a spectacular tribute.

wild horses ridgeTo get a close-up view of the horses, you have to work for it. There’s a parking lot and viewpoint off exit 139, but the sculptures themselves are accessed via a short, but steep, trail. I was determined to climb it. My teen daughter was less enthused, but humored me.

Halfway up on the trail on the 90+ degree day we visited I wondered if she was right and I’d made a mistake. The trail is not compact nor is it maintained. We nearly lost our footing several times on the loose rocks and dirt, and we saw another visitor slip and fall. I wouldn’t recommend it for small children or the elderly, but for those who persevere the reward at the top is an expansive view of the Columbia River Gorge. Is it better than the view from the parking lot? I think so.

But truth be told, now that I’ve seen them, the horses are best seen from a distance. Not because the artistry of these majestic horses was lacking, but because of the wild humans who have spoiled them with grafitti. Every horse was tagged, some by families, and that was an even bigger disappointment than the graffiti itself. What are these parents teaching their children?

IF YOU GO

  • Open daily.
  • Important! Access is only from exit 139 on Eastbound I-90. If you’re traveling west, you’ll need to cross the Columbia, exit in Vantage, and circle back.
  • There’s a large parking lot and viewpoint at exit 139. To my disappointment, the interpretive signs had been painted over and vandalized with graffiti. The only way to visit the Wild Horses from the viewpoint/parking lot is to take a short, but steep, trail at the east end of the lot.

OTHER I-90 FUN

Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility. To pass the time between the area south of Ellensburg and the Columbia River bridge, we count windmills. I won’t spoil your fun by telling you how many there really are, but I just learned that the Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility, 16 miles east of Ellensburg, is open to visitors. Go find out by getting a close-up look. I hope to make a trip soon!

Owned and operated by Puget Sound Energy, the facility includes a Renewable Energy Center with indoor displays and outdoor trails to educate visitors about the turbines and natural history of the area. They also offer free public tours at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily April through mid-November.

Crop signs. Not far past the Wild Horses National Monument, driving east on I-90, there’s a road sign letting drivers know that for the next several miles (maybe 20?), fence signs will announce what types of crops are being grown in the fields. Admittedly, on our last drive I didn’t see as many signs as before, but there were some, and I hope local farmers add more.

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