Real Road Trips: Eastern Washington

A six-day tour of eastern Washington
road trips from seattle magazine
The mineral-rich waters of Soap Lake in Eastern Washington have long been a draw

We’d lived for several years in Seattle, but barely been outside the city—and never east—and we’d heard things were “different” over yonder. So during our sons’ spring break, we lit out for our first-ever road trip as a family, with a loose agenda, an old-fashioned atlas, a willingness to take Yelp advice and plenty of curiosity.

Travelers: Sebastian Simsch (dad, 40ish, owner of Seattle Coffee Works), Pipo Bui (mom, 40ish, director of foundation and corporate relations at EarthCorps), and sons, Amir (12) and Elie (9)
Purpose: “Our Freedom Trip”—We departed the week after Sebastian opened his second Seattle Coffee Works café, in Ballard; the whole family needed a break and time together.
Days on the road: 6
Total miles: 814 total, 135 miles per day
Vehicle: 1993 Toyota Previa, with a lucky 888 in the license plate. Despite looking like overgrown piglets, the great thing about Previas is they are comfortable, and the backseats fold up easily so the payload is almost as big as a real van.
Navigational aid: We mostly used a dog-eared copy of a DeLorme road atlas. You could do everything digitally now, but the paper atlas was great—gorgeous, large topographical maps that we spread out over the seats. For the kids, it offered the chance to apply map-reading skills and get a realistic idea of the distances we were traveling.
In-car entertainment: Twenty questions and sing-alongs; kids were screen-free for the trip
Essential gear: Since we’re fussy sleepers, we had our own pillows and a couple of big comforters, which made napping in the car very luxurious. We even hauled the pillows and comforters into our room at the Davenport Hotel in Spokane. And, of course, we brought a Hario Skerton coffee grinder, a small French press and some of our favorite Seattle Coffee Works beans.
Rookie error: Going without air conditioning. If your car doesn’t have AC, rent one that does.
Big takeaway: To appreciate grown-in-Washington grain and produce—it comes at a tremendous cost in energy and water.

Day 1: Soap Lake
Our first destination was Soap Lake (soaplakewa.com), a mineral lake in the desert a little more than halfway between Seattle and Spokane, about three hours’ drive out of town. We sampled the “healing waters,” which left our hands feeling smooth and soapy, as promised! We were disappointed not to see anyone smearing the celebrated mud on their bodies. Despite the sun, it was extremely windy and a bit inhospitable that day, so we walked the block back into the town.

This once booming spa destination is a bit weathered at the edges, and the town of Soap Lake today is best appreciated through a David Lynch lens (which was lost a bit on the boys). A solid Twin Peaks vibe can be sustained quite easily at the down-home Don’s Restaurant (14 Canna St. N; 509.246.1217), where we had dinner, served by a waitress straight out of central casting, and the rustic, Lincoln Log–style Notaras Lodge (236 Maine Ave. E; 509.246.0462; notaraslodge.com), which, much to our delight, featured baths with heated mineral water straight from the lake. Map by John S. Dykes

After dinner, we spent a lively evening at SLAM (Soap Lake Art Museum, 410 Main Ave. E, Soap Lake; 509.855.6131; Facebook, “SLAMart”) in animated conversation with retired Seattle architect and “idea man” Brent Blake. The gallery is a social and intellectual hub for the region, packed with brilliant, fun and accessible artworks (we seem to remember a chair made out of Froot Loops), and the perfect place to buy souvenir artwork. Brent, who, sadly, died of leukemia last fall, was the man behind the larger-than-life scheme to erect a 60-foot lava lamp (left over from a Target store in New York) in Soap Lake—a marvel to rival Seattle’s Space Needle. It was impossible not to get carried away by his enthusiasm, and we found ourselves imagining UFOs and all kinds of oddities that could fit into the landscape. We toured the site, and it is indeed perfect.

Day 2: Soap Lake to Spokane
The views along State Route 17 from Soap Lake heading to Grand Coulee Dam are stark and canyoned, but it wasn’t until we stopped along the way at the Dry Falls Interpretive Center (34875 Park Lake Road NE, Coulee City), about a half hour down the road, that we learned how the landscape was carved by great Ice Age floods 15,000 years ago. One striking result: a 3.5-mile-wide, 400-foot-high cliff that was once a massive waterfall. To put it in perspective, that’s four times as wide as Niagara Falls.  

Photo by Hope Stroble: Pipo Bui and Sebastian Simsch with their sons and cousins roll through Idaho in a 1950s Willys Jeepster

Less than an hour further down the road, we reached the gargantuan Grand Coulee Dam (509.633.9265; usbr.gov/pn/grandcoulee/gcvc/tour.html), which is awe-inspiring and terrifying—not least of all because of the machine-gun-toting guards. The free, 50-minute tour opened our eyes to a huge national strategic reserve of pent-up power and fueled speculation about what it would take to blow up a dam of this size, as well as several James Bond–style chase-scene fantasies.

After a quick zip through the city of Grand Coulee, home to employees who run the important hydroelectric plant, we took Highway 2 for an hour-and-a-half drive to Spokane, stopping for Mexican food in Davenport. All during the trip, Mexican restaurants were an affordable, reliable and kid-friendly option. Our bellies still full, we crashed at Marianna Stoltz House (427 E Indiana Ave.; 509.483.4316; mariannastoltzhouse.com) that night, just a few blocks from Gonzaga University.


Day 3 & 4: Spokane
After breakfast at the B&B, we toured Spokane, looking for, among other things a good cup of coffee. We stopped at many cafés during our trip, of course (much to the boys’ embarrassment, the baristi sometimes recognized their dad). In Spokane, we found our best cup of the trip at Madeleine’s Café and Patisserie (707 W Main Ave.; 509.624.2253; madeleines-spokane.com).
We wandered around the town, with its lovely riverfront, and moved for our second night into the historic Davenport Hotel (10 S Post St.; 509.455.8888; davenporthotelcollection.com). We loved the grand old hotel for its elegant atmosphere and reasonable rates; the boys loved it for its swimming pool, where we spent hours working out the kinks of the road.


Day 5: Spokane to Moscow, Idaho, to Dayton

The next day we zagged across the border—about an hour-and-a-half drive—to visit the chill college town of Moscow, Idaho. We totally loved the granola-style scene at the Moscow Food Co-op (121 E Fifth St.; 208.882.8537; moscowfood.coop), which is perfect for reloading healthy road treats. And because we are a bookstore family, we spent a few hours at the indie mecca BookPeople of Moscow (521 S Main St.; 208.882.2669; bookpeopleofmoscow.com), with a fuel stop nearby at One World Cafe (533 S Main St.; 208.883.3537; owc-moscow.com).

Back on the road, we began to feel the impact of all that open desert—and though it prompted interesting comparisons with our lush western Washington ecosystem, we were feeling a bit like “We are no longer in the homeland.” So we headed back west (in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark) toward greener pastures and vineyards along the Columbia River.

We took U.S. Route 95 out of Moscow to Highway 12, snaking past the wind turbine farms of the Hopkins Ridge Wind Facility and, skipping the higher profile of Walla Walla, opted to explore Dayton (a drive of just under two hours), our favorite small town of the trip, with a Main Street dotted with tasteful and charming shops. We spent the night in the Victorian-style Weinhard Hotel (235 E Main St.; 509.382.4032; weinhard.com), and enjoyed excellent wines and small plates at Weinhard Café (258 E Main St.; 509.382.1681; weinhardcafe.com)—and began feeling a bit more in our element.

On the way out of town, we stopped at Ray’s Drive-In (221 W Main St.; 509.382.4822), the locals’ spot for a classic diner breakfast and some local dish (gossip—everyone knows everyone in Dayton!). This eatery is such a well-kept secret that it doesn’t show up on the Internet, and Google Maps blocks out the road sign, but you can find it with a little patience at the corner of South Willow and West Main in a 1950-ish Swiss chalet A-frame building with a blue roof.

Day 6: Yakima and home
On our final day, we completed our nerdy power-generation exploration trifecta with a trip to the Columbia River Exhibition  of History, Science & Technology, near Hanford Nuclear Reservation, outside Richland, about an hour and a half from Dayton. Retired-scientist docents built the displays and were eager to engage the kids in science-fair-like demonstrations and gizmos about everything from Hanford’s ties to the Manhattan Project to its ill-fated cleanup. Although the center closed recently, the new Hanford Reach Interpretive Center opens in July.  The hybird museum/interpretive center/visitor center will tell a larger story of the Columbia River basin community. Fueled by more tacos and burritos, we spent our last evening in Yakima (a little more than an hour from Hanford)—where we sampled some local creations at The Tasting Room (250 Ehler Road; 509.966.0686; tastingroomyakima.com) and enjoyed a classic fast-food supper with milkshakes at the Miner’s Drive-In (2415 S First St.; 509.457.8194; Facebook, “Miners Drive-in Restaurant), a Yakima institution. Our final bed away from home was at the Rosedell Mansion Bed & Breakfast (1811 W Yakima Ave.; 509.961.2964; rosedellbb.com) in a neo-Classical house with a huge lawn, warm chocolate chip cookies at snack time and an actual kid-pleasing turret.

As we rolled home, we gazed at the hops fields, orchards and vineyards a little stunned by our new understanding of this now familiar landscape, what it took to transform it, and the challenges that government agencies and groups like the Yakama Nation face to restore the fragile ecological integrity of their tribal lands, the Hanford site and the vast Columbia River basin.
There’s something alluring about these huge, open spaces that called forth the megalomaniac dreamer in each of us. Do you think we should build a 60-foot Coffee-Drinking Man statue when we get home?

Want more road trip ideas? Go back to our main story: Five Real Road Trips that will Inspire You to Pack Up the Car and Go