Explore Central Washington and soak up the sun
Nestled to the east of the Cascade Range on the sunny side of the mountains, Ellensburg, Washington, is an idyllic, small-town getaway. From fishing and hiking to wineries and museums, there’s no shortage of fun things to do in Ellensburg—especially if you plan your visit during the Ellensburg Rodeo’s 100th anniversary celebrations on Labor Day Weekend.
Many of our top picks of fun things to do in Ellensburg are free or inexpensive, and most are open year-round. With more than 200 days of glorious sunshine a year, Ellensburg and all of Kittitas County offer a welcome contrast from the rainy and overcast winter climate of Western Washington. So, if you’re looking for sun-filled adventure, grab your AAA membership and start planning a great road trip to Ellensburg. Here’s some inspiration to get you started.
1. Experience the Ellensburg Rodeo 100th Anniversary
2023 is the Ellensburg Rodeo‘s 100th anniversary. It’s, one of America’s Top 10 professional rodeos and the second largest event of its kind in the Pacific Northwest, after the Calgary Stampede. The Ellensburg Rodeo runs every Labor Day Weekend alongside the Kittitas County Fair.
What started as a local competition among ranch hands has grown into a national event with more than 600 riders, ropers and wrestlers, with combined prize money in the range of $400,000. The rodeo takes place over five days with “Xtreme Bulls,” a competition with tough bull riding and pyrotechnics, drawing large crowds on Saturday. Many visitors make a weekend of it and enjoy both the rodeo and fair, which has fun rides, tasty bites, dancing and live music.
2. Go fly-fishing on the Yakima River
Known as one of the best trout river locations in all of Washington, the Yakima River winds its way through Ellensburg and Kittitas County—making fly-fishing one of the top outdoor activities in the area. Most trout in the waters are native rainbows, but you can catch some cutthroat and non-native trout as well. The abundance of trout has also spawned a local fly-fishing industry, so if you’re new to fishing it’s easy to enlist the help of a pro. Book a guided fly-fishing tour along the Yakima River and get “hooked” on fishing in Ellensburg.
Tip: If you’re planning on putting your own boat in the water, review your boat insurance and check to make sure you have the correct boat launch permit before heading out.
3. Sip award-winning Yakima Valley wines
For adults ages 21 and over, wine tasting is among the top fun things to do in Ellensburg and the greater area. You’ll find more than 90 wineries in the Yakima Valley, which forms a large stretch of Washington’s wine country and comprises 17,000 acres of vineyards. While the Yakima Valley sits just outside Ellensburg, you’ll find tasting rooms within the city. You can sip local wines at one of the restaurants in town or go further afield to explore the vineyards. As always, please plan safe transportation—have a designated driver, take public transportation, take a bus tour or arrange for a car service.
Tip: Get ready for your road trip with a AAA Membership. Get peace-of-mind on the road plus member discounts on hotels, rental cars, movie tickets and more.
4. Combine history and hiking at a state park
Hiking and history come together at Olmstead Place Historical State Park, a 221-acre park where you can tour an original 1875 pioneer homestead, Olmstead Place. It’s a fascinating look into homesteader family life that includes farm equipment and a 1908 hay barn. Visitors can tour the original cottonwood log cabin and see historic furniture and artifacts.
Then, hike along the Altapes Interpretive Trail, which is about a mile along Coleman Creek to see flowers and heritage gardens. This is also a great spot for artists to paint or sketch rustic buildings and colorful blooms. (Call ahead to schedule a tour and bring your Discover Pass parking permit. You can also check out a Discover Pass for free from a library. Click here to learn how.)
Next, venture to Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park/Wanapum Recreation Area and discover what the “petrified” in its name really means. It might surprise you to learn that petrified wood is Washington’s official state gem, and Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park is famous for its rare specimens of petrified Ginkgo tree, which were discovered there in 1932. Learn about the diverse fossil forest at the Ginkgo Petrified Forest Interpretive Center and have fun exploring the trails.
Then, head to the Trailside Museum and Trees of Stone Interpretive Trail and learn about petrified wood on its 1.25-mile trail where you can see petrified logs in their original setting. (For those who want a longer hike, there are 3 miles of hiking trails in this area.)
Another great idea for fun things to do in Ellensburg to reserve a campsite at Wanapum Recreation Area. After a day of hiking and exploring, you can cool off with a swim or float in Wanapum Lake.
Tip: The park offers a solar-powered EV charging station at no cost to users. Learn more here.
5. Bike the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail
Think of the 5,794-acre, 250-mile Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail as a multi-day adventure for cyclists—or a short and easy bike ride in the Ellensburg area. You can pick up the 6-mile Kittitas County-Ellensburg section of the trail at trailheads around town and bike as far as you like. Previously called the Iron Horse/John Wayne Pioneer Trail, the trail follows an old railway roadbed across two-thirds of Washington. The full trail system runs from west of North Bend to the Columbia River near Vantage, then continues from the town of Lind to the Idaho border.
6. Have a moment of Zen at the CWU Japanese Gardens
Students at Central Washington University (CWU) often visit the Donald L. Garrity Japanese Gardens on their way to class for a moment of rest and relaxation. Located at the center of campus and designed by renowned Japanese landscape architect Masayuki Mizuno, the Gardens include a sand and stone garden made of decomposed granite, plus stone lanterns hand crafted from solid granite and donated to the garden from CWU’s sister community in Japan, Sanda City. Admission is free.
7. Go paddleboarding, kayaking and canoeing
Looking for fun things to do in Ellensburg on a hot summer’s day? Summers in Central Washington are warm and local lakes are the perfect place to cool down, go paddleboarding and put your kayak or canoe in the water. Some of the most popular lakes include Wanapum Lake (a reservoir on the Columbia River), Mattoon Lake (also one of the best places to fish for rainbow trout) and Cle Elum Lake. And, last but not least, the Yakima River is a gorgeous destination for floating the day away.
8. Journey back in time at the Kittitas County Historical Museum
With a collection that spans thousands of years, the Kittitas County Historical Museum houses almost 17,000 artifacts, more than 9,000 photographs and close to 36 banker boxes full of archival material. The collection began in 1961 and has grow into fascinating exibits including children’s toys, hand tools, artwork, geological specimens, antique cars, Native American baskets and historic photographs. Admission to the Museum is free.
9. Tour the Clymer Museum and Gallery
Featuring the works of celebrated Western artist John Ford Clymer (1907-89), this hidden gem of a museum also showcases a range of local artists, emerging talents and acclaimed photographers, as well as rodeo history.
Don’t know the name John Clymer? There’s a good chance you’ve seen his art. Clymer’s works made the cover of The Saturday Evening Post magazine more than 80 times—more than any other American painter except Norman Rockwell. Admission to the Clymer Museum and Gallery is free.
10. Spot eagles, chukars, songbirds and more
If you’re planning a getaway during the cooler months, you might be surprised to learn that one of the top fun things to do in Ellensburg in winter is birding. Washington State is home to 346 regularly occurring species of birds, and you can see more than 200 in the Ellensburg area. In fact, late winter is the best time to spot eagles. Your chances of seeing a bald eagle in the area are at their highest between January and March when hundreds of eagles make pit stops in Ellensburg on their way north to Canada and Alaska for breeding and nesting.
A good place to start your birding adventure is on Audubon’s Great Washington State Birding Trail—Sun & Sage Loop, which goes through Ellensburg, Cle Elum and Vantage. Throughout the Ellensburg area, you can spot hawks and eagles, as well as chukars, woodpeckers, grouse, kingfishers and songbirds at varying times of year.
But there’s more to explore when it comes to birding in the Ellensburg area. Spread your wings (pardon the pun) and visit the Quilomene Wildlife Area or Colockum Wildlife Area, which includes the Whiskey Dick Wildlife Area in its south half. (The Whiskey Dick area is next to the Ginko Petrified Forest State Park and the old Vantage Highway. Combine these destinations for an epic road trip.) Colockum is particularly beautiful in springtime when wildflowers bloom. Both wildlife areas also offer year-round opportunities to see wildlife including Rocky Mountain elk, California bighorn sheep and mule deer.
Before you go: Many of these areas are remote and cellular service is spotty—make a trip plan, check weather and road conditions, and buy the correct Washington State parking permits.
Tip: Audubon’s Great Washington Birding Trail features seven loops and each offers the chance to spot different species around the state.
Bonus: Shop at the Ellensburg Farmers Market
Locals and visitors alike will agree that a visit to the Ellensburg Farmers Market should have a permanent spot on any list of fun things to do in Ellensburg. Head to this market for the freshest produce you’ll find just about anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. Open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays from May through October, you’ll find fresh-baked goodies; farm produce including meat, eggs and poultry; locally-designed jewelry; jams, jellies and spices; pottery and photography; and all the fruits and vegetables you can dream of. Bring a cooler to stock up and bring groceries home for the week.
This list is just the beginning when it comes to fun things to do in Ellensburg, so don’t stop here. Explore events such as the annual quilting show, check out what’s happening on the CWU campus, learn about the many parks and recreations areas, and venture further afield to all corners of Kittitas County. With its sunshine and blue skies, it won’t take long until you’re planning your next visit to Ellensburg.
Road Trip Tips
Before you go: Get ready for your road trip with a AAA Membership. Get peace-of-mind on the road plus travel and insurance services and much more.
Save on car insurance: AAA members save up to 8% on car insurance.
Get battery service: AAA Mobile Battery Service uses state-of-the-art technology to accurately diagnose battery-related problems. We’ll even replace your battery with a brand-new one if necessary, at a special member price.
Save with AAA member discounts: AAA membership gives you access to exclusive entertainment discounts nationwide.