Intriguing Detours on the I-90 Trek from Seattle to Spokane
In 1978, Interstate 90 bypassed downtown North Bend 30 miles east of Seattle, and the last stoplight on the 280-mile freeway to Spokane was history. It was a seminal date for the cross-Cascades route that started as a wagon road in 1867. Cars first crossed the Cascade Range at Snoqualmie Pass in 1905. Today, I-90 is the state’s fastest and busiest east-west highway.
But driving I-90 can be boring, especially for stretches in Eastern Washington where hay fields and giant wind turbines might not cut it as eye candy.
So, here are some off-freeway distractions, from awe-inspiring to odd, plus a few shopping and dining suggestions. This is an eastbound guide, but exit numbers are the same in both directions.
Exit 17, Issaquah: The first leg of your eastbound I-90 journey heads over Lake Washington, past Bellevue to Issaquah. One highlight is Gilman Village, with 40 independent shops and restaurants, many in former homes and older repurposed buildings.
Issaquah’s Triple XXX Rootbeer and Drive-In is one of only two left in the country from dozens, dating back to the 1930s. Notable for its Triple XXX Barrel sign and an interior richly decorated with memorabilia donated by customers, the restaurant plays host to numerous classic car shows. Parked behind the restaurant on Gilman Boulevard is a 1950s Kenworth bus claimed to be the one used on tour by rock-and-rollers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson before they perished in a plane crash at Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959 — “The Day the Music Died.”
Exit 25, Snoqualmie and North Bend: Five minutes north of I-90, the Snoqualmie River plunges 268 feet over a 100-foot-wide cliff. Views of Snoqualmie Falls are free and spectacular from the adjacent restaurant. These bustling towns promote their railroad history with museums and excursion train rides operated by the Northwest Railway Museum.
Exit 32, cross-state trail: The western end of the 250-mile Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail is 3 miles south at Rattlesnake Lake. The trail, on the former Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad grade (aka The Milwaukee Road), is accessible at several points between here and the Columbia River.
Exits 52 and 53: At 3,022 feet, Snoqualmie Pass is the lowest of Washington’s cross-Cascades highways. The summit area includes a year-around chair lift, lodging, gasoline, restaurants and a free ski-and-snowboard museum (open Fridays and weekends). Two miles east, at Hyak, is the eastern portal to the 2.3-mile-long former railroad tunnel, now a spooky link in the Palouse to Cascades Trail.
Lake Keechelus: Just east of the summit is the headwater of the longest river entirely within Washington. The Yakima River flows 214 miles to the Columbia River at Richland. When the lake is drawn down for irrigation, mudflats and tree stumps are exposed.
Milepost 61: One of I-90’s most unusual sights is this 150-foot wide, wildlife bridge over the freeway. Opened in 2018, the bridge has prevented untold numbers of vehicle versus animal tragedies. Users range from elk and bobcat to snowshoe hare and toads.
Exit 80, Roslyn and Suncadia: Historic Roslyn’s sub-700 population swells on weekends, thanks partly to it having been a location for the 1990s CBS comedy-drama “Northern Exposure.” The Brick touts itself as the oldest operating saloon in the state. The Roslyn Cafe, with its iconic camel mural, makes the best bacon-lettuce-tomato-avocado sandwich this writer has ever had.
Exits 84 and 85, Cle Elum: Cle Elum’s First Street is a classic small-town main drag with eateries and coffee shops. The Cle Elum Telephone Museum (open summers only) on First Street housed switchboards, operators and service crews until 1966 as a link in the network connecting Western Washington to the rest of the country. U.S. 97 at the east end of town goes north to Leavenworth, Wenatchee and Lake Chelan. A mile south, across I-90, railroad history is honored at the South Cle Elum Rail Yard Historic District, which includes a former electricity substation that once powered Milwaukee Road trains over the Cascades.
Exit 101, Thorp Fruit and Antique Mall: This imposing warehouse structure, opened in 1944 and still family owned, features a vast selection of fruit, vegetables, gifts, wines and antiques galore.
Exit 109, Ellensburg: Ellensburg is one of the best places between Seattle and Spokane for eating and browsing. North from I-90, after Canyon Road becomes Main Street, park near West Fourth Avenue and explore on foot. Classic buildings rose from the ashes of a devastating 1889 fire. Check out the iconic John B. Davidson Building at East Fourth and Pearl, and the Cadwell Building (home of the Kittitas County Historical Society’s museum). Central Washington University is a five-minute walk away. And don’t miss Dick and Jane’s Spot at First and Pearl, with the works of more than 40 Northwest artists displayed in the yard. Other options for a break from the road are Irene Rinehart Riverfront Park and Trail, and adjacent Rotary Park, each with an off-leash area.
Exit 115, Kittitas: The original 1909 Milwaukee Road depot still stands here along the Palouse to Cascades Trail.
Milepost 121, Renslow Trestle: Hikers and bikers cross above I-90 on this prominent 680-foot-long former railroad trestle.
Exit 136, Vantage and Ginkgo Petrified Forest: Vantage is a one-cafe, one-gas station community best known for one of the largest and most diverse petrified forests in North America. A state park visitors center is about a mile from the freeway, past the gem shop with a dinosaur statue out front. The nearby Wanapum Recreation Area features 27,000 feet of shoreline on the Columbia River.
Exit 139, Great view and steel horses: About a mile up the hill from the east end of the Vantage Bridge, a scenic overlook offers a spectacular view of the Columbia downstream to Wanapum Dam. On the bluff above the eastbound viewpoint are 15 metal sculptures of horses running wild; “Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies” was created by David Govedare in 1989–90. A short but steep hike to the ponies is accessed here.
Exit 143, Coulee and concerts: It’s less than 4 miles via Silica and Vantage roads to the rim of eye-popping, Missoula Floods-carved Frenchman Coulee and The Feathers rock-climbing hot spot. Stay on Silica Road to the beautiful Gorge Amphitheater, with seats and lawn space for 20,000.
Exits 174, 176, 179: Moses Lake, population 26,000, is sliced into sections by arms of the lake and I-90. The 54-acre Blue Heron Park off Exit 174 includes a picnic area, a boat launch, walking trails and wetlands. Larson Playfield is north from Exit 176 on Broadway, a main commercial artery with several restaurants. Exit 179 connects with state Highway 17 south to the Tri-Cities and north to Ephrata and Grand Coulee Dam.
The spuds: Washington is second to Idaho in U.S. potato production, but Grant County (Moses Lake) is said to be the nation’s most productive potato producing county, ranking first in the per-acre yield.
Exit 221, Ritzville: With only 1,800 residents, Ritzville has three museums: Burrough House and Railroad Depot Museum plus the surprising Lasting Legacy Wildlife Museum. There are some 1,300 life-sized stuffed animals from more than 60 countries in this two-story, 25,000-square-foot building just off the freeway. From Love’s Travel Stop at Exit 221 head for the eastbound freeway entrance but peel off onto Weber Road.
Exit 245, Sprague: Whether they’re monuments to decades-old vehicles or junkyards is in the eye of the beholder. But it costs nothing to check out these two old-vehicle collections. From the exit onto Highway 23 south, turn right on Fourth Street and right again on B to First Street and you’ll come to Dave’s Old Truck Rescue. Then it’s four blocks down First Street to more old vehicles at Applewood Mercantile. Another notable site is the century-old, Gothic Revival-style Mary Queen of Heaven Catholic Church on B Street.
—Written by Gregg Herrington
This article appears in the Winter 2023 edition of AAA member magazine, Journey.
Gregg Herrington, a retired reporter and editor with The Associated Press and the Vancouver, Washington Columbian newspaper, lives in Vancouver when not exploring and discovering the Northwest.
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