Northwest Roadtrip: Seattle to Walla Walla
By Kurt Jacobson
Leaving Seattle’s airport behind, my wife and I set off on a road trip through the Yakima Valley, Walla Walla, and back to see what’s new in the Northwest. I had lived in Washington during the 1980s and hadn’t driven our proposed route in years. I yearned to see what had changed.
The drive from Seattle to Walla Walla offers a dramatic change in landscapes and people. After landing in Seattle we gazed upon Mount Rainier knowing our drive would take us under its watchful gaze.
The drive up Snoqualmie Pass is a thick-green blur. The mowed-down patches of timber are not seen from I-90 heading west. Instead, we saw tall cedar and fir trees blanketing the steep slopes looking like an untouched virgin forest.
Our plan was to take a guided afternoon trip through one of America’s most impressive wine regions. In three decades the Walla Walla area has seen their famous onions make room for over 120 wineries. Most of these wineries have opened in the last 5-7 years.
I had been in Walla Walla for a travel writer’s event in 2016 and was given a sample of what was happening to this sleepy town at the foot of the Blue Mountains, but needed a second taste.
I vowed to come back and take an in-depth look, not knowing it would take two full years to return. In that two years, the number of wine tasting rooms in downtown Walla Walla had mushroomed from about 12 to an impressive 30+. Business is booming!
We pulled into our VRBO rental cottage at 10:30 a.m., in time to meet our hosts, Mike and Tyree. They had moved to Walla Walla from Seattle to escape the rain and crowds three years ago. They love the small town life, lack of traffic, and friendly locals in their new hometown.
Not your average ride
Our driver, Daylan, picked us up at the rental cottage in his 1928 Ford Model T that he and two friends rebuilt when he was still in high school. After getting the Ford road ready, he participated in the Great Race from coast-to-coast for the next three years to raise money for college. The old Ford had plenty of life left in it for our trip around Walla Walla.
We took off with the top down for the airport where Daylan told us “The old World War ll air base is now a vibrant part of Walla Walla’s business scene. Our first stop is Palencia Winery to show you the incubator program.”
We found out this incubator program gives new winemakers a lease that allows them up to six years to try their hand in the winemaking business in a low-cost building of their own.
Victor Palencia started working in wineries at 13 years old eager to do any job needed to get a foot in the door. His dedication to the craft of winemaking was obvious from the first sip of his Abariño to the last tastes of his delicious red wines.
Climbing the barrels
Next stop was to meet winemaker Chuck Reininger, a former ice climber. I was impressed with a photo of a dangling ice climber with Mt. Rainier in the background. During our visit Chuck took us into the barrel room and scampered up a stack of barrels six-high in flip-flops to snag a taste for us. He hasn’t lost the skill of climbing!
Walla Walla has much more than wine to show off. This quiet town has several parks for locals and visitors alike. Pioneer Park has a creek, pond, aviary, and children’s playground worth checking out.
We were impressed with the aviary where a stunning all-white peacock fanned its tail feathers for the amusement of us and two young boys.
Downtown Walla Walla attracts shoppers, wine lovers, and diners to enjoy this vibrant core. Not many towns of this size can boast as few vacant storefronts and loads of visitors spending tourist dollars. While downtown, don't miss breakfast, lunch, or dinner at the Walla Walla Bread Company.
Owner, chef, and baker Michael Kline not only bakes some of the best bread and pastries I have had anywhere; he also serves up the tastiest waffle ever. Dubbed “the waffle box” this yeasted waffle offers 17 savory or sweet toppings to customize it to your delight.
Michael is easy to spot, just look for the good-looking guy with tattoos on his arms, probably by the ovens.
Leaving our comfy cottage for the trip back to Seattle was sweet sorrow. We stopped in the sunny town of Prosser, an hour and a half west, to check out the farmer’s market. About a dozen booths were selling wine, veggies, plants, decorative signs, and micro-greens with planting kits.
I gladly bought a planting kit from Nicole Mozingo to grow my own micro-greens indoors and can’t wait to see the results.
At the far end of the market, I heard a woman ask a little girl “Is that a baby chicken”? The girl told her “No it’s my baby turkey and it’s only 16 days old.” I’d never seen a baby turkey and asked if I could photograph the little bird that had been happily strutting about in the grass. It’s not every day you see a baby turkey in the grass.
With fresh cherries, a planting kit, and photos obtained, we left the market and headed out for Seattle. On the way we stopped in Roslyn, to see the town the TV sitcom Northern Exposure made famous.
I had driven by the Roslyn exit dozens of times over the last 30 years and finally was going to see the old mining town. Some five minutes off of I-90 we pulled in and took a look.
The sun was shining down on tourists crowding cafes, shops, and sidewalk on a gorgeous Memorial Day Weekend.
Chris the DJ
At one storefront we saw the radio station booth where Chris the DJ spun records and wisdom from the Northern Exposure television show. We checked out a couple of shops selling local products and touristy knick-knacks before grabbing lunch at the popular Roslyn Mexican Grill.
The chips and salsa arrived piping hot and tasty, but the star of lunch was the asparagus and morel mushroom chile relleno.
With Roslyn explored, it was time to head to Seattle for our luxury stay at Hotel Monaco. A spring or summer day without rain in Seattle is a winner in my book, and we appreciated the partly cloudy dry-day on arrival.
To market to market to buy a fat pig
After parking the car with valet and unpacking we hit the streets for the 10-minute walk to Pike Place Market. This market is one of downtown Seattle’s biggest attractions.
A stop at the Athenian restaurant at the market for a bowl of steamer clams is a must. As seen in Sleepless in Seattle, we too sat at the counter eschewing the waterfront view in favor of watching the cooks. This 1909 restaurant didn’t disappoint, as we left the restaurant to see the recent expansion of the market.
The next day proved to be perfect weather for walking downtown Seattle. For years I’ve noticed the homeless population and always buy a paper called Real Change from one of the lucky homeless people that seek a way out life on the street. I hope other visitors will buy a paper from these humble folks that are seeking to better their life and Seattle too.
To the East side of town
I had heard that Bellevue’s botanical gardens were a great place for a walk in nature. Set amongst 57 acres of trees, meadows, and flowers, the garden was a magnet for families with young children. Admission is free and it’s easy to spend an hour or more walking under towering native trees. We enjoyed this break from the streets of Seattle, before returning for lunch.
After lunch in the Pike Place Market, we headed to the waterfront to hop the Bainbridge Island Ferry. For a paltry $8.35 each, we were taken to the town of Winslow as the sun lit up Seattle and the Puget Sound. The view of Seattle while steaming westward is worth the price of the ticket.
In Winslow, we walked to the core of downtown to see what everyone was up to. The perfect weather had brought out hundreds of visitors to eat, drink, and be merry. Near the ferry landing, we saw bicyclists saddling up with rental bikes for riding the Island at the Bike Barn.
Downtown, most of the crowd seemed to be in line at Mora Creamery. We judged the line at Mora to be a 20-minute wait to get to the ice cream counter and we passed.
Winslow and Bainbridge Island have top-notch restaurants, lodging, and attractions that bring visitors from all over the world.
Many head to the famous Bloedel Reserve, a public garden open year round with 150 acres to explore. We had seen the Reserve twice before so after settling on Winslow exploring headed back to Seattle.
A very big mountain
Mount Rainier was showing off its height and snowfields as the ferry motored back to Seattle. Most passengers were on the outside decks enjoying the fresh air and views.
After disembarking we headed to the Hotel Monaco for the free happy hour before going to the Westlake District and Belltown to cue up for dinner at Dahlia by star chef Tom Douglas.
For our farewell Seattle dinner, we devoured an order of mushroom toast with fresh morels then moved on to a sampling of smoked black cod. For dessert, we had what some say is the best coconut cream pie in the US, Tom’s triple coconut cream pie. If I was on death row and granted a last meal, this pie would be what I’d order, it’s that good!
After dinner, we walked all the way through Belltown, then down to the waterfront and up to Pike Place Market. Coffee drinkers were still hanging out at the original Starbucks on Pike Place even though it was 7:30 at night. It had been a great trip, but we needed to start packing for our flight out the next morning.
Washington State has some of the best sights, wineries, restaurants, mountains, and lots of water in the U.S. to experience. Most the changes I saw on this trip were positive, especially the growth of the wine industry.
No wonder I keep going back for more.
Kurt Jacobson lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and spent many years as a professional chef. Now he travels the world and shares his stories here and on other travel websites.