Fall is yeehaw time in this little Central Washington town, when cowboys climb aboard 2,000-pound bulls at the Ellensburg Rodeo, one of the top 10 in the nation.
Drive from Seattle: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Human pop.: 18,000
Horse pop.: 4,000
Pro cowboys in the rodeo: 500
Minimum bull ride: 8 seconds
Overheard in the bleachers: “Ouch. That’s gotta hurt.”
Dress code: Skin-tight “cowboy cut” Wranglers, dusty square-toe boots, pressed plaid western shirt, and a wide white smile.
Don your own duds: Colorful shirts and chaps on the cheap at the Ellensburg Goodwill Store (400 W. Washington Ave.; 509/925-4704).
Local treasure: The Ellensburg blue—a rare sky blue agate hiding in the foothills above town. Pay $5 to search 160 acres of private land on the Rock’N’Tomahawk Ranch (reservations required; 509/962-2403).
Tired of horses? Chat with chimps (!) at CWU’s Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute. Learn to sign and talk with Tatu, Dar, and Loulis (weekends through Nov 28; $11; 509/963-2244).
THINGS TO DO IN ELLENBURG, WA
Real-deal rodeo: It doesn’t get more Wild West than the Ellensburg Rodeo: a rhinestone Rodeo Queen galloping around the arena; bull riders bursting out of the chutes; a not-to-be-missed post-rodeo party where you can two-step with the cowboys. Need a break from the wrangling? Outside the arena is the Kittitas County Fair, where small-town charm meets supersize fried food. Rodeo: Sep 3–6; from $15; 800/637-2444. County fair: Sep 2–6; $7; 509/962-7639.
Saddle up: Inspired to hop on a horse yourself? Laurie Rinck of Get Ride’N will teach you how to ride outside her red barn overlooking the snow-dusted Stuart Range. Then she’ll lead you and your pretty pony through pine-studded meadows. $45 per hour; reservations required; 509/674-8015.
Put back a pint: All stools are typically taken along the rustic metal-and-wood bar at Iron Horse Brewery—the locals’ favorite watering hole for Rodeo Pale, High Five Hefe, and Quilter’s Irish Death. Try a few in the $9 sampler with six 6-ounce pours. 1000 N. Prospect St.; 509/933-3134.
Eat like a country boy: It’s not all cotton candy and hot dogs—Ellensburg has its share of sophisticated eateries. But come cowboy season, how can you resist Rodeo City Bar-B-Q’s juicy pulled pork sandwiches and smoky spice-rubbed ribs? Plus cold lemonade in a glass cowboy boot, to boot. Check out the back room—graced by portraits of rodeo queens through the decades. $; 204 N. Main St.; 509/962-2727.
The city-slicker side of town
- Dine like a king: Sazon ($$; 412 N. Main St.; 509/925-2506) is a light-flooded space with soaring ceilings and a spare but warm Santa Fe vibe. The menu goes way beyond baked beans, with chile garlic shrimp and Sonoran crab cakes with a kick.
- Washington's best wine: As the gateway to Washington’s ever-growing wine country, Ellensburg may be the place to discover gems you’d have a hard time finding, even in Seattle. Greg Beach offers a killer lineup at his Valley Cafe and Wine Shop ($$; 105 W. 3rd Ave.; 509/925-3050), and WineWorks ($; closed Sun–Mon; 606 N. Main St.; 509/962-8463) has a new wine bar in a cute, old yellow house.
- Elegant art : You might expect kitschy portraits of cowboys and Indians to dominate Ellensburg’s arts scene, but a visit to Gallery One Visual Arts Center (free; 408 N. Pearl St.; 509/925-2670) reveals anything but. Likewise, the Clymer Museum of Art (free; 416 N. Pearl St.; 509/962-6416) has rotating contemporary exhibits like this month’s State of the Art: Western Design Today. And the famed front yard (and private home) known as Dick and Jane’s Spot (101 N. Pearl St.; reflectorart.com) is worth a drive by.
Make it a weekend
- For that big-sky, fluffy-cloud country feel, spend the night at the Winery at Red Hawk on the River. The luxurious three-bedroom Victorian cottage sits on 250 acres of golden fields that ramble down to the Yakima River. From $195; two-night minimum; 70N. 2nd St., Thorp 509/ 899-1413.