A Washington rodeo town with a city-slicker side
Classy Cowboy Day Trip: Ellensburg, WA
José Mandojana
Ride 'em cowgirl: Rhinestone Rodeo Queens gallop gracefully for crowds at the Ellensburg Rodeo, one of the top 10 in the nation.

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). 


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.

José Mandojana
Riled up from the rodeo? Hop on your own horse for a riding lesson with Laurie Rinck of Get Ride’N.

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.

José Mandojana
Sip on a real cowboy beer like Rodeo Pale at Iron Horse Brewery–the locals’ favorite watering hole in Ellensburg, WA.

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.

José Mandojana
There is no calorie-counting in a cowboy’s life — or on your vacation. Hit Rodeo City Bar-B-Q’s for juicy pulled pork sandwiches and smoky spice-rubbed ribs.

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

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