Looking for beautiful wildlife habitats, mysterious plains, plentiful outdoor opportunities or perhaps the inner-workings of the state’s legislative process? All of these attractions and more can be found along the highways and byways of scenic Thurston County. Let’s go!
Since Thurston County is host to the state capitol of Olympia, it’s a fairly accessible county to visit. Interstate-5, US-101/US-12 and SR-507 are all great routes into and through the county. That said, as Olympia plays such an important role in the operations of Washington State, it can sometimes be a bit crowded getting around the area. The keys to successful navigation are avoiding typical rush hours and knowing the back ways. However, if you’re specifically heading into Olympia proper, you might end up waiting in a bit of traffic. No one likes a backup, but since the area has so many great things to see and do, sometimes a little extra wait is worth it.
Since I’m coming from the Seattle area, I typically head south on I-5. When I have extra time, my favorite route is to come down from the north via beautiful US-101. The cross-section of the state you get to see on that highway is breathtaking and well worth the detour. However, since I’m typically heading either into Olympia or further south, I-5 is my regular approach. Other than the aforementioned Olympia traffic, I have no issues with this route as it leads directly through the gorgeous lands of the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, located just off the freeway near the city of Lacey.
For years, I’ve been caught up in the mind-numbing pulse of I-5 traffic. I’ve always made note of how beautiful the areas around Lacey are, but have never really made the effort to investigate. I’ve simply kept up with the flow of traffic and continued on to my destination. But the times, they are a-changin’ and I’m making a concerted effort to stop at all of the roadside attractions and back-road locales I can. Life is just too short to keep to the main roads. And with that in mind, I pulled off of I-5 at Exit 114 and drove towards the most stunning wildlife refuge…
Established in 1974 and located in the Nisqually River Delta, the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is an absolutely gorgeous swath of land and habitat types. The freshwater of the Nisqually River and saltwater of Puget Sound combine in this area, resulting in a large variety of plant and animal life. On my recent visit, I saw all manner of birds, including a very majestic Blue Heron as well an amazing microcosm of life in the marshlands. The Visitor Center was unfortunately closed on my visit, but I was still able to hang out on their back observation deck and enjoy the scene. I was there near dusk and the sunset was absolutely peaceful and serene. Sigh… There are several small hikes in the area, but be sure to check out the Twin Barns Loop Trail and its lovely boardwalk. (No dogs allowed.)
After walking along the boardwalk and taking in all the beautiful scenery, I was getting a little hungry. I noticed a few restaurants and shops on the other side of the I-5 exit, so I decided to investigate. As I’m always in the market for an old-school burger, I was happy to come upon the Medicine Creek Café, owned and operated by longtime stewards of the area, the Nisqually Tribe. I’m so glad I stopped in as the burger and accompanying beer were great and they had fried pickles. SCORE! Amazing scenery and a tasty burger, all off of an unassuming highway exit. You just never know what you’re going to find…
For other tasty food options while in the Lacey area, head to Ricardo’s Steak & Seafood for delicious lobster bisque and a juicy steak or NW chain, Hops-n-Drops if you’d like to keep with the tasty burger theme. If you’re in need of tasty beverages, Lacey has a few great spots to check out:
- If you love wowing your friends with unique drink concoctions, head to Salish Sea Organic Liqueurs and check out their expansive selection of small-batch liqueurs. Made with all organic ingredients, they are delicious on their own or in any number of drink combinations. Additionally, the staff was incredibly cool and happy to chat all things beverage. I brought home the Honeybush, Rose, Lavender and Hibiscus liqueurs and have been mad-sciencing tasty cocktails ever since. (Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.)
- If you’re not driving, consider doing a tasting room crawl at Axis Meads, located in the same complex as Salish Sea Organic Liqueurs. They specialize in handcrafted honey meads made with delicious herbs and spices. Try the lavender mead! (Open Fridays and Saturdays)
- Directly next door to Salish Sea Organic Liqueurs, you’ll find the Stottle Winery tasting room. Featuring delicious wines produced from Washington grapes, they can also be found in Hoodsport, in lovely Mason County. Try their Tempranillo! (Closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
- Just a little further south in Lacey, you’ll find Top Rung Brewing. Owned and operated by two local firemen, they offer small-batch craft brews as well as seasonal varieties. Try the Lacey Lager and My Dog Scout Stout! (Tasting room is family and pet friendly. Local food trucks featured. Closed Mondays.)
- And just a little further still, you’ll find the Madsen Family Cellars tasting room and winery. A local winery featuring Washington-grown grapes, they have wines to suit a variety of palates. The Beri’s Delight Riesling (named after the owner’s mother) and their 2010 Sangiovese are both lovely. (Closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
- Not too far from the Nisqually National Wildlife Reserve, look for the Medicine Creek Winery. Located in an idyllic farm setting in the Nisqually Valley, they feature red wines in their very unique 1800s New Orleans brothel-themed barn. (Which includes a dance floor and stagecoach!) (Saturday – Sunday, Noon – 5pm)
Lacey sometimes gets outshined by the glow of its big-time neighbor, Olympia. However, there are many beautiful areas to visit before dipping your toe in the excitement of the state capitol. A few places to enjoy before you head up the Capitol steps:
- There are five freshwater lakes in Lacey proper and Long Lake Park is a great one to check out. They have a large beach area with swimming and beach volleyball and the park is adjacent to a large, forested area with walking trails.
- Located directly on Puget Sound, Tolmie State Park offers beautiful forested hikes, salt-water fishing, clamming and crabbing opportunities as well as a serene getaway from the hectic pace of nearby city life. (Discover Pass required)
- Head to the Lacey Museum to learn about the town, culture and life of local residents from the 1800s and into the present day. And don’t miss their Sasquatch Revealed exhibit taking place from May 31st until September 29th! (Wednesday – Saturday, 10am – 4pm)
I grew up in Washington State and have vivid memories of seeing television ads for Olympia Beer with the ever-present “It’s the water” voice-over. Granted, Olympia Beer was technically produced in neighboring Tumwater, but it will always be synonymous with Olympia for me. (Same goes for Rainier Beer and Mt. Rainier.) Yes, Olympia also happens to be the state capitol and the area boasts a rich history for both Native American and western settlement. These are kind of important points and worthy of exploration and contemplation for any Washingtonian, including myself. That said, after my recent trek through Olympia and Thurston County, it’ll always be about the water, but now so much more…
You can’t miss Olympia as you’re driving along the I-5 corridor. The freeway cuts directly through the city and the state capitol can easily be seen, rising stately above the downtown area. (The Legislature Building is 287 feet tall and the tallest free-standing masonry dome in the country!) There are so many things to see and do in Olympia, but a fine place to start is indeed at the capitol.
The Washington State Capitol, with its beautifully manicured grounds, is a great place to visit any time of the year. (On the National Register of Historic Places) If you’re there late morning or early afternoon, bone up on your governmental knowledge and take a guided tour of the beautiful Legislative Building – Or enjoy the tour from the comfort of your desktop with their virtual tour. If you’re curious of how the Washington Supreme Court operates, you can view oral arguments in the courtroom of the imposing Temple of Justice building, located directly across from the Legislative Building. (The sessions are also broadcast live on Washington’s Public Affairs Station, TVW.) Legislative Building tours run on the hour from 10am to 3pm during the week and 11am to 3pm on weekends. The Temple of Justice is open on weekdays from 8am to 5pm. It is also possible to tour the oldest building on the capitol grounds, the Governor’s Mansion (c. 1909) on most Wednesdays.
If you happen to be visiting outside of regular business hours, there is still much to see and do. Check out the beautiful campus grounds, which are especially lovely in the spring with a large variety of flowering trees. The campus is also much less crowded after regular hours and you’ll have plenty of time to view the many monuments, memorials and art installations, not to mention the sweeping views of Capitol Lake and the West Bay of Budd Inlet from the majestic Capitol Steps. There is also access to beautiful walking and hiking paths leading down to Capitol Lake and around adjacent Heritage Park.
Not too far from the Capitol and on the West Bay of Budd Inlet, you’ll find Percival Landing. It’s one of three waterfront parks and conveniently close to the stellar Olympia Farmers Market. (Thurs – Sun, 10am – 3pm – April to Oct) The market and its surrounding areas are a goldmine of great shops, restaurants, waterfront access and an overall excellent way to spend a day. A permanent structure housing bakers, farmers, artists, butchers and more makes even rainy-day shopping fun and it’s hard to walk away without a big bag of goodies. They also have a covered stage with regular live music, several food vendors with outdoor seating and a very lovely manicured garden. Some of the spots I enjoyed on my recent visit:
- There are several great food vendors to try, but since Dingey’s Puget Sound Cuisine had homemade crab cakes on the menu, how could I say no? Since I knew I’d be sampling more cuisine that day, I ordered the small plate and as soon as I dug in, I regretted not getting the bigger one. Next visit!
- The jerky at Stewart’s Meats was fabulous and the cuts of meat in their butcher case looked very tasty. Next time I’ll be bringing home some steaks as well as more of their maple beef jerky (Located inside the Market and at their main location in nearby Yelm)
- The cheddar and chive cheese curds at TUNaWERTH Creamery were delicious. Next time I plan on bringing home some of their fresh cottage cheese. Mini cheese curds!
- Directly across from the market, hit up the Dancing Goat Coffee Bar (also in Lacey) for a great cup of locally roasted coffee. Their flagship coffeehouse, the Batdorf & Bronson Coffeehouse is located in nearby downtown Olympia and well worth seeking out and if you consider yourself a coffee aficionado, head to the nearby Batdorf & Bronson Tasting Room to sample coffees from growing regions around the globe. (Located a couple blocks from the Farmers Market)
- Let it be stated for the record that I have a weakness for macarons. If you suffer the same affliction, stop in at Macarons by Mel, located across from the Market and enjoy macaron greatness.
- Located a few blocks down from the market, Olympia Seafood Co. sells the freshest of fresh seafood out of their warehouse shop. The list of fish they carry is impressive and their clam chowder and smoked salmon spread are absolutely delicious. I’m pretty sure I’d put that spread on anything!
If you’re interested in checking out the farmers in their home setting, these farms are all located in close proximity of the Olympia area and offer a fun day of exploring:
- The Johnson Berry Farm Stand sells their delicious wares online and at the Olympia Farmers Market, but you can stop by their farm stand and enjoy the freshest of the fresh berries when in season. (Check website for hours and dates) They can also be found at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, the Puyallup Farmers Market and the Ballard Farmers Market.
- Evergreen Valley Lavender Farm is open during the harvest season from mid-June through mid-August. (Check website for hours and dates) They offer many products in the gift shop featuring their lavender and are a very fragrant stop to make on a warm summer day.
- Three artesian wells on the property feed the creek for which Ashley Creek Farm is named. Specializing in garlic, squash, pumpkins, corn, flowers and more, the farm is a great place to visit any time of year. Their store is open every day from 9am to 6pm, year-round and they regularly have events to suit the season.
- The Schilter Family Farm features a fall festival with corn mazes and pumpkin patches as well as a Christmas tree farm beginning in late November. They’re located off of Exit 114, on the other side of I-5 and the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Lacey.
Olympia has no shortage of great restaurants and several of them are very close to the Farmers Market. If you’d like to enjoy a delicious meal and possibly a great view of the water, these fine options are within walking distance – or a very quick drive – of the market:
- Classic Olympia dining spot, Budd Bay Café overlooks the West Bay of Budd Inlet and sits next to the historic Fiddlehead Marina. (Note to self: They do have limited live-aboard slips available…) The seafood is delicious and watching the sailboats and my future yacht tool around the bay is an excellent way to pass the time. After your meal, take a stroll over to Percival Landing and check out the 100-year old Sand Man Tugboat and floating museum. (Open to the public and free to visit – On the National Register of Historic Places.)
- The Dockside Bistro & Wine Bar features locally sourced ingredients in a delicious fusion of European and Southeast Asian styles. The wine selection is great and they also feature a full bar with craft cocktails. Open for lunch and dinner.
- A local Olympia favorite since 1924 and recently revamped, the Olympia Oyster House serves up several varieties and preparations of delicious, local oysters and shellfish. Try any of the baked oyster dishes! Located near Percival Landing and the Sand Man Tugboat. Open for lunch and dinner and featuring great outdoor seating.
- If you’re looking to keep it casual, stop by the Oly Taproom for a great local brew and a view of the bay from their outdoor seating area. They also offer a limited pizza menu.
- NW favorite, Anthony’s Homeport is just across from the market on Budd Inlet with views of the marina and the Port Plaza (Port Plaza has a public dock and offers short term moorage) After a delicious meal of perhaps pan-fried oysters or Dungeness crab cakes, be sure to climb the steps of the viewing tower located near the docks. The view is wonderful!
The historic, downtown core of Olympia is a great place to visit, filled with funky shops, clubs, restaurants, murals, artesian wells and more. (The historic downtown area is on the National Register of Historic Places) It’s an incredibly eclectic mix of history and commerce and is a must for experiencing the full flavor of the area. Here’s a small handful of the many cool spots in the downtown area:
- Olympia’s oldest brewpub (since 1993), the Fish Tale Brewpub is an excellent place to visit for pub fare and tasty brews from nearby Fish Brewing Company. (Or cider from their sister cider-brewing company, Spire Mountain.) Featuring great burgers, pub favorites like shepherd’s pie and delicious local seafood, they’re a perfect stop along your downtown tour. They also have a taproom in the Woodinville area.
- Housed inside the historic 222 Market on Capitol Way North are a very cool collection of shops and restaurants. Hit up the Chelsea Farms Oyster Bar for all variety of oysters along with fresh chowder, shrimp and grits, craft cocktails and more – And then head directly across the hall and sample the excellent offerings from local distillery, Shoebox Spirits. (While there, I picked up a delicious bloody Mary mix from The Real Dill to go with their excellent, Single Malt Vodka. The staff is also fabulous! HOT UPDATE: I stopped by the other day and they’re moving the entire operation to Tumwater! Stay tuned to their Facebook Page for updates.) For dessert, consider a homemade scoop from Sofie’s Scoops Gelateria, located just around the hallway. And a must-try for any visit to the 222 Market are any of the offerings from French-style bakery and café, The Bread Peddler. Also part of the Bread Peddler family and located in 222 Market is the Peddler Bistro. (Check Bread Peddler website as hours/days vary for each spot)
- The appropriately named Well 80 Artesian Brewing sits atop one of Olympia’s famous artesian wells by the name of… Well 80. Paying homage to the great brewing tradition of the Olympia and Tumwater areas, Well 80 brews craft beers in the tradition of Olympia Beer founder, Leopold Schmidt. So much so, one of their recent small-batch brews goes by the name of ‘Leopold’s #1 Lager’ and follows a recipe from one of Leopold’s recently discovered, handwritten notebooks. (Translated from German!) It was also created in partnership with a former brewmaster from Olympia Beer, Paul Knight. (Brewmaster from 1974 – 1997. That’s a lot of brewing!) Stop in and try this tribute to the origins of now famous, Olympia Beer before it’s gone – and grab one of their delicious burgers (w/tots!) or pizzas to enjoy with it! The lager truly is delicious and won’t be around long as they only produced a relatively small batch. Don’t miss out on tasting a bit of brewing history!
- On the topic of artesian wells (and the mysterious Artesians who make the water), the Jefferson Street Well, located near a parking lot just off the Corner of Jefferson Street and 4th Avenue, is an awesome and publicly accessible artesian well. Fill up your water bottle and bask in the pristine freshness of ancient waters bubbling up from deep below the surface. And keep an eye out for Artesians…
If all that looking for Artesians has made you hungry – and thirsty – there are many more places in the downtown area to check out:
- The McMenamins Spar Café is another beer-brewing establishment making great use of an onsite artesian well. (Well water estimated to be about 3,300 years old, according to hydrology studies) The Spar Café is a long time fixture of the downtown Olympia area and is now owned by the northwest McMenamin family. They specialize in restoring and renovating beloved NW sites into restaurants and cool inns. The Spar Café is no exception and is a great place to stop for a meal and an artesian brew. Located on 4th Avenue in downtown Olympia.
- Three Magnets Brewing Co. is a great local brewpub with a creative menu including scratch pimento cheese dip, pork belly sliders, lamb burgers and more. Located about a block behind Fish Tale Brewing on Franklin Street.
- Over a few blocks from downtown and overlooking the lovely Capitol Lake, Swing Wine Bar serves small plates and full dinners along with a nice selection of wines, cocktails and local beers. (Closed Sundays)
- Serving diner-style delicacies to Olympians for generations, King Solomon’s Reef offers delicious food, kitsch and cocktails from their “Breakfast in the front, party in the back!” location on 4th Avenue in downtown Olympia.
- Just down from King Solomon’s Reef is the Octapas Café, serving inventive, small-plate tapas dishes, house specialties, tasty beverages and regular live music.
- Rush in Alaskan Dumplings was closed on my recent visit, but I’ll be back. If there’s any type of dumpling involved, I need to try it. It’s just a part of my foodie makeup. Furthermore, they serve my favorite type of dumplings, pelmeni. Oh, I’ll definitely be back…
- Housed in the beautiful old Security Building (c. 1927) in downtown Olympia, Dillinger’s Cocktails & Kitchen is an excellent night out. Serving old school cocktails as well as new creations, this is definitely the cool place to imbibe in Olympia. Their food menu echoes the ‘old-school meets new’ vibe and features locally sourced ingredients – and they feature a Sunday evening special prix-fixe meal for $35. You can even hold a private party in the bank’s old vault! Live music on Monday nights.
- If you’re looking for a cool club with regular great music, head to Rhythm and Rye in the downtown corridor and stay out late! Come on – all the cool kids are doin’ it… If a little ivory tickling is more your fancy, stop in at Tipsy Piano Bar and enjoy a few Jazz and Pop standards along with dinner and cocktails. Brunch on the weekends.
- There’s a lot to learn during a trip to downtown or to the Capitol and the Bigalow House Museum can help further your education. Said to be the oldest residence in Olympia (c. 1850s and occupied by generations of the Bigalow family up until 2005), it’s open for tours and is an excellent peek into the lives of one of Olympia’s most influential families. Check out the Olympia Historical Society Events page for tour info.
While there are many fabulous dining and drinking establishments in Olympia, there are also many excellent shops, outdoor activities and cool locales to explore. A handy counterpart to any celebratory pounds one might gain during their Olympia gorge-fest culinary explorations… In addition to the beautiful strolls around the capitol and its surrounds, take a stroll around downtown and take in the scene.
- There are so many excellent local shopping opportunities in the core of downtown Olympia. Hot Toddy features quirky, vintage-inspired clothing and accessories as well as a few pairs of shoes I know I need… The dangerously cool, modern Compass Rose is a lovely gift shop with at least 372 items I really needed. Last Word, a great independent book store with friendly staff and books stuffed into every corner and piled to the ceiling, is somewhere I could get happily lost for hours. Serving Olympia for the past 80 years, Browsers Bookshop is another gem of independent book-selling, set in a beautiful old building with a wrap-around upper floor. The Mouse Trap features delicious cheese and wines and is located next door to Dillinger’s Cocktails. Peacock Vintage on 4th Avenue carries both quirky and elegant antiques – and a very cool collection of owl kitsch. My friend, Emily picked up a very cool vintage map of Chicago on our recent visit. The Archibald Sisters gift shop is an excellent spot to stop if you’re in need of any number of hilarious gifts, funky socks, greeting cards and much more.
- The Chehalis Western Trail is an easy-going, 22-mile (round trip) trail running from Olympia and into rural Thurston County areas. It’s easy to pop on and off, but a good entrance is on 14th Avenue SE, near Chambers Lake in SE Olympia.
- Columbus Park at Black Lake offers great camping, swimming, fishing and boating opportunities in West Olympia. An oasis in the city, the park has been operating since 1926 and is a very popular site for year-round recreation.
- If you’d like to upgrade from the tent or camper, check out the lovely Swantown Inn & Spa located in a quiet neighborhood in SE Olympia. Built in 1887 and on city and state historical registers, it offers bed and breakfast along with several day spa services. #Dreamy
- It is no secret that I love boats. It’s an even lesser guarded secret that I want to own a boat… In the meantime, I’m considering living out my nautical fantasies on one of the Mystic Journeys Sailboat Charter I’m presently eyeing the “Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival Cruise” 6-day tour. I’m not attracted to the big cruise ship shenanigans, but this is a cruise I could get on board with… literally. Ba-doom-ching! Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week! Or at least for a few more paragraphs… Try the artesian beers!
- Priest Point Park is a large park in NE Olympia with saltwater shoreline at Ellis Cove, several miles of hiking trails and day-use activities. Long a part of the indigenous peoples’ lives, the area was also once a church and a mission in the mid-1800s.
- The campus at nearby Evergreen College is just as the name describes: Evergreen. Beautiful trees everywhere, plenty of trails, a private beach and even an organic farm are all features of the campus grounds. Offering customizable Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees, it’s a very unique school with a unique approach to teaching and learning. Even if your studies are behind you, it’s a beautiful place to explore, any time of year.
Just southwest of the Olympia core lies the small city of Tumwater. Often considered part of Olympia, it is a fully functioning and very important city, all on its own. Situated where the Deschutes River flows into Budd Inlet, it has long been a pivotal area for trade and commerce for both Native Americans and western settlers.
One of the most important residents of the Tumwater area – and of Washington State altogether – was George Washington Bush. (No relation to the former Bush presidents) Had this man and his family not traveled (and largely funded) an expedition on the Oregon Trail from Missouri, Washington might not be the state it is today.
Bush, whose father was of African descent and mother, an Irish-American servant, was one of the first multiracial settlers in the northwest. In 1844, he and the white families he was traveling with – all friends and neighbors from Missouri – had initially planned to settle in Oregon. However, due to racial prejudices barring settlements of African-Americans, they were forced to alter their plans. The families didn’t want to separate so Bush and Michael Simmons, another incredibly instrumental person in the story of Washington State, moved the entire party and eventually settled in the Puget Sound area, near Deschutes Falls in 1845.
Along the way to the Olympia area, they also spent time north of the Columbia River in what is now Clark County. South of the river was considered Oregon County and was under joint US and British control. North of the river was controlled by the British-run Hudson’s Bay Company who didn’t discriminate against Bush and his family. The men worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company during this time and it became a valuable connection when navigating the tough times to come.
Bush and his family had settled further up the Deschutes River in prairie land they named Bush Prairie. During their time in the area, he and his wife, Isabella, were instrumental in helping their neighbors through tough winters and forging relationships between the Nisqually Tribe and the Hudson’s Bay Company. They also offered free lodging to travelers and immigrants coming through the area and regularly gave away free grain and food to neighbors. Through their relationship with the Nisqually tribe and Chief Leschi, they learned the Nisqually language and the Nisqually taught them about local plants, seafood and more. These relationships and their generosity to friends and local residents were key in the community growing and beginning to thrive; key to the community gaining the strength to grow into a state. Had Bush and his family not given so freely, we very well might not have the Washington State we enjoy today.
After the 1846 Oregon Treaty brought the Washington Territory into Oregon, there was worry that Bush and his family would be unable to keep their land due to Oregon’s discriminatory laws. However, after the Washington Territory was separated from Oregon in 1853, the many people Bush had helped through the years, some of whom had become very influential, helped to get an exception via Congress to ensure his family would retain the Bush Prairie land and property. Unfortunately, the fight wasn’t over and early Washington State leaders wanted to ban non-whites from the area. It was then that Bush’s longtime friend and supporter, Michael Simmons, led a strong opposition and ensured the state did not adopt the exclusionary laws.
George Bush and his wife, Isabella are now buried in Tumwater at the Bush/Union/Pioneer/Calvary Cemetery. The cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a fine place to pay tribute to Bush and all of the Washingtonians who made this state into the wonderful place it is today.
The many artesian wells in the greater Olympia and Tumwater areas have long supplied water to local residents. As previously described, they’re still providing water – and in turn, delicious beer – to the area. Beer was first brewed in Tumwater in 1896 at the Olympia Brewing Company, founded by Leopold Schmidt. (Originally named ‘Capital Brewing Company’) The brewery is said to have drawn their famous waters from a series of 26 artesian wells located below the brewery. That’s a lot of water! Sadly, the brewery closed in 2003, but you can still visit adjacent Tumwater Falls Park and beautiful Deschutes River. From this location, you can see not only the Old Brewhouse, but are able to stand front and center before the epic Tumwater falls as they cascade into the river. Cheers to those Artesians! (Click HERE for a great video tour of the Old Brewhouse and interview with the last Olympia Brewery brewmaster, Paul Knight.)
After enjoying the beautiful falls and taking in the scene, be sure to check out the park. Walk through the well-manicured native plants garden and stroll alongside the Deschutes River on the beautiful riverside path. Also be sure to locate the Leopold Schmidt monument which pays tribute to Tumwater and Olympia’s first western settlers, including the remarkable, George Washington Bush. To further your knowledge of Tumwater’s history, make a visit to the nearby Schmidt House and check out the Schmidt House tour. (On the National Register of Historic Places)
Just outside the downtown Tumwater area and close to the very interesting Olympic Flight Museum at the Olympia Regional Airport, lies the Tumwater Warehouse District and Deschutes Landing. There are several beverage and foodie stops to make in the Warehouse District area and it makes for a unique day out. A few great spots to add to your outing:
- Tart Cider and tasting room features delicious hard cider varieties made from Washington State apples and fruit juices. Kid and dog friendly. Open Thursday – Sunday. Check website for hours.
- Matchless Brewing is a very cool taproom and brewery featuring rotating taps and all things hoppy. Kid and dog friendly with food trucks providing sustenance. (Open Wednesday – Sunday, with a 7pm curfew for kids)
- Add to your Warehouse District taproom crawl and stop by Triceratops Brewing Company and enjoy their Pennsyltucky Lagers or Sammy IPA. (Closed Monday – Wednesday)
- Located across from the airport, Spuds Produce features local gourmet and specialty wares along with fresh produce, an excellent craft beer section, meats and cheeses. On my last visit, I picked up some excellent smoked albacore tuna from Tumwater’s Briney Sea Delicaseas. Yum! (Check out the original Spuds Produce location in Olympia, too!)
To investigate one of the state’s more mysterious features, head south on I-5 towards the Capitol State Forest and the ever-intriguing, grassy prairie lands of the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve. (A National Natural Landmark, along with the nearby Nisqually River Delta.) Off of I-5, take Exit 95 and turn west onto SR-121. (Maytown Road SW) toward Littlerock. After a lovely meander through the back-roads, you’ll arrive at a landscape that has long puzzled scientists and amazed visitors.
Many theories as to the nature of the mounds have been entertained for generations. Burial mounds, earthquakes, flood sediments, pocket gophers excavating nest chambers and the most popular theory, glacial melt-water causing erosion between the trees and shrubs, have all been explored. What scientists do know is the mounds were somehow formed when ice-age glaciers began receding 16,500 years ago. At any rate, they’re fascinating and just a little bit eerie to take in as you look out over the prairie.
Visiting the Mima Mounds is quite an experience. Trails wind in and around the mounds and there are observations decks which allow you to look out over the landscape and marvel at the formations. The area is open from 8:30 to 5:30pm, October to March and until 8:30pm from April to September. A Discover Pass is required. (Note: Don’t be alarmed if you hear gunshot when first arriving in the parking area. There is an outdoor gun range on the opposite side of the mounds. It’s a good distance away and they’re shooting in the opposite direction, but there can be a bit of an echo. Head to the left after entering the prairie area and you’ll get mostly out of earshot.)
If you’re looking to make a longer trip of your Mima Mound investigations, a great place to camp and further investigate the area is nearby Millersylvania State Park. Largely built by the CCCs in the 1930’s, it’s a step back in time with its log-constructed kitchen shelters, summertime snack bar and tree-lined shorelines. (On the National Register of Historic Places) There’s a non-motorized boat launch, kayak and canoe rentals, swimming, camping, great hiking paths through the neighboring wetlands – so many things to do! (Discover pass required)
If the family isn’t down with the camping plan, check out the Great Wolf Lodge in neighboring Grand Mound. Offering overnight stays as well as limited day-passes, the lodge features an indoor waterpark, an outdoor ropes course, activities for the whole family and many dining and shopping options. And if you’re up for a little geo-cache style adventure, head over to nearby Tenino Grand Mound Road SW (Old Hwy 99) and look for an Oregon Trail marker placed by the Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution in 1916.
Continuing on Old Hwy 99 will bring you to the charming town of Tenino. On the National Register of Historic Places, the downtown core quaintly represents and celebrates the many generations of residents. There is a good variety of commerce and modern convenience, but it effortlessly exists amongst turn of the (last) century buildings and design sense. On my most recent visit, there were both cars and horses parked in the downtown area. Both kinds of horse power! Tenino certainly understands the ‘best of both worlds’ concept.
It would be entirely easy to spend the day enjoying the downtown Tenino scene. A few places to consider as you plan your visit:
- Start your Tenino tour by getting acquainted with the town’s history at the Tenino Depot Museum. Located at Tenino City Park, the museum is housed in what used to be the local train depot building. (c. 1914) They have great displays representing the town’s history, but they also have a cool virtual tour available online.
- The aforementioned Tenino City Park and its very unique Quarry Pool are an absolute must when visiting the area. The park offers camping, hiking and picnicking opportunities, but the coolest feature is the quarry pool. Originally the town’s sandstone quarry in the late 1800s before they struck a spring and it filled up with water, now serves as the community swimming hole. (Pool is open Wednesday – Sunday, noon to 6pm from the end of June through September 1st)
- If you happen to be in Tenino on a summer Saturday, head to the Tenino Farmers Market for all the best of local produce and artisan goods. (Saturdays, May through September, 10am – 3pm – on Olympia Street, near the park)
- The Tenino Antique Mall features a very eclectic array of antiques and vintage wear. There was a little bit of everything tucked into the many stalls. There were SO many things I wanted, but I played it cool. However, I could not say no to a screamin’ deal on a vintage clarinet. That one’s for you, Grandpa Smith! And I promise, I will start playing again…
I’m guessing all the exploring and swimming in quarry pools might make one hungry – and thirsty. I know it did me! (Disclaimer: I didn’t actually swim in the quarry pool. I was very busy buying vintage clarinets… Next time!) Here are a few excellent spots to help curb your appetite:
- Located conveniently next door to a dentist’s office, Aunt Kate’s Chocolates offers a lovely selection of handcrafted chocolates and treats. A section of the shop is also dedicated to tea parties and special tasting events and they carry a nice selection of teas for the occasion. Located on Sussex Avenue in the historic downtown area.
- Just across the street from Aunt Kate’s, grab a cup of coffee and a cupcake at Western Coffee Company & Café. Serving breakfast and lunch, they offer a great menu of classic comfort food, baked goods and great coffee.
- Also serving breakfast and lunch and just down from Western Coffee Co., Sandstone Café serves up great, diner-style fare in a well-loved, old Tenino setting.
- Located in the heart of historic downtown Tenino on Sussex Avenue, Scatter Creek Winery & Brewery offers wine and craft beer in a beautiful, sandstone-walled tasting room. I was in a wine sort of mood the day I visited, but the list of brews was intriguing. Beer will be on my agenda for the next Tenino visit! I did, however, enjoy a great wine-tasting and chat with the very friendly owners. I happily took home bottles of their Valley de Bon Blanco and The Big Jake (Cabernet) and am looking forward to grabbing more on my next visit.
- On your way into Tenino, off of Old Hwy 99 and Tilly Rd SW, stop in at Sandstone Distillery and enjoy a sampling of their handcrafted whiskies, gins and vodkas. (They have a bacon whiskey!) Small-batch distilling in a laid back locale – a great afternoon! They also make Wild Heart sipping vinegars (shrubs) for all of your creative cocktail needs.
- Mentioned earlier in the article and found at the Olympia Farmers Market, TUNaWERTH Creamery is located just before you get to Tenino, off of Old Hwy 99 SE and Melville Street SE. Stop in for their delicious cheeses, yogurts and milk. And those delicious garlic and chives cheddar curds…
Since I was ultimately heading back to the Seattle area, I decided to take Old Hwy 99 back towards Olympia and I-5. Another nice route is to take SR-507 out of Tenino, heading towards Yelm and then SR-510 back to I-5. If you happen to opt for the Old Hwy 99 route, there are a few great places to stop along the way:
- Located off Old Hwy 99 on Offut Road SE, non-profit Wolf Haven International is an amazing place to visit. Reservations are required for a guided, 50-min tour of this sanctuary for captive-born and displaced wolves. They have a ‘Wolves and Wine’ fundraising event coming up on September 28th at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey. (Closed Tues – Thurs)
- If you’re looking for local fishing opportunities, Offutt Lake, located just up the road from Wolf Haven International has a good trout population. And if you don’t happen to catch your dinner, stop in at the nearby Lady of the Lake Public House for some fish and chips, the easy way. The pub is part of the Offut Lake Resort, which offers camping and lodging on the lake.
Should you decide upon the Yelm route, via SR-507, enjoy the scenic pastures and stunning views of Mt. Rainier as you head northwest. Once you arrive in Yelm, there are several great options for food, drink and more in this tiny yet influential town.
- If you’re looking for tasty BBQ, along with delicious breakfast, burgers and more, stop in at The Cattleman and fill up. I recommend their pulled pork and coleslaw. I can’t remember the name of the dish I ordered, but the pulled pork came served on a cornbread base, topped with baked beans and coleslaw – and tots! It was incredibly tasty and very I had plenty left over for lunch the next day!
- Located in historic downtown Yelm, the Masonry Café offers tasty soups, sandwiches, baked goods and more as well as local catering services.
- Burn off the barbecue on the nearby Yelm-Tenino Trail. Once a local railroad line, it boasts 14.5 miles of great walking and biking trail and intersects w/the Chehalis Western Trail out of Olympia.
- If you’re looking for a cool place to stay in Yelm, check out the Prairie Hotel on Prairie Park Lane. Modern rooms with an urban flair. The hotel is right down the street from the comfortable Yelm Cinemas and the funky Uptown Lounge, a 21+ lounge featuring great food, cocktails and live music.
- Featuring a parade, street dance, pie baking contest, food vendors and more, the annual Prairie Days Festival is a great way to celebrate the community with the whole family. (End of June at Yelm City Park)
- Head to Yelm City Park during the warmer months and visit the Yelm Farmers Market. Check out what the local farmers and artisans have to offer. (Saturdays, 10am – 3pm, May 25th – October 26th)
- The Yelm Historical Museum is a fine place to learn about the town’s past as well as that of surrounding areas. After NW explorer, James Longmire settled in the Yelm Prairie area, he set his sights on nearby Mount Rainier. As he carried out his now well-known exploration into the area, Yelm became known as the gateway to Mount Rainier. Learn about this and more of Yelm’s important contributions to the history of the Washington Territory at the museum. (Open noon to 4pm, Wednesday – Saturday, mid-March through mid-November)
- Heading out of Yelm, follow Bald Hill Road from the intersection of SR-507 and SR-510 and head to beautiful Deschutes Falls Park. Enjoy the stunning falls and beautiful surroundings of this tucked-away gem of a park.
- If you’re feeling lucky as you head back up SR-510 towards the I-5 corridor, stop in at Nisqually Red Wind Casino and try your hand at their slots or table games. Or, play it tasty and simply grab a bite at one of their onsite restaurants or lounges.
And back to Seattle it was time to go… Until next time, Thurston County! It’s a given I’ll make many more trips up and down the I-5 corridor, but knowing how many amazing stops await just off the freeway will add so much more potential to the journeys. I just need to be mindful of avoiding that freeway daze and pay closer attention to the back-roads and byways. Maybe I’ll learn about more of the amazing people who helped shape the state into its present form. Perhaps I’ll come upon a gorgeous waterfall or hiking trail I never knew existed. Maybe I’ll avoid a bit of that crazy traffic through the greater Olympia area… So much potential!
On a broader note, not only are explorations around your home town important, but for anywhere you happen to visit. You never know what could be hiding around the corner, waiting to pop out and expand your understanding of the world around you. Take those exits off the freeway you’ve always wondered about. Stop in at that interesting looking café and order something out of your comfort-food zone. Eat the state! Eat the world!!
I Ate the State: Thurston County – Check out the Spotify playlist HERE
The theme for the day was covers of favorite songs…
- If You Love Somebody Set Them Free – Nils Landgren (from 4 Wheel Drive)
- Lady Madonna – Nils Landgren (from 4 Wheel Drive)
- Right Down the Line – Lucius (from NUDES)
- Landslide – Stacey Kent (from Breakfast on the Morning Train)
- River Mann – Lizz Wright (from Freedom & Surrender)
- Just Like Heaven – Kat Edmonson (from Take to the Sky)
- Jesus, Etc. – Puss N Boots (from No Fools, No Fun)
- Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright – Chris Thile, Brad Mehldau (from Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau)
- Falling in Love Again (feat. Alison Krauss) – John Prine, Alison Krauss (from For Better Or Worse)
- Wichita Lineman – Live at RAK – Villagers (from Where Have You Been All My Life?)
- Shine on You Crazy Diamond – Christy Moore (from Listen)
- Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic – Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley (from Djesse Vol. 1)
- God Only Knows – The Langley Schools Music Project (from Innocence and Despair)
- Kid A – Punch Brothers (from Who’s Feeling Young Now?)
- Send My Love (To Your New Lover) – I’m With Her, Paul Kowert (from Send My Love (To Your New Lover) Live)
- Free Fallin’ – Live at the Nokia Theatre, Los Angeles, CA – December 2007 – John Mayer (from Where the Light Is: John Mayer Live in Los Angeles)
- The Sound of Silence – Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony, Seattle, WA – November 2010 – Brandi Carlile, Hanseroff Twins (from Brandi Carlile: Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony)
- Can’t Let Go – Charlie Hunter, Lucy Woodward (from Can’t Let Go)
- What A Wonderful World – Serena Fisseau, Vincent Peirani (from What A Wonderful World)
- She’s Leaving Home (feat. Tori Amos) – Miloš Karadaglić (from Blackbird – The Beatles Album)
- Wish You Were Here – The Milk Carton Kids (from Wish You Were Here)
- New Slang – Alex Guilbert Trio (from On the Ground with the Alex Guilbert Trio)
- America – First Aid Kit (from America)
- Mandolin Rain – Ricky Skaggs, Bruce Hornsby (from Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby)
- The Fool on the Hill – Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 (from The Greatest Hits of Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66)
- Here Comes the Sun – Richie Havens (from Live at the Cellar Door & at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium)
Check out more I Ate the State Adventures:
- Special Edition – Victoria B.C.
- Special Edition – Puerto Vallarta: THE RETURN
- Skagit County
- Snohomish County – Part I (The Mountain Side)
- Snohomish County – Part II (The Sea Side)
- Grays Harbor County
- Special Edition – Scotland – Part I (w/special guests – London & Reykjavik!)
- Special Edition – Scotland – Part II (w/special guests – London & Reykjavik!)
- Clallam County
- Kitsap County
- Jefferson County
- Mason County
- Kittitas County
- Yakima County
- Chelan County
- Special Edition – Puerto Vallarta
- Special Edition – Ode to A Bygone Seattle