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Surprises Await off Washington's Major Highways

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by Jim Farber

Traveling Washington state's interstate highways provides a convenient way to connect big city centers such as Seattle, Tacoma and -- in this case -- Olympia. But it's the country roads and byways radiating out from Olympia that can often provide some very surprising and memorable discoveries.

From Olympia you can easily spend an entire day (or days) connecting the small-town dots along the Thurston Bountiful Byway, named for Thurston County. As soon as you leave the bustle and urban sprawl of the capital behind, it feels like you've gone back in time to a landscape of rolling hillsides planted with orchards, waving fields of grain, rushing rivers and main streets that evoke the spirit of Will Rogers.

Numerically speaking, head north on Interstate 5 from Olympia until you come to State Highway 510, which will lead you east toward the slopes of Mount Rainier along the banks of the Nisqually River. Your destination is the picturesque town of Yelm -- "Pride of the Prairie" at the intersection of State Highway 507. According to local legend, the area's first peoples called the area Shelm, which in their language poetically referred to "the shimmering heat waves which dance and play above the prairie when the summer sun shines hot." Less poetic and more impatient, the town's American settlers shortened the name to Yelm.

By the late 1800s, the town had become a center for local agribusiness: dairy farms, grain, cattle and sawmills. The two-lane downtown district is lined with early-20th century storefronts out of an Edward Hopper painting.

During the harvest months of late spring and summer, a favorite gathering point is the Yelm Farmers Market. But for a first-rate alfresco lunch, try The Local, where the ingredients are farm-to-table fresh (especially during berry season) and the wine list features an array of fine Washington varietals. I recommend the Southwest Salad, which is loaded with big, plump blueberries and succulent fried chicken.

Another reason for visiting Yelm is that it is a key access route to Mount Rainier. And while exploring the mighty mountain requires a lot more time than a day trip, the spectacular beauty of Deschutes Falls Park (at the end of Bald Hills Road outside of Yelm) is perfect for an afternoon visit. The park's highlight is its 27-foot waterfall on the Deschutes River. An easily walkable trail leads to the falls overlook, while other trails extend along the river's steep canyon walls and pine-covered hillsides.

You can also explore the Bountiful Thurston Byway west from Olympia on State Highway 101. A favorite destination is the Schirm Loop Homestead Lavender Farm. You could not ask for a more picturesque setting with its fields of blooming lavender running down to the sparkling surface of South Sound with Mount Rainier in the distance.

Be sure to meet the owner, Connie Patnode, who the day we arrived (with her scythe in hand) had spent the morning filling her wheelbarrow with freshly harvested lavender. Patnode loves giving tours, talking about the history of the farm and the wonderful lavender items for sale in her little log cabin gift shop. If you're lucky, she'll squeeze a few drops of lavender extract onto your palms for an instant dose of aroma therapy.

A decidedly quirky next stop is the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve in Little Rock. The park is named for its mysterious geologic landscape -- hundreds of inexplicably formed mounds. A variety of walking trails wind through the dense forest that opens up on a bizarre landscape worthy of "The X Files."

Olympia is worth a visit. But getting out of Olympia can be just as rewarding.

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WHEN YOU GO

The Thurston Bountiful Byway:

 

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www.experienceolympia.com/things-to-do/roadtrippers/thurston-bountiful-byway

The Local, Yelm: www.facebook.com/TheLocalYelm

Schirm Loop Homestead Lavender Farm:

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www.experienceolympia.com/directory/schirm-loop-homestead-lavender-farm-farmers-markets

Deschutes Falls Park:

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www.thurstoncountywa.gov/departments/public-works/parks-trails-0/deschutes-falls-park

Mima Mounds: www.dnr.wa.gov/MimaMounds

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Jim Farber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.


Copyright 2024 Creators Syndicate, Inc.


 

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