Bricks, Snow and Dirt Roads – Our First Trip in Washington

Since we’re getting ready for some spring/summer/fall travels, I thought it would be fun to tell you a little about the first longer trip that Smartz and I took upon moving to Washington. We moved to Seattle in October of 2008, got our footing with short little trips to various Seattle places, but waited until March of the next year to venture outside of King County.

Missing the abundant history of the east coast, I found myself studying a coast-to-coast highway that ran from New York to Seattle. The Yellowstone Trail was founded in 1913 and would end up being the focus of several trips and one big obsession on my part.

After studying some vintage maps, I had stumbled upon a quandary. It was one of those things that only I really cared about, but I had to find out. Just south of Ellensburg, Washington was Wennas Road, named for a creek that ran through the area. There was some conjecture that Wennas Road was once part of the Yellowstone Trail. Some sources said that another road, the Old Durr Road, was originally the YT. Other sources said that Canyon Road was. I had to find out. Why? Well, that’s what an obsession is, right?

Now, before we go too far, let me just clear something up. Sometimes by being on the road in question, you can tell a lot of things about it. Sometimes you can tell if it was an old alignment, when it was built (thanks to dates on bridges), and if it was bypassed in favor of another route.

I admit, this doesn’t sound incredibly exciting, but thankfully, it was a really beautiful trip.

Since this was a trip to see the Yellowstone Trail, we made a quick stop just outside of Redmond at a really well preserved section of brick road that used to be the YT. It was bricked the same year that the YT was established.

Also along the YT is Snoqualmie Falls. You might recognize this as the water fall and lodge from Twin Peaks.

As you’ll see, most of my posts will involve trains in some way. Near Snoqualmie Falls is the town and train station of Snoqualmie. They have excursions and a really nice museum.

They’ve also got a locomotive graveyard. I think we’ve taken pretty much everybody who has ever visited us (except my parents) to this place.

To get to Winnas Road, we had to cross Snoqualmie Pass (yes, most things in this part of the state are named “Snoqualmie”). As we got closer, we began to see snow.

In the summer, there are two ways to cross the pass. The normal way is I-90. It’s almost always open and pretty much always boring. The original way to cross is via Denny Creek Road. Prior to this trip, we had never been on it and I had only speculated that it was part of the YT.

We attempted to use Denny Creek Road, but it quickly devolved into a scary mess. So we turned around and used the interstate.

After the pass (and some boring interstate), the old alignment of the YT is traceable through Easton, but it soon dead ends into the superslab.

When your trip involves trying to follow old, unmapped alignments of roads that haven’t existed in over 80 years, you sometimes wind up accidentally going under railroad bridges. It’s not an entirely bad thing, but it’s not really productive, either.

One thing that Washington has a lot of and is not known for is deserts. After the incredibly deep snow over the pass, we entered a scrubby area around Cle Elum (that’s a town).

Heading east on State Route 10, we entered a dry region that once required aqueducts for their farms.

Built into all of this is the town of Ellensburg. We don’t really have destinations when we travel, but if we did, this would be the trip’s destination. It’s a nice small town with a big Victorian mansion, an old hardware store and puppies.

But actually, the town wasn’t the destination, the road was. Specifically, Wenas Road was. Remember I told you about Durr Road? That was a private toll road. After cars came into popularity, a better road was needed.

This was their better road. Though it was longer, it was more suited for cars.

The Wenas Road area is probably not technically a desert. Area around it is, but this road is a bit lower and a bit more watered.

When I map out trips, it’s rare that I look at things like Google Street View. So in my head, the road takes on a picture of its own. Sometimes I nail it, other times, I figure that it will be through a pine forest. I never imagined Wenas Road looking like this.

At least it was dry. But it’s curves like this that make you question whether or not the whole idea was a good one.

The road climbed and we became a bit concerned with all the snow. Would it be too muddy? Would we get stuck and have to live in Kittitas County forever? How do you even pronounce that?

There were few houses through Wenas Road, but the ones that we saw were apparently owned by wisenheimers.

After about thirty miles, things weren’t bad, but we were a bit nervous. It’s not like we were in a four wheel drive. It’s not like anyone knew we were out here, or that there was even anyone around.

Thankfully, dirt turned to gravel and then gravel turned to pavement for the decent into Yakima.

We even got some civilization!

Lake Wenas!

One of the many fun things about traveling the way we do is surprises. This little monument to the first United States flag raised in Yakima Country was a great way to end the day. At the time, I didn’t know much about what it was talking about. Captain George McClellan was General McClellan during the Civil War, but I had no idea what he was doing out here in 1853.

In 1853 he participated in the Pacific Railroad surveys, ordered by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, to select an appropriate route for the upcoming transcontinental railroad. McClellan surveyed the northern corridor along the 47th and 49th parallels from St. Paul to the Puget Sound. During this assignment, he demonstrated a tendency for insubordination toward senior political figures. Isaac Stevens, governor of the Washington Territory, became dissatisfied with McClellan’s performance in scouting passes across the Cascade Range. (McClellan selected Yakima Pass without a thorough reconnaissance and refused the governor’s order to lead a party through it in winter conditions, relying on faulty intelligence about the depth of snowpack in that area. He also neglected to find three greatly superior passes in the near vicinity, which would be the ones eventually used for railroads and interstate highways.) The governor ordered McClellan to turn over his expedition logbooks, but McClellan steadfastly refused, most likely because of embarrassing personal comments that he had made throughout. Just like in the Civil War.

The great thing about traveling Wenas Road is that you get to go up Canyon Road to come home. It’s a windy, beautiful little stretch of old US Route 97 that I heartily recommend.

It was never part of the Yellowstone Trail (that was moved north to US Route 2 in the late 1920s, before this road was completed. It was, however, part of Washington’s Inland Empire Highway.

At Umtanum there’s a suspended foot bridge that leads to trails across the Yakima River.

We were running short on time, so didn’t do much more than poke around.

At the end of the Canyon Road, I found this small historical marker in a creepy parking lot. It tells you a bit, but not much. And that’s it! We took the interstate home. When I left for this trip. I assumed that finding the Yellowstone Trail would be as easy as finding old alignments of Route 66. I couldn’t be more wrong. First, nobody has even heard of the YT. Second, locals know the same roads by other names. Nothing makes this easy. Also, history doesn’t seem to be as important to folks out here as it is back easy. That’s a big shame. Nevertheless, it was an amazing day. Very amazing.

To see all of the photos and a googlemap of our travels, go to the gallery on page two!

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