Washington’s interior, with its dramatic mountain passes and low-slung Main Streets, has the exaggerated beauty of a Western film set. It has the history, too—the booms and busts, the rail heists, the violence of westward expansion. That Old West history sets the scene for a driving route traveling from the railway hub of Centralia, past the snowmelt lakes of the Cascades, and ending in the tumbleweed towns of the Yakima Valley, with 300 sunny days a year. A hundred-some miles from drizzly Seattle, the Yakima was once a dust bowl, but crisscrossing canals now hydrate rows of Fuji apple trees, V-shaped trellises of hops (the fragrant seed cones that flavor beer), and grape vines at 70-plus wineries. “When you cross the Cascades, it’s 20 or 25 degrees warmer—people come over just to enjoy the sunshine,” says Jill Johnson of Yakima’s 108-year-old Johnson Orchards. Such farms feed locavore Northwestern tastes, and in 2013 the valley celebrates its 30th anniversary as Washington’s oldest wine region. October is harvest time: The vines are stripped, the grapes are crushed, and a party spirit sweeps the region.
Before the Yakima flourished as Washington’s wine country, its volcanic soil was known for its sweet apples. The fruit even carries a creation myth; the seeds are said to have come to Washington in 1826 in the pocket of a Hudson’s Bay Company supervisor. At a London party, a woman had playfully presented the seeds with instructions: Plant them in the wilderness of the West.
The 1883 completion of the Northern Pacific Railway connected Yakima’s apples, cherries, and pears to the Northwest’s young and hungry cities. Centralia—the midpoint between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington—became the state’s “hub city,” a quintessential Western railroad boomtown. It’s also the ideal starting point for a drive through rural central Washington.
In 1912, Northern Pacific built the grand Union Depot; two years later, Centralia hummed with 44 passenger and 17 freight trains daily. Loggers, miners, and railroad workers crowded the brick station’s dark oak benches, its walls stenciled with admonishments against spitting. A century later, Amtrak serves the depot. Next door, the opulent Olympic Club Hotel and Theater is a 27-room railroad hotel with a movie theater and pool hall. Legend holds that Roy Gardner, the notorious “Gentleman Train Robber,” was captured here in 1921 while posing as a burn victim in one of the hotel’s prostitute-frequented rooms. Now owned by the quirky Portland-based brewpub chain McMenamins, the hotel’s mahogany bar stays true to its past with a massive antique cash register and a wood-burning fireplace.
Starting south of town eastbound, the White Pass Scenic Byway (Route 12) skirts the banks of the Cowlitz River, teeming with trout and salmon, and crosses the Cowlitz Valley elk habitat as well as the Pacific Crest Trail on its long, lonely passage between Canada and Mexico. Route 12 reaches 4,500 feet at White Pass and then winds between Gifford Pinchot and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forests, a combined three million acres of Ponderosa pines and fragrant fir trees. The byway rides the north shore of Rimrock Lake, which was created by the 1925 construction of the Tieton Dam—at the time, the world’s tallest earth-fill dam—which helps make possible the valley’s 172,000 acres of orchards. On clear days, the imposing peaks of St. Helens, Adams, and Rainier appear in the distance. South of the byway is the ashen landscape created by the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, a blast that flattened 200 square miles and left vast plains of pumice.
Finally, descend into the Yakima Valley, where the air is warm and dry and the palette shifts from mountain grays and greens to startling golds and deep reds. In fall, attention is fixed on the grape crush. At vineyards such as Airfield Estates, ripe fruit perfumes the air with a musty sweetness, bands play a live sound track, and bare feet dance in halved wine barrels, a ritualized stomp that sprays juice and stains toes.
Before delving into the valley’s viticulture, detour north on Canyon Road—the snaking, two-lane Highway 821—following the Yakima River through 2,000-foot basalt cliffs, sage-covered desert, and the state’s highest concentration of hawks, eagles, and falcons. The byway ends in Ellensburg, a proud cow town with a rodeo grandstand and an art walk on first Fridays.
Back in the city of Yakima, a resurgent downtown radiates from the Capitol Theatre. Its interior painted by muralist A. B. Heinsbergen, the 1,500-seat theater opened in 1920 as the Northwest’s largest. South of town, the Yakama Indian Reservation is home to the 14 confederated bands and tribes of the Yakama (this spelling said to better reflect native pronunciation). Chief Kamiakin’s story of 1850s resistance against American settlers is enlivened at the Yakama Nation Museum and Cultural Center, where visitors can also shop for Pendleton blankets and try luk-a-meen (a stew of smoked salmon and dumplings).
Continue southeast to Prosser, where in 1937 scientist Walter Clore began a series of grape-growing trials. “Locals nicknamed him Johnny Grape Seed,” says Kathy Corliss of the soon-to-break-ground Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center. The valley now cultivates some 30 varietals, from Reisling to rare Graciano (a Spanish red). Rocky soils and lava flows characterize the appellation. “When you walk through the vineyards, you can see the deposits on the rocks,” says Barbara Glover, executive director of the Wine Yakima Valley association. Start at Prosser’s new Vintner’s Village, with 13 tasting rooms within walking distance.
Similar to Clore’s wine trials, current research fuels a growing beer culture. Near downtown Toppenish’s 1911 depot turned Northern Pacific Railway Museum is a onetime creamery housing the American Hop Museum. Murals along its stucco walls show hop farmers in their fields; exhibits inside trace the Yakima Valley’s history as the world’s second largest hop-growing region (smaller only than Germany’s Hallertau). Prosser brewer Gary Vegar works with experimental hops at his Horse Heaven Hills Brewery and participates in October’s Fresh Hop Ale Festival in Yakima. “When we get the hops, sticks and leaves are still mixed in,” Vegar says. The burgeoning scene is another example of the valley reinventing what historian W. D. Lyman called the desert’s “destiny”—to become Washington’s “great horticultural and orchard region.”
Brooklyn-based writer Freda Moon grew up road-tripping through the Pacific Northwest.