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Vantage Highway and beyond

Like any good interstate, there was always ‘the road before.’ And in many cases those roads still exist today. Whenever possible, it’s a lot nicer to take this stretch between Ellensburg and Vantage, than the road-more-travelled – I-90. If you never have, give it a shot.

There’s also that road I’ve eyed from the car each time I drive by it when I’m driving on the interstate. Huntzinger Road – dreamer I am!

It wasn’t so long ago, there was no such thing as Interstate 90. Instead there was the Sunset Highway, a collection of roads that linked cities from Seattle across Washington. When I-90 was built, it followed some of those roads, but not all of them. Some were lost, others were saved and used as additional service roads for various communities. This is a common trait of most interstates as I’m sure you already noted back to me – in thought- by this moment.

The Vantage Highway is one such road that survived the takeover of I-90. Somewhere along the way, a brilliant engineer figured out the terrain to the south was more suited for a high-speed roadway, and it is. But you can’t close the original Highway 10, because it serves the community between Ellensburg and Vantage more than ever today.

The major industry here is wind. And it’s got lots of it. So much so that in the early 2000’s Puget Sound Energy dropped in more than 100 wind turbines. To do this, the Vantage Highway had to be tidy'd up for all the excess vehicle traffic it got. Even today, it is well maintained since there are still times large trucks need to use it and there are enough service vehicles on the weekday, it’s get taken care of year around.

On the weekend, it’s a pretty barren strip of asphalt. A perfect time to get out and ride this wonder.

Riding east from Ellensburg, it’s a tad straight for a while, but eventually you rise up into the hills and then descend into the Schnebly Coulee. Eventually, access to the Wild Horse Wind & Solar Facility appears to your left. You can take a ride up the hill and explore the well-done visitors center. Just remember, the higher you ride, the more likely you will encounter wind. 40mph gusts are not uncommon here.

Continuing east toward Vantage you’ll pass the first of two Gingko Petrified Forest visitor areas. This first one is all outdoors and includes some interpretive hiking trails.

Did someone say petrified forest? Yes. Just another mile east and you arrive at the full-blown visitors’ center for the Gingko PF State Park. Here you’ll find lots of interpretive information inside the museum, some visual media about the history of the area and outside some petrified logs, along with assorted wildlife including snakes if you’re not careful on hot days.

While you’re here, you could follow the boat launch road down to the shores of the Columbia River. At the launch point, there used to be a bridge here that took motorists across the river before I-90 was built. After the interstate replaced it, the bridge was sectioned out and floated up the Snake River to be used as todays Lyon’s Ferry bridge between Washtucna and Starbuck on Highway 261 in Eastern Washington.

You’ll find gas and food in Vantage just south of the Gingko PFSP visitors center.

Enjoying the desolation? There’s more if you want it.

Continue south, over I-90 down along Huntzinger Rd. aka Wanapum Rd. The road continues south 10 miles into the Sentinel Gap area. This is a stunning area of beauty and lends itself to the camera in the early morning or late sun hours when the cliffs to the east or west will be lit on sunny days.

Along the way, you’ll pass the Wanapum Dam and several boat launches. At the end of the road is the Gee Whiz ranch, a farming community that grows their fruit trees the 21st century way, training them more so as vines, like you might see with hops.

Turn the bike around and retrace your ride, enjoying all the sites from the opposite direction. If there’s a breeze, expect tumble weeds to come at you from all angles to the front. They’re quite harmless, but you can laugh and pretend you’re in a strange movie being attacked by giant tumble weeds.

Chances are you didn’t encounter much traffic on your ride here today and all indicators say it’s probably going to stay that way for a long time. Ahhhhh.

Patrick Thomas/April 2017


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