Washington's State Capital Is the Perfect Jumping-Off Point For a Day Spent Exploring

Just an hour’s drive south of Seattle, head to Olympia and check out the scenic Thurston Bountiful Byway
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

This article appears in print in the October 2018 issue, as part of the Scenic Fall Road Trips cover story. Click here to subscribe.

The Interstate 5 corridor between Seattle and Olympia can be a disheartening slog through traffic and a visual assault of strip malls and billboards. But not too long after you pass Tacoma, the landscape changes. This is your day-trip destination—the place where rows of evergreens begin to hint of a more rural character to come. 

Your first stop, just off I-5 (exit 114), should be the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge: an estuary that’s home to some 300 species, from soaring bald eagles to the tiniest deer mice. It’s the kind of place you can spend an hour or a day leisurely walking the trails; aim to arrive early in the morning, when birds are at their chattiest, and leave by about 10 a.m.

Taste artisan spirits at Sandstone Distillery, including award-winning white whiskey. Photograph by Doug Walker. 

From there, ditch I-5 (good riddance!) and jump onto Thurston County’s Bountiful Byway, a 60-mile scenic route dotted with craft breweries and wineries, farms and farmers’ markets, and opportunities for biking, hiking or just placid picnicking. 

The first leg of the tree-lined byway takes you from the Nisqually exit south on State Route 510 to Yelm, a sleepy town where Mount Rainier’s white-capped peak looms close. Here, you can head west toward Tenino along State Route 507 to stay on the byway, but one of the area’s loveliest hidden treasures is worth the additional detour southeast: Deschutes Falls Park, just 25 minutes past Yelm. At the dead end, you’ll find room for parking and the trailhead; hike on to find the 27-foot waterfall that spills into the Deschutes River. Whether or not you hike, the area’s rolling hills make for a stunning picnic backdrop; pick up supplies at the seasonal farmers’ markets on Saturdays in Yelm, or the Yelm Food Co-op. 

It’s an hour’s drive from Deschutes back to Olympia, but you can, and should, stretch that drive out. Connect again with the byway in the town of Rainier, and head west on SR 507 toward Tenino, where you’ll find options for whiling away an afternoon: Visit Sandstone Distillery for a taste of artisan spirits, such as its award-winning white whiskey; stop at Scatter Creek Winery, best known for its red blend; or hop on one of Tenino’s free yellow bikes and cruise the Yelm-Tenino Trail for a bit from Tenino City Park. 

Beautiful fall colors at the Capitol; Tenino provides free yellow bikes to ride on the Yelm-Tenino Trail. Photograph by Doug Walker. 

Old Highway 99 connects Tenino to Tumwater, and in October, that means a stop at the Rutledge Corn Maze, where you can get lost among the corn stalks, pick up a pumpkin and indulge in all activities related to fall. Farther up the road is the old brewhouse site of the Olympia Brewing Company, where the city is currently trying to incentivize a craft brewing and distilling center—part small-business incubator and part public amenities—to draw attention to Washington’s exceptional craft beer and spirits scene. Near the historic brewhouse, you’ll find the lovely Tumwater Historical Park, where the Deschutes River meets Capitol Lake.

Even if you’ve had a full day of exploring, dinner in Olympia is a must. If you started your day with a taste of Oly, it’s essential to end your day with one—and many of the restaurants there, particularly the ones that have opened in the past year, are worth a visit. 

The impressive Rutledge Corn Maze. Photograph by Alex Crook. 

Getting there
Olympia is about a one-and a quarter-hour drive from Seattle on Interstate 5. From I-5, the nearest place to start the Thurston Bountiful Byway is at the Nisqually exit, just north of Olympia.

Don’t miss: The Fall Arts Walk 
Find art, demonstrations and performances inside downtown Olympia businesses and organizations during this semiannual event (olympia.wa.gov), October 5–6, which also features performances and events on streets and sidewalks.

Coordinates

Where to go:
Thurston Bountiful Byway, 360.704.7544

Where to eat:
Yelm Farmers Market, Yelm, 301 Second St. SE; Saturdays through October 27
Yelm Food Co-op, Yelm, 308 E Yelm Ave.; 360.400.2210

What to do:
Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Olympia, 100 Brown Farm Road NE; 360.753.9467
Deschutes Falls Park, Olympia, 25005 Bald Hill Road; 360.786.5595
Old Brewhouse, Olympia, 698 Simmons Lane SE; 760.445.8606
Rutledge Corn Maze, Olympia, 302 93rd Ave. SE; 360.357.3700
Sandstone Distillery, Tenino, 842 Wright Road SE; 360.239.7272
Scatter Creek Winery & Brewing, Tenino, 237 Sussex Ave. W; 360.264.9463
Tenino City Park, Tenino, Park Avenue E; 360.264.2368
Tumwater Historical Park, Tumwater, 802 Deschutes Way SW; 360.754.4160; 

Fried chicken in cream gravy from State & Central, among the stellar new food options in Olympia. Photograph by State and Central. 

Capitol Eats
When you’re visiting the Olympia area, save time to hit these new restaurants

State & Central
Corner neighborhood spot serves high-quality comfort food, such as fried chicken in cream gravy, and a really great Juicy Lucy burger. Olympia, 1415 State Ave. NE; 360.489.0824

Well 80
This brewery and brewpub caters to an all-ages crowd, with hand-tossed pizzas and drive-in-style burgers to pair with the selection of house-made (and rotating guest) beers. Olympia, 514 Fourth Ave. E; 360.915.6653

Dos Hermanos Mexican Kitchen
Chic, colorful Mexican eatery joins the city’s essential 222 Market, offering tacos, enchiladas and weekend menudo. Olympia, 222 Capitol Way N, Suite 108; 208.250.1166

Hash
Hearty breakfast fare—eggs Benedicts, burritos, chicken-fried steak, etc.—draws a crowd to this casual place. Olympia, 1807 Harrison Ave. NW; 360.489.0163

 

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