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Day Trip: Discover what’s west of here

Mon., June 30, 2008

If you live in the Inland Northwest, chances are you’ve already been to Ritzville. Driving on Interstate 90 you’ve stopped for coffee or gas, travel weary, your mind already at your final destination miles and miles away.

The next time you stop, plan for a longer break and discover what’s really there – just off the interstate.

“People tell us all the time that it’s really relaxing here,” said Carol Simonson, administrator at the Ritzville Area Chamber of Commerce. “We are almost an equal distance from Spokane and Tri-Cities, so some families simply meet here for reunions. There’s more to do here than just get coffee.”

The Ritzville Blues Festival is coming July 12, headlined by the Tommy Castro Band, which won the B.B. King Blues Entertainer of the Year award at the Blues Music Awards in May.

“We also have a Western art show over the Memorial Day weekend,” said Simonson. “And we get well-known artists out here.”

At other times, the Ritzville Water Park would be a hit with travel-tired youngsters and a great place to get refreshed if you’ve been behind the wheel for hours.

Two pools – one with a wading area for the littlest kids and one for laps – feature a water slide, surprising water jets and a friendly alligator. Admission for adults is $4, seniors $3.50, ages 4 to 14 $3, and children younger than 3 are free with a paying adult.

The pool is right next to the city park, which has a playground and picnic tables.

“I’d say it would be hard to find a better place for families to take a break,” Simonson said, adding that the golf course is just across the street.

Downtown is contained within a few blocks.

Historic buildings line Main Street, reminding visitors that this was once a bustling farm town and one of the busiest wheat shipping points in the world.

Dr. Frank R. Burroughs’ 1889 home is a museum, complete with the doctor’s patient journals – if you have relatives in the area, some of the names may be familiar.

“He really was a horse-and-buggy doctor,” said Ann Olson, a volunteer who gives tours of the stately home. “He was traveling through here on the train, heard there was a medical emergency in town and got off to take care of it. He never left.”

The kitchen, sitting room, dining room and upstairs bedroom are furnished in the style of the era.

“We get stuff from people all the time,” said Olson. “People sometimes recognize their relatives in the pictures here – it’s an amazing heritage that we are trying to take care of.”

Grand Coulee Dam

It’s often called “the Eighth Wonder of the World,” and even if you’ve been there before, the size of the old dam remains impressive.

Head north on State Route 174 from Wilbur, and you’ll be treated to the scenic approach, coming down a narrow winding road surrounded by sagebrush and cliffs along the southern shore of Lake Roosevelt. Wind your way through town, and suddenly the dam is there.

It was built between 1933 and 1942. Almost a mile long across the top, 500 feet wide at the base and 550 feet tall, it took almost 12 million cubic yards of concrete to build. That’s enough to build two standard sidewalks around the world at the equator.

A word about the visitors’ center: You can’t bring purses, backpacks, diaper bags or camera bags into the center because the dam is considered a terrorist target. Leave them in your car or coordinate a tag team visit to the exhibits with one person watching your stuff outside.

Inside the center, movies about how the dam was built and what it meant to the Columbia River – plus several interactive exhibits covering geological history and Native American heritage – can easily keep you occupied for an hour or so.

Free tours of the powerhouse are offered hourly from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Dry Falls, Steamboat Rock

Once you’ve made it to Grand Coulee Dam you may as well make a day trip out of it. Instead of heading back to Spokane via Route 2, try heading south on state Route 155 toward Coulee City.

This route will take you into beautiful Steamboat Rock State Park. The road follows the northeastern shore of Banks Lake, squeezed between towering basalt rocks and the expansive lake. Swimming areas, boat launches and campgrounds are along the way – and Steamboat Rock, an 800-foot-tall basalt butte, can be seen for miles as you head south.

Steamboat Rock has been a landmark for centuries, first used by nomadic Native American tribes, then by early settlers, explorers and cartographers who came through the area.

Further south, just outside Coulee City, you’ll find Washington’s – smaller – version of the Grand Canyon: Dry Falls.

When you peek over the edge, the tall cliffs you see are the remnants of what was one of the world’s largest waterfalls at the end of the last ice age.

At the time, huge floods forced their way through the area, carving coulees and gorges.

It’s all cliffs, some 400 feet tall and more than 3 miles wide, but there’s a little water in ponds and small lakes at the bottom of the canyons. You can drive into the bottom of Dry Falls.

The rangers at the visitors’ center have maps and hiking advice for all levels of outdoor enthusiasts.

It’s sure to get really hot later in the summer, so the sooner you can make it there the better.

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