Roadside Attractions from Olympia to the Pacific Coast

We have all heard it a thousand times: “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” So when we are heading somewhere for the long weekend, what do we do? Jump in the car and drive as fast as we can without stopping to explore anywhere along the way. While I have certainly been guilty of this many times on my routine drives out to the ocean beaches, I now try to pencil some additional time into my itinerary for the drive between Olympia and the coastal playgrounds. So if you have been listening to Radio Lab for two hours straight, or your passenger is zoned out playing Candy Crush, perhaps it is time to exit the highway and explore! 

Roadside Grazing 

One of the first “What’s up with that?” points of interest you will encounter is a small herd of rusty metal cows along US 101 as the road crosses Mud Bay, just a few miles west of Olympia. This bovine family has a long history in the Evergreen State. When I was growing up in the Bothell area in the 1990s, this grouping of cows, sculpted mostly from empty oil tanks, began to take shape in the Sammamish Valley, along the main road between Woodinville and Redmond. If my memory serves correctly, first came a cow, then a bull, and, an appropriate gestation period later, a calf. But in 2002, one of our family drives past their pasture revealed an unexpected absence of cattle! 

cow sculptures

Fast-forward almost 15 years, and lo-and-behold, on a weekend getaway to the beach, there they stood, keeping watch over US 101! To this day, there still is little detail on the move, other than a brief Seattle P.I. article which unveiled artist Gary Vig, a Woodinville local who sold his home in 2002 and decided to load up his cud-chewing family in the middle of the night and hoof it for the South Sound. The cows have been a local fixture ever since. At some point, an additional bull was added, who now stands a distance away from the other three along the inlet. Keep your eyes peeled on the south side of the highway as you approach the exit for 2nd Avenue SW. Please note the sculptures stand on private property, and the side streets provide little to no parking opportunities, so viewing from the highway as you mooove on by is your best bet. Bonus fun fact: the bull weighs 3 tons and is 22 feet long! 

pulled pork

Carolina, Texas, KC…Olympia? 

For finger-lickin’ good barbecue, look no further than Ranch House BBQ & Steakhouse, just off Highway 8, about 12 miles west of Olympia. With an extensive menu rivaling some of the great barbecue joints of the South, pitmaster Amy Anderson showcases an impressive array of barbecue staples and house recipes. From the piled-high pulled pork slathered with sweet and smokey sauce to hearty bowls of chili, to ribs and smoked meats, you will certainly need that wet wipe post-meal!

Side dishes are just as much of a showstopper as the entrees, such as the tangy potato salad and even the French fries, comparable in both portion size and taste to the best state fair fries. Don’t leave without tearing into an order of deep-fried macaroni balls, or one of the classic dessert options! As you may expect, Ranch House has received its fair share of local and national accolades, including being a past recipient of KING 5’s “Best of Western Washington” award. 

concrete tower

Whoops! We’re Not in Hanford Anymore! 

Looking south while passing through Satsop, two massive concrete towers poke out of the evergreen hills, destined to sit dormant and simply watch the travelers passing through. But why exactly are they there? In 1957, through an authorization of the Washington State Legislature, the Washington Public Power Supply System was founded, soon to encompass 16 local utilities, including Seattle City Light. With a goal of providing reliable, affordable power to the populated areas of the state through a mix of hydro and nuclear systems, ambitious plans were drawn up, including five nuclear reactors spread across Hanford and Satsop. 

Construction at the Satsop location, for Plants 3 and 5, began in the 1970s. Unfortunately, by 1982, the overall project had failed, due to years of design changes, cost overruns, regulatory changes and mismanagement, with costs for the full five-reactor project ballooning from an initial $4.5 billion to an astounding $23.9 billion! As the entity defaulted on $2.25 billion in bonds, the roughly 80,000 bondholders were left holding the bag, and the ironic acronym of WPPSS took on a whole new meaning as “Whoops!” to the locals. One of these unfortunate investors was my late grandfather, who saw his dreams of riches float away faster than the steam rising from a concrete cooling tower. After 13 years of navigating through court, most investors eventually received back between 10 and 40 cents per initial dollar of seed money. 

Today, the Satsop plant is owned by the Port of Grays Harbor and is being converted into a business park. The defunct nuclear complex also hosts structural training programs, technical rescue training for local fire departments, and even an acoustics lab and site for filming and recording. Sadly, both cooling towers and the reactor domes are off-limits to the general public, so for now they are just to be admired from the streets and parking lots. A more detailed read on the entire WPPSS project can be found here

Paddles, Wings and Rock Candy 

If the kids are getting restless or the dogs have barked at one too many passing trucks, there are a handful of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Just west of Olympia, Rock Candy Mountain offers a 5.5-mile loop through the Capitol State Forest, complete with mixed-use working forest, seasonal wildflowers and fungi, periodic views, and just enough elevation gain and distance to get your blood pumping. 

If water sports are more your jam, try Lake Sylvia State Park just outside Montesano, complete with a swim beach, paddle craft rentals, and abundant fishing along 15,000 feet of shoreline, plus a campground, five miles of trails, picnic areas and a playground. A small portion of trail and one fishing dock are ADA-accessible as well. 

maple tree

For a slower-paced option, try wildlife viewing southwest of Aberdeen at either Johns River Dike Trail or Bottle Beach State Park, where a variety of waterfowl, shore creatures, and even elk are known to take up periodic residence. The dike trail is just over a half-mile long, with a photography/hunting blind at the end. The Audubon Society has designated the ADA-accessible state park trail as an official Washington State Birding Trail, with over 130 avian species having been sighted! 

Note: Don’t forget your Discover Pass to access these state-managed sites! 

Map Dots 

No road trip is complete without at least a couple of sleepy small towns, and the drive toward Aberdeen passes through the trio of McCleary, Elma and Montesano, with a smattering of other communities along the way. In Elma, pop into the Elma Farm Stand and Public Market for regional produce, a full meat counter, a juice bar, and an assortment of gifts and treats. 

farm stand
books

Farther west in Montesano, the newly-opened Lemon Hill Cafe & Bookstore serves up both an evolving menu of traditional French dishes with a local twist, and a generous portion of literary nourishment, with the full south wall of the café lined with books. Try the Leek & Spinach Quiche and a glass of prosecco or the Lemon Pepper Chicken Sandwich with a Lychee Iced Tea followed by the Strawberry Honey Custard Tart with Lemon Curd! 

Another great on-the-go option is All Wrapped Up Coffee & Gifts, where the pastries and bread are handmade each day, and where it is always coffee o’clock. Peruse a small selection of locally-crafted gifts and decor while your shots are being pulled, with a local favorite being the garden gnome flower pot stakes forged from scrap boards and hand-painted in cheery designs and color schemes. 

For a quick in-and-out experience, hop up to the window at Gene’s Stop & Go, where you’ll find traditional burgers and fried foods, all at old-style drive-in pricing! I am quite partial to an order of Frots when I stop (half fries, half tots) with sweet ranch for dipping, while the smooth milkshakes and towering soft-serve cones will take you back to the days of Bel Airs and Roadrunners parked under the neon. 

wine glass

Bonus Stops: Beyond Aberdeen 

Whether you take a right toward Ocean Shores or a left toward Westport, make sure to save time for one or two more quick stops. On Highway 109 on the north side of Grays Harbor, Lytle Seafoods is a must-stop for oysters grown mere steps away in the neighboring tide flats, plus local seafood favorites including crab, salmon and halibut. 

Highway 105 on the south side of the bay will take you past Westport Winery Garden Resort, featuring wine and spirits tasting, expansive gardens, a restaurant, executive-style pitch-and-putt golf, and the International Mermaid Museum. The winery has won numerous awards, most recently being named the 2022 Washington Winery of the Year by Great Northwest Wine Magazine. 

One more jump west, and you will reach Bay City Sausage Co., home to a great variety of meats, including landjager, pepperoni, jerky and andouille sausage, plus smoked cheeses, salmon dip, and even dog treats! And now all you need to do is plan a trip to the beach. No more long, boring car rides or “Are we there yet?” for the 18th time. With this itinerary of stops, there is sure to be something for every member of the family to enjoy!

Eric Allan

Eric is a lifelong PNW native, realizing his dream as a travel writer, photographer and reviewer. With his wife of 6 years, he currently splits his time between Arlington and Ocean Shores; they are currently progressing toward goals of visiting all 50 states and seeing every National Park. Together they share a passion for independent, local business, especially in the craft food and beverage industries.

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