Visiting Central Washington University

Voted as one of the ‘Most Dynamic Micropolitan Areas’ in the nation by the Walton Family Foundation is none other than Ellensburg, Washington. Not only does Ellensburg possess a charming and historic downtown, it is also the home of the most diverse university in Washington state, Central Washington University (CWU).

History of CWU

The doors of Central Washington University opened in 1891, originally established as the Washington State Normal School. The first principal, Mr. Benjamin Franklin Barge, sought to educate future elementary and junior high teachers. Classes were originally held at the Washington Public School until Barge Hall was built in 1893, but it wasn’t until many name changes and years later that it was finally named Central Washington University in 1977.

Shaw Smyser CWU
CWU science building

Today, CWU is a top university that provides over 135 accredited majors and 32 accredited masters programs to over 13,000 students in eight locations. CWU decided to co-locate in Edmonds, Everett, Des Moines, Steilacoom, Puyallup, Kent, Yakima, Moses Lake, and Wenatchee to provide university centers to help students to complete their intended degrees without feeling like they needed to leave their own communities. Of those 13,000 students, about 11,000 of them are on the main campus in Ellensburg, while also making up approximately 50 percent of the city of Ellensburg’s population.

Top Things to Do on Central’s Campus

Whether you’re enjoying a day trip to Ellensburg or you or your children are thinking of attending CWU, there are plenty of activities to check out while visiting the CWU campus. The Donald L. Garrity Japanese Gardens serve as a tranquil and beautiful space to disconnect from the world and connect with nature. Its location in the center of campus operates as an easy destination for those visiting, giving students, community members and visitors a place to appreciate what nature has to offer. With a running stream, stunning blooming trees and lively birds, this is a great place for anyone to transform stress into tranquility. 

Visit CWU’s Greenhouse while on a campus as well. The space is made up of four separate rooms, each representing a different growing environment, representing plants from all over the world. Check out the southwestern desert flora or plants from tropical rain forests, and don’t forget to say hello to Snorkel, CWU’s giant resident tortoise. 


Put on campus to serve as a hub for student life, the Student Union and Recreation Center (SURC) gives students and visitors the chance to join in activities or grab a bite to eat. As part of the recreation center, there is a 50-foot rock-climbing wall. Throughout the year there are different events that allow visitors to learn the best techniques for rock climbing from those certified in bouldering and top rope climbing. If you are wanting more adventure, the Outdoor Pursuits and Rentals (OPR) office puts on a variety of trips as well as, allowing anyone to rent equipment. Whether it is snow shoeing, hiking, kayaking, floating, or trying out the challenge course on the edge of campus, OPR has it all. Take a stroll through the SURC to learn more about campus events, check out the Wildcat Shop for CWU swag and grab lunch at one of the many food stations. 

In Dean Hall, the Museum of Culture & Environment offers a space for students and faculty to create different exhibitions throughout the year. Anyone is able to attend these exhibits examining human life, culture and interaction for free. They also often include in-depth lectures from a keynote speaker to help explain the existence of each display. Similarly, in Randall Hall, art students are hard at work creating pieces for their portfolio and display for each quarter. Each display allows anyone to attend, following with a reception and often a talk about the art.

Wellington CWU Mascot
CWU Football field

Catch a Game

It wouldn’t be a true visit to Central’s campus without attending a sporting event. Grab a seat at the newly remodeled Tomlinson Field for a football game or check out Nicholson Pavilion for a basketball game. Whether you are an alumnus or not, some of the best times are had at a CWU game.

Downtown Ellensburg

After visiting Central’s campus, take a stroll through downtown Ellensburg. Although small, there is always something fun to do and see while downtown. 

Walkable from CWU’s campus, downtown Ellensburg thrives, featuring some of the best locally roasted coffee, delicious restaurants, galleries and wonderful shops to browse. While you walk around, notice the stunning historic architecture throughout, with many of the buildings dating back to the 1800s. 

Downtown Ellensburg has a robust Downtown Association devoted to keeping it lively, clean and beautiful, working to host events, maintain and update items like trash cans, benches and planters, as well as rooftop lighting to provide a gorgeous space to walk day or night. 

downtown Ellensburg Davidson Building near CWU Campus
D&M Coffee

D&M Coffee

Need a pick-me-up from a day packed full of CWU and Ellensburg activities? Stop by one of the five D&M Coffee locations and try some of the freshest coffee you’ve ever tasted. It’s roasted right down the street.

D&M Coffee owners, Donna and Mark met while attending CWU. They both worked their way through college, when one day they decided to convert their small trailer into a mobile espresso bar in 1990. Since then, their business has grown to five different locations in Ellensburg, each spread out to reach everyone in town. D&M continues to deliver fresh, consistent and high-quality coffee to those who live or visit Ellensburg.

Ellensburg Eateries

After morning activities, it’s time to pick a place for lunch. Ellensburg has a diverse palate of restaurants in its midst. A few of the community favorites include Campus-U-Totem, Ellensburg Pasta Company, The Palace, Cornerstone Pie and many more. If you are in the mood for a drive-in burger joint, Campus-U-Totem is just a hop, skip and a jump across the street from Central’s campus. Open since 1947 and voted as the best burger in Kittitas County in 2018, Campus-U-Totem is a must when visiting. 

Campus U Tote em
Iron Horse Brewery

Iron Horse Brewery

Over 21? Try Iron Horse Brewery. Iron Horse Brewery has beer like no other brewery does. Known for its beers Quilter’s Irish Death, High Five Hefe and Double Rainbow, Iron Horse Brewery is one of the largest breweries in Washington state, and its pub sits just off of Main Street in Ellensburg. Visit the pub Monday through Wednesday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Arts & Culture Ellensburg

Ellensburg is a town that loves to celebrate its past, while celebrating its current and future artists. There are several museums and art galleries downtown, highlighting the rustic and cowboy aesthetic Ellensburg is recognized for, as well as displaying installments from current community members. 


The Clymer Museum collects and preserves John Clymer’s art. Clymer was an artist from Ellensburg and has been recognized all over the world for his art, receiving many awards which include Prix de West, Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Rungius Medal. Check out the art Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Gallery One displays contemporary art as well as hosting activities for everyone to attend. Each season brings around something different. If you are looking for art lessons for your child or a paint and sip night with the girls, the Gallery One’s calendar can help keep everyone up to date on the upcoming activities offered. Join other art lovers for a stroll through the gallery Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.

The Kittitas County Historical Museum serves to educate people about the history of Kittitas County. Currently, the museum offers an antique doll assortment, a Native American collection, an antique automobile display, items from early Kittitas County businesses, military items and much more. Visit the Kittitas County Historical Museum Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Rodeo Weekend

Ellensburg has been holding one of the top 10 rodeos in America since 1923. So if you’re visiting in late August or the beginning of September, you notice that locals don’t say the phrase Labor Day weekend much.  Labor Day Weekend is known as rodeo weekend, and people from all over America to witness one of the best and oldest rodeos, paired with one of the oldest county fairs in the state. If you plan on visiting CWU during this weekend, be sure grab tickets and hotel rooms early as this weekend is even busier than CWU’s graduation weekend.

Go for a Hike

A little outside of downtown, the Wild Horse Windfarm is a hit among the community and those visiting. Ellensburg is known for its wind and this facility captures it as an energy source. If you would like a tour of one of the largest renewable energy plants in the Northwest or would like to bike on one of the trails nearby, this is the place for you. There are also many opportunities for hiking around Ellensburg, so don’t leave your hiking boots at home. Some of the more popular hikes include Manastash Ridge offering views of the entire Kittitas Valley, Umtanum Falls or Rattlesnake Dance, offering views of the Yakima Canyon as far as the eye can see.

mountain and river

If you plan on visiting CWU, whether you are staying the night or just passing through, Central’s campus and Ellensburg will have something for you to do.

Avatar photo

Emily Masseth

Emily Masseth graduated from Central Washington University in 2019. She is originally from Rochester, Washington, but decided to continue living in Ellensburg after graduation because she loved the area so much. When Emily is not writing, she is the Communications Manager for the Kittitas County Chamber of Commerce. Emily is a Washington State native and it shows in how much coffee she drinks, how much she loves local wine tastings, and how much she loves being outside. Catch Emily on her next adventure by following @emilymasseth on Instagram.


  1. […] featuring the talents works of Carolyn Schactler. She was the professor of apparel design at Central Washington University for nearly 30 years and has received both national and international fame and […]

  2. […] trailer in Ellensburg. This was a few years after my six consecutive freshman years that I attended CWU. Gradually they have expanded and today they own multiple coffee locations as well as Cornerstone […]

  3. […] you will be invited in to learn all about the mill from one of the guides, many of whom study at Central Washington University (CWU) located in Ellensburg. “The Thorp Mill board creates opportunities for internships, […]

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