About this byway
The Swiftwater Corridor features sun-drenched views of pine forestland, pristine waters and valley cattle ranches. The Stuart Range and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness play host year-round to campers, snowmobilers and fishermen.
The corridor contains historic towns, logging camps, mines and ranches. Remains of the boom times abound—access a vast wilderness from a former railroad grade, or belly up to the bar in Washington’s oldest tavern. This byway rambles through the back roads between Salmon La Sac and Ellensburg and reveals natural beauty, signs of the past and country communities that travelers on the speedier bypass miss out on entirely.
From Seattle, take I-90 east to Roslyn (85 miles / 90 minutes). Take the Salmon La Sac Road about 10 miles north from Roslyn to reach the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and Salmon La Sac Recreational Area.
Alpine Lakes Wilderness
The byway begins with this stunning section of the Okanogan and Wenatchee national forests. Encompassing nearly 400,000 acres with 47 trailheads and 615 miles of trails, the area takes its name from nearly 700 small alpine lakes found in the valleys lying between jagged granite peaks.
Access to the southwestern end of the wilderness is from Salmon La Sac, a camping area about 10 miles north of Roslyn on Salmon La Sac Road. Cle Elum Lake, a reservoir, lines one side of the road. The surrounding wilderness is home to black bears, elk, deer, cougars, bobcats, beavers, otters, badgers, wolverines, mink and weasel. Birds from white-tailed ptarmigan to bald eagles abound here also.
For in-depth information on birding along this byway, visit the Washington Audubon Society’s Web site and click on the Sun and Sage Loop of the Birding Trail.
Salmon La Sac
The mineral rush in this region brought the Kittitas Railway and Power Company, financed by French investors in 1911. With it came the construction of a depot at Salmon La Sac, a wilderness area located at the beginning of this byway.
The depot, now on the National Register of Historic Places, sits at the entrance to the Salmon La Sac campground. In summer, this place is filled with campers, anglers and hikers heading into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Wintertime sees an influx of snowmobile riders. Don’t expect a town in Salmon La Sac—but you can find a restaurant and snowmobile rentals in the village of Ronald, which you’ll drive through along the way.
Embarking east on SR-903 along the byway, you’ll drive through the heart of Roslyn, a coal-mining town founded in the late 1800s. The historic buildings and weathered wood facades caught the attention of Hollywood location scouts, and the town was reborn in the 1990s as Cicely, Alaska, on the popular show “Northern Exposure.”
Today it offers a number of unique stops for travelers (some of them familiar from “Northern Exposure”), including the Brick Tavern (the oldest tavern in Washington), the town’s small café (with its familiar outdoor Roslyn mural), a historical museum and a miners’ memorial.
Don’t miss the Roslyn Historical Cemetery, which is actually a couple dozen separate cemeteries located adjacent to one another. Here the deceased are segregated by lodge or church affiliation, and often by nationality. At least 24 countries are represented here, a testament to the diversity of the region’s mine workers.
Cle Elum and Iron Horse State Park
Further east, you’ll find the town of Cle Elum. Garlic lovers will want to visit in February, when the town hosts its annual Bagna Cauda Festival—a local celebration of a traditional Italian dip so potent it is guaranteed to keep vampires away. Nearby is the longest, narrowest state park in Washington. Iron Horse State Park is a 1,612-acre park that was once on the path of the Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul-Pacific Railroad. More than 100 miles of trail extends from Cedar Falls (near North Bend) to the Columbia River.
The trail encompasses a variety of ecosystems and geological zones. Hikers and bikers enjoy it in the summer, and in the winter, cross-country skiers and even dogsledders find fun here. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the trail, except on the higher-elevation stretches, where snowmobiles are permitted in winter.
Two tunnels on the route between South Cle Elum (a small town located south of I-90 and separate from Cle Elum) and Thorp have been closed until further notice. Detour routes are posted and available at www.parks.wa.gov by selecting Iron Horse from the “Find a Park” menu.
As you follow SR-10 from Cle Elum, don’t miss the tiny community of Thorp. A gristmill that was built in the 1870s still stands, and visitors are welcome. Also, an odd combination fruit/antique stand here sells preserves and locally grown produce alongside antique home furnishings.
SR-10 used to be the main highway to Ellensburg prior to the construction of I-90, and bits of its past life remain. Keep on the lookout for remnants of long-abandoned gas stations, motels and a historic wooden water-flume irrigation system—all excellent photo ops.
In Ellensburg the byway ends, but the discoveries don’t. Here you’ll find a rich and genuine culture thanks to a vibrant arts community, the influence of the Central Washington University student population and plenty of cowpokes. All of this is woven beautifully into the fabric of a historic downtown district. A vibrant farmers’ market, a brewery offering handcrafted beers and a few noteworthy bakeries are located here.
A local coffee roaster is housed in a building constructed using straw bales (it’s appropriate, since Kittitas County is Washington’s hay- and straw-growing capital). Art galleries, antique stores, the Kittitas County Historical Museum and the Ellensburg Rodeo are all great reasons to spend some time.
Gas, food and lodging
A golf resort, hotels, motels, inns and other accommodations can found from Roslyn to Ellensburg, and camping is plentiful. There are a lot of good locally owned eateries in Roslyn, Cle Elum and Ellensburg. Gas can be found in all the communities along the byway, but always gas up before you head into the wilderness areas.
Driving Distance: 42 miles from Salmon La Sac near Roslyn to Ellensburg.
Driving Time: Two hours, not including stops or scenic detours.
Actual Time: Plan a long day for a sightseeing road trip.
Best Time to Travel: Your interests will determine the best time. Spring through fall is best for hiking, biking, fishing and camping; winter for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. Portions of the route are not maintained in winter, so check www.dot.wa.gov for road conditions and seasonal closures.
Connected or nearby scenic byways