Visit the Ginkgo Petrified Forest in Vantage, Washington and learn about the Ice Age floods and volcanic eruptions that carved a little piece of history into the very fibers of the trees that were once standing in lush forests all around Eastern Washington.
While you’re there, take in the sweeping views, visit nearby attractions, hike up to a group of horse sculptures, and relax by the pool at the amazing Sage Cliffe Resort. I took this trip with my kids (ages 9 and 11) and it was one of our best family vacations. Steeped in history, adventure, and relaxation it’s one that you don’t want to pass up.
Getting there: A shocking landscape
Pack your snacks and car games, it’s time to take a road trip! Located about 2 hours from Seattle, the Ginkgo Petrified Forest is easy to get to and a straight shot on I-90 E, past Ellensburg and right into the Wanapum Recreation Area.
The scenic drive is quite the contrast from the busy streets of Seattle and the Eastside. The lush green foliage is exchanged for sagebrush along with dry and warm temperatures. Housing developments are few and far between as highways lead your route from city to city. We cranked up the air conditioner because my kids thought that we had just entered the desert. But it’s not the desert that surrounded us, but rather a shrubsteppe biome. This type of biome only exists in some parts of the West, including Eastern Washington. It contains a diverse ecosystem and is home to many species of animals that we don’t see anywhere else.
Ginkgo petrified wood: What is it?
Petrified wood is Washington State’s national gem and for good reason. These fossils were created during volcanic eruptions, millions of years ago. As lava flowed through the forest, trees would fall and be submerged in the river. The lava flow covered the wood in the water and preserved them. A substance called silica, which is in the lava, covered the wood pieces. Over time, the silica was replaced with agate, opal and quartz.
Petrification is the only process where a once-living organism is transformed into a mineral while remaining visibly very similar to its original structure, even down to its microscopic details.
Ginkgo Petrified Forest: Outdoor exhibit
The state park is clearly marked and easy to find. There was plenty of parking and public restrooms located nearby. Picnic tables were also available for a meal, but they were not covered for shade. A Discover Pass is required.
The park itself is an open space with outdoor exhibits and an interpretive center. We stepped out of the car and were immediately blown away by the sweeping views of the Columbia River. Logs of petrified wood surround the interpretive center along with information about the wood and a timeline of geological events that caused the wood to petrify.
You can touch the wood and feel all the mineral deposits as well. A museum docent was located at the rear of the building and equipped with a table full of maps, samples, and many stories about the history of the river and the wood. Here we learned about the weight of the petrified wood. “Oh my gosh, it’s so heavy!” said my son.
We learned more about the wildlife that has sustained living in the Columbia River for millions of years and also about Pangea – the era of time when the continents were fused together.
When asked where the Ginkgo tree was from, the docent explained that it was planted in the time of Pangea and is considered a tree native to Asia. There is only one Ginkgo tree from that time period that exists today, but it is a fossil and is located on the trails not too far from the park. In recent years, the Ginkgo tree was planted, as a seedling, and can be found on the northeast side of the building.
Ginkgo Petrified Forest: Interpretive Center
Walk into the center and cool off while viewing some larger pieces of petrified wood. Look into the glass shelves and find all different types of petrified wood from a variety of trees. While we looked, my kids chose their favorite pieces. Sit on the bleachers and rest while watching a video about the area’s history.
If your children are on their quest to become a Junior Ranger, then don’t forget to pick up a booklet and/or their badge after completing the informational sheets.
Snacks and ice cream are available for purchase as well as gift shop items like t-shirts and posters, but you may want to hold off and head to the quirky shop right next door.
The Ginko Gem Shop and Dinosaurs
We noticed a huge dinosaur outside of this shop on our way into the Gingko park. On our way out of the park, we stopped in and found a massive amount of stones, gems, carvings, plates, jewelry, fossils and so much more! Just be careful- the sign on the store says, “You break it, you buy it.” It’s a wonderful place to purchase some keepsakes and gifts for friends and family, but definitely not a place for small children to wander and touch.
Ginkgo Petrified Forest: Trails
Located about 3 miles away from the park and interpretive center, there’s the Ginkgo Trailside Museum, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The museum is at the beginning of the Trees of Stone Interpretive Trail, which winds past more than 20 petrified logs in their original setting. Here you’ll find the only Ginkgo tree.
Note: Before starting the hike, a sign warns of rattlesnakes that may be on the trail. Approach the trail with much caution. We used walking sticks to make noise and made our way through the hills.
To protect the logs from theft, the tree logs are covered by red grates. Look through the holes to capture a glimpse of the wood. The mineral deposits were a bit hard to see because most of the logs were surrounded by weeds.
Where to stay: An oasis in Quincy
There are many options in Eastern Washington to make your stay comfortable. From camping in tents, staying in a motor home, or taking refuge in a luxury hotel, we opted for something in between that offered a little of everything. Sagecliffe Resort and Spa is located on a winery estate with beautiful views, a pool and plenty of privacy. Renting a room ranges from $225-$400/night, while private cottages on the property can be rented for $389/night.
Families have the option of staying in a single hotel room, a yurt or a villa. We stayed in the cavern rooms- a single hotel room with two beds, a soaking tub and a patio that faced the hillside and Columbia River. The cavern rooms themselves are set into a hillside, which makes it an amazing entry into your space. Perfect for viewing the sunset, we sat on our patio every evening and appreciated the show that the colorful sky exhibited.
We brought a small plug-in cooler with us into the hotel room, filled with breakfast foods and snacks. With cereal and fruit in hand, we spent the mornings sitting out on the patio, counting birds and watching the clouds move past. For dinner, we dined at the hotel’s restaurant, Tendrils. An upscale restaurant, it was an expensive choice but had a variety of options. My family recommends the prime rib with potatoes and the Caesar salad with chicken.
Wood Fired Pizza is another restaurant on site, that is more affordable, but not as tasty as Tendrils. Order take-out and have it brought poolside for an easy dining experience. Other options are available outside of the small city of Quincy.
The cavern rooms are located very close to the pool, making it extra easy to take a dip and head back to dry off and relax in the room. A hiking trail is also available for guests of the resort however, you must sign a waiver before making the steep descent into the canyon.
More things to do: Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies
There’s a tourist destination, located two miles east of the Vantage Bridge and over the Columbia River. It has two names: Wild Horses Monument and “Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies” by Chewelah sculptor David Govedare. Hike the 1/4-mile steep hill to this monument of 15 horses. A short but tough hike (we saw kids as young as 5 walking the trail) will take you to the line of 15 horses charging to the hillside’s edge.
Pose for photos then carefully come down the hill while feeling the intense burn in your calves. Trekking poles will help navigate through the loose rocks and sandy trails. Watch for rattlesnakes on the hike.
Even more things to do: Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility
As we drove into Eastern Washington, we noticed many windmills. Their smooth beautiful blades whipped through the air, creating power for the surrounding towns. If your family is interested in learning more about these wind farms then you don’t want to miss the free tours at the Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility.
The drive there
Driving to the facility is an experience in and of itself. As you wind around the cliffside road, gigantic windmills hover over you. It made us feel very small in comparison. Head over to the museum, any day from April to October, and take a guided tour. Be sure to bring a jacket because it can get pretty chilly, despite the hot temperatures and bright sun.
The free tour
Wearing construction hard hats we took a tour of the museum and the outdoor exhibits. Our guide described the importance of wind energy to the community and the environment while giving us a glimpse into the vast inner workings of the windmills itself. Heading down the paths around the facility, we were led into a working windmill. Our guide shared a lot of information with us about the mechanics of the machine, while also demonstrating how workers would enter the top portion of the windmill for repairs. It was an amazing experience for us and will be for other families, especially if you have little engineers in the family.
When you think of Eastern Washington don’t just think of the popular and lovely places that we frequent often, but think of these little gems that make for an amazing weekend away. This trip is definitely one that we’ll remember and will do again.
Know before you go
- Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park is located: 630 Ginkgo Ave, Vantage, WA 98950
- Sagecliffe Resort & Spa is located: 344 Silica Rd NW, Quincy, WA 98848
- The Wild Horse Monument is located: Quincy, WA 98848
- The Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility is located: 25901 Vantage Hwy, Ellensburg, WA 98926
- Remember to bring your Discovery Pass or purchase one at the Ginkgo Petrified Forest Interpretive Center
- Walking sticks, sunscreen, hats and sturdy shoes are important to bring on your trip
- Packing a cooler of food for the hotel stay will save you a little time and money
Find more things to do at Seattle’s Child