What’s a Walla Walla? It’s a Indian name meaning “many waters”. It’s also the name of a charming town in southeastern Washington; nestled close to the Columbia and Snake River valleys, and with a river of its own, the name is appropriate. This town of just over 30,000 offers visitors an interesting destination for a few day visit as it was witness to key events in the history of the American Northwest and is an important agricultural region, with wine production rising geometrically over the past decades.
A brief history of Walla Walla
Walla Walla and Cayuse Indians lived in the Walla Walla Valley when the Lewis and Clark Expedition arrived on their return journey from the Pacific Ocean in 1806. Shortly thereafter fur traders built a trading post and fort nearby on the Nez Perce trail. The historic Oregon Trail passed through Walla Walla and some of the pioneers who traveled this route settled here during their journey west. By the 1860’s Walla Walla was the largest city in the Washington Territory and built the region’s first bank and college. In the 20th century it’s developed into an important farming region with agriculture still the main economic engine.
A visit to Walla Walla
Our three hour drive from Spokane to Walla Walla takes us across the Palouse, the hilly farming belt of southeastern Washington. It’s a lovely drive in the spring and summer because you are treated to endless fields of wheat (the dominant crop) that seem alive as they ripple in the wind. Walla Walla is famous for its large sweet onions (sweet because of low sulfur in the soil and their high water content — great on a burger!); increasingly the area is emerging as a dominant producer of fine wine. This explosion in wineries has brought with it a flush of cash that has lead to a renovation of the historic downtown area and a proliferation of excellent restaurants and shops.
Things to do in Walla Walla
1) Wineries: There are around 100 wineries in Walla Walla — all small, often family run businesses. Some of these produce among the most sought after wine in the country and much of their wine can only be purchased on a subscription basis (i.e. everything they produce is pre-sold). Most would agree that Walla Walla is the best destination in the Northwest for a few days of wine touring. Like the Napa Valley, it’s popular for people to ride their bikes or drive through the Walla Walla Valley and sample and buy wine. I’m not a great wine connoisseur but I can recognize good wine and there are some excellent, reasonably priced reds and whites produced here (also some very expensive vintages). The climate and soil make for excellent grape growing but a major challenge to growing grapes in Walla Walla Valley is the risk of a killing freeze during the winter (which occurs once every six or seven years).
2) Historic City & Farmer’s Market: The downtown area of Walla Walla has been extensively restored and is very pleasant to explore, with an assortment of interesting shops and restaurants. On weekends in the summer (Saturday and Sunday mornings) there’s a farmer’s market which will offers excellent local produce, such as sweet onions, vegetables and apples, and a few crafts. The city has several nice parks in which to walk or play or relax, with a fun to explore avarium in Pioneer Park.
3) Whitman Mission National Historic Site: Located several miles west of Walla Walla. Missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were among the first settlers in the region, arriving in 1836. Although the Whitmans had come to convert Indians to Christianity, Marcus Whitman was also a doctor and often treated the local Cayuse people. During the mid-1840s, a wagon train introduced a measles epidemic to the area and the Cayuse, who had no resistance to the disease, began dying in large numbers. The Cayuse had a tradition of killing medicine men who could not cure disease and in 1847 several Cayuse attacked and killed the Whitmans and 9 other residents of the mission. The massacre at the Whitman Mission prompted a war on the Cayuse and a demand for territorial status for the Oregon territory (including at that time Washington), granted in 1848. Today nothing remains of the mission but a short trail leads through the mission site and its lovely setting. The visitor center is small but has a few useful exhibits.
4) Fort Walla Walla Museum: This museum is located within the one-square-mile military reservation that served as Fort Walla Walla in the 19th century. The museum houses an extensive collection of pioneer-era buildings, including log cabins, old schoolhouses, a jail, blacksmith and barber shops, and an old railway station. There’s a large collection of old (horse era) farming equipment including a fascinating massive old combine pulled by 33 mules, developed for the Palouse. I think children especially would enjoy these antiques.
5) Colleges: Walla Walla is a college town of some reknown, home to Whitman College, called “the Harvard of the West”. We enjoy walking through college grounds and this is a nice compact campus to explore. The residential streets close to the university are lined with grand old homes and large shade trees, adding to its charm and character. A positive impact of colleges is their stimulation of cultural events in a town (eg. music programs at Whitman College). Walla Walla Community College offers an associates degree in wine-making.
6) Outdoor activities: The Palouse offers seemingly endless opportunities for hiking, fishing, hunting, horseback riding, boating, canoeing, camping and golf. In the winter, there are opportunities for downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling.
7) Dayton: A short drive from Walla Walla is the historic city of Dayton. It’s main street is worth a stroll. Especially interesting is the old Train Depot and Courthouse.
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