Why visit Union Gap for a summer family vacation or homeschool field trip?
Family friendly destinations take many forms. That variety is where our homeschooling family finds some of our favorite family travel experiences. In Central Washington’s Yakima Valley, the Evergreen State’s third longest river is the foundation of a fertile land home to much of the nation’s pears, apples, and cherries (not to mention hops and wine, and don’t get us started about the delectable asparagus). A Union Gap summer family trip not only takes you to an agricultural hub. It weaves in the outdoors, regional history, and more, in a down-to-earth place that stays true to its deep roots.
We want to thank Visit Union Gap for sponsoring our visit. Our opinions, however, are our own.
The perks of driving to Union Gap via the Lewis and Clark Highway
When getting to Central Washington, one option is to fly into nearby Yakima or the Tri-Cities. From hubs such as Portland, we suggest driving to Union Gap via Washington’s scenic Lewis and Clark Highway, State Route 14.
If, like us, you’re familiar with zipping along the Columbia River Gorge from the Oregon side on I-84, Route 14 is a rolling, slightly slower change of scene. Winding east from Vancouver, Route 14 takes you through small towns and along outdoor stops. All the while your view includes angular rock outcroppings, the powerful Columbia, and the Oregon side of the Gorge. A little outside of Maryhill and the Stonehenge WWII Memorial, you’ll change from Route 14 to Highway 97. The river fades, but soon you find yourself rolling up and down hills and through evergreen forests.
Descending into the Yakima Valley itself, a summer trip might show you hills covered in dormant yellow grass. Don’t let that fool you. Some of America’s best farmland is before you. So is a community that takes pride in its history and industry.
Enjoy diner-style burgers and a refreshing shake at the Pepp’rmint Stick Drive-In
When cruising for dinner, we found ourselves craving a good ole-fashioned burger. Since the late 1940s, people having that same hankering soon find themselves at the Pepp’rmint Stick Drive-In.
The crispy fries and sweet-savory secret sauce on the burgers were delicious enough. But the big attraction for us? The peppermint milk shake. The minty flavor refreshed our palates while we ate and cooled us down on a hot day. The crushed pieces of peppermint made the kids giggle with every gulp.
Free breakfast and outdoor pool at the Best Western Plus Ahtanum Inn
With clean, budget-friendly family hotels to stay in, Union Gap offers families simple accommodation that’s near everything you’ll want to experience.
After checking in at the Best Western Plus Ahtanum Inn, our kids jumped with delight. The outdoor pool and enclosed courtyard were just a few feet away from our room’s back patio. During an evening splash, other guests and kids joined us at the pool, winding down on a warm summer night. In one corner of the pool, a group of publishing industry professionals discussed current events in the industry—and perhaps the next day could be found in one of the inn’s large meeting rooms.
In the morning, Anthony hit the free fitness center to get in solo active time and prep for the day. During our family travels, we love exploring local eateries, but sometimes we want breakfast to be simple and close by. The inn’s included hot breakfast gave us good options to choose from. Aster especially enjoyed making her own waffle at the waffle bar.
From the inn, we saw that we were close to Union Gap’s major roads as well as various restaurants, and the Valley Mall was less than a 10-minute walk away. But our family had another destination in store.
Farm to field trip: History, agriculture, and cool machines come alive at the Pioneer Power Show
Union Gap combines a passion for agriculture with preserving tradition. Kids can also get up close and personal with regional history. One of our values in homeschooling is providing perspective on past ways of life, earlier generations, and hands-on ways to learn how things work. At Union Gap’s 40th Annual Pioneer Power Show, held at the 17-acre Central Washington Agricultural Museum, they got all that—and more.
Located off I-82 near the southern end of Union Gap, the Central Washington Agricultural Museum had front grassy fields full of cars and pickups. Riding a “people mover” wagon pulled by a tractor, we wound past thousands of examples of the tools and equipment that helped farmers work the land and manage crops here since the late 1800s, such as a steam tractor, an all-wood silo, and an experimental asparagus harvester.
Horses paraded. People wandered the quilt show and the flea market. Men demonstrated a traditional saw mill, and the scent of fresh-cut timber wove through the summer air. Connor and Aster followed a mechanized apple packing line. After polishing and de-leafing apples, it then sorted each fruit into a box by weight. Modern tech brings the museum alive, too. Scan QR cards with your phone for 90-second highlight videos and explanations about each of the 33 themed exhibits. We could even take in our first Tractor Pull. Different sizes and styles of tractors showed their strength by pulling weighted sleds. It’s pretty exciting to see the determined drivers when they complete a successful pull.
While there were examples of water rams and even a massive, coal-powered machine that once ran ammonia refrigerant to cool a fruit facility, newer tech was on display too. Aster contented herself with a turn scooping and dumping loads of dirt with the digging arm of a mini-excavator. Nearby, Lady Barlow’s Odditorium wowed audiences with displays of things strange and explanation-defying. Throughout the show, the scents of hot dogs and cooked corn on the cob wafted through the air, and the kids cooled themselves with fresh made ice cream.
Feast on the James Beard Award-winning tamales at Los Hernandez
After a morning at the Pioneer Power Show, we headed to Main Street for lunch at a low-key yet local favorite spot. Los Hernandez has served up fresh tamales since 1990. In 2018, this local business received global renown when it received a James Beard America’s Classics award.
While the kids loved the both the pork and chicken tamales, the true star of the tamale menu featured one of the Yakima Valley’s signature crops. The pepper jack and asparagus tamales combined the zing of the cheese, the corn’s sweetness, and the powerful, fresh, vegetal flavor of Yakima asparagus.
Get your 5 a day at Fruit City
While we are fans of fresh tamales and savory burgers, we also can’t pass up farm-fresh produce, especially in Union Gap, where “farm” and “fresh” go with everything in the area. Since 1966, family-run Fruit City has passed down the generations and the bounty of the season. When we stopped by on an August afternoon, the sweet baby watermelons were plump, and the sweet corn’s juicy kernels gleamed.
We also picked up a head of the Fruit City’s signature smoked garlic. Minced up, it added a sweet yet subtle smokiness to everything from hummus and guacamole, to summer veggies fresh off the grill.
A Union Gap summer family trip is a fresh-air getaway for homeschool, vacation, or a long weekend
These, of course, were just a few of the family friendly options available in Union Gap. Our “next time” list includes the Escape the Maddness escape room, more stops on the All-American Burger Trail, some wine tasting parent-only time, and local trails, such as the views of the valley from Ahtanum Ridge and the calming natural space of the Yakima Greenway. But tops on our calendar? Held every spring, the Asparafest celebrates fresh Yakima asparagus, and restaurants throughout Union Gap serve up special, limited-time asparagus-centered dishes.
Our Union Gap summer family trip gave us the chance to connect as a family, while getting hands-on with history. It was the combination of family vacation and homeschool field trip that we love to experience with our kids. And Union Gap is the sort of down-to-earth town that’s easy for a family to visit—and start planning to come back.