Recently we went on a wonderful weekend road trip together as a family. Last year we had heard about a little museum and fossil digging site over in eastern Washington, and we looked forward all winter to this summer, when we could get over there and try our hand at digging for fossils.
We started out on Friday evening after Aaron got through with work. It was a comedy (as usual) to try to cram all of our camping gear into the trunk of the Camry, but we managed to make enough of it fit, and hit the freeway north out of town just in time to sit in rush hour traffic. We made a pretty straight shot up to Highway 20, heading east over the pass to the Winthrop area. We pulled into Klipchuck campground around 9pm, with just enough light to set up camp and heat up some dinner. We fell in love with the campground immediately, and it was only about 2/3 full, so we had a good selection of sites to choose from. It smelled so lovely, like those eastern Cascades forests are known for – pines and firs and fragrant underbrush combined with warm evening air. The kids ran around in the last of the light, and helped us to set up camp.
Gabriel and Annika were up bright and early the next morning – why would they be up at 5:45 am when they went to bed later than usual? Probably the excitement of being in a special place, though the cacophony of bird song might have had something to do with it. After trying to get them to go back to sleep, a few minutes later we heard the unmistakable patter of raindrops on the tent fly. We do not have a weather-proof tent, so I hurriedly dug in the trunk of the car for the blue tarp, and tossed it over the tent as best as I could. At that point we gave up on more sleep and everyone creaked out of their sleeping bags and greeted the morning.
Thankfully the rain was just a teasing sprinkle, and was the last our campsite would see for the remainder of the weekend. We took our time with breakfast and morning chores, and the kids explored the little trails within eyesight of us.
Even in the morning it was warm enough for shorts. We observed the birds, enjoying the antics of woodpeckers, tanagers, and many other unidentified birds. Annika noticed a little warbler baby on the ground near a tree by our picnic table – it was fledging and soon hopped and fluttered back up the tree, making its way awkwardly back toward an invisible nest higher up. We found a huge cricket had hidden in one of our camp chairs as it was folded up for the night.
Little chipmunks scurried on the periphery of camp, looking for crumbs we might have dropped.
I really wished I knew more bird songs, as the numbers of different birds was spectacular. Gabriel found a bird nest on the ground and wanted to take it home.
I said no, so he figured out how to copy it and made his own bird nest replica from found natural items.
The kids put the original nest back in the area they found it.
We left camp around 10 to drive further east on Highway 20 and the town of Republic, our main goal for the trip. On the way we stopped in Twisp at Hank’s, a grocery store, to pick up more ice and a few items we had forgotten to pack.
Annika saw a little mouse in the parking lot, but inside were even more impressive animals – huge game animals from around the world were displayed on many of the food cases.
The most dramatic was a chase scene with a lion and some kind of warthog or other tusked pig-like creature. We gawked and took photos like the tourists we were.
I wanted to go to the Ranger Station that was on the map, because I have a friend who works there in the summers, but we couldn’t find it in town. We turned around and went back into town, and pulled over at a little sign for an interpretive center. I walked into the brand new Methow Valley Interpretive Center to ask if the ranger station was anywhere near. I learned that it’s no longer open in Twisp, and we would have to go back to Winthrop to find one.
So instead we looked around the interpretive center for a bit. The kids completed a worksheet with questions that took them through most of the exhibits.
Though the Center is small, it is full of stuff to learn, including geology and natural history of the area, birds, native plants, and Native American history and use of the Methow Valley. It’s definitely worth a stop for families if you are in the area, and I look forward to returning in the future to see how the exhibits evolve. The cost is free, though they are accepting donations.
By this time we had killed a couple of hours, so we hopped back in the car and continued east on Hwy 20. The road goes over the beautiful, forested Loup Loup pass and then drops back down into the small towns of Okanogan and Omak, where we were surprised to find a Walmart and Starbucks, as well as other big name stores. The highway winds through some beautiful, varied country as it continues east toward Republic.
We stopped briefly at a picnic area/trailhead to make a quick, late lunch. We were very happy to reach Republic and the Stonerose Interpretive Center and Eocene Fossil Site at around 2:30. I recommend getting there earlier in the day; they close the fossil beds at 4pm and you’ll want to take your time with the museum and fossil digging.
The museum is easy to find, even if you forget to print out the address and directions like I did. Republic only has a couple of main streets, and there are signs for the Interpretive Center off the highway. You can also see the fossil dig site a few blocks away. Stonerose was named for their mascot fossil, the Florissantia quilchenensis.
They have many neat fossils on display in the museum, and lots of history stuff to look at, too. The area was a big mining area back in the olden days. We didn’t spend much time looking at the educational materials, as our time for fossil hunting would be limited. We paid our admission fee for the dig site (adults are $8, children 6-18 are $5, and children under 6 are free) and the staff gave us a short orientation of how and what to dig. We could have rented equipment for digging, but we had enough with us to suffice. We quickly changed out of sandals and into boots, smeared on sunscreen and put on our hats and sunglasses. It was just a short walk up to the fossil digging site; you can see it from the parking area at the museum. The only parking at the site requires a handicap permit.
I was a bit worried about the short time we would have to dig, and kind of regretted the sightseeing we did along the way there. But right away Aaron found a fossil, and the rest of us found some, too.
It turned out we were able to get our limit of 3 each within the hour that we had to collect. The best ones I found were sitting on the top of the ground; perhaps they had been discarded by other fossil hunters. Gabriel found the best of all – a fragment of the Florissantia flower blossom. The rock was shale and sandstone, and we quickly figured out how to break the layers carefully apart to reveal the fossils inside. The hillside we were digging on was an ancient lakeshore, and parts of plants had fallen into the mud, gotten covered with more mud, and over the eons fossilized. We got covered in dirt and dust, and slipped and slid on the hillside as we wielded our hammers and screwdrivers. From the hillside we could look out over the town and surrounding forests.
We dug until the closing time, and took our loot back to the Interpretive Center to be identified. One of the staff members looked at all our fossils and told us what they were. She circled the items on a reference sheet, and marked a corresponding number on the back of the fossil itself.
We picked the best 12 out of all of them, and left the rest for the Center to use. If we had found something of particular value, Stonerose would have kept it for scientific purposes.
We had enough time to poke around the museum a bit before getting back in the car for the long drive back to our campsite. It had started clouding over when we were digging, and by the time we were finished with the museum, it was pouring rain.
We drove through alternating rain and sun all the way back to Winthrop, even seeing an intense thunderstorm.
We weren’t sure what we’d find at our camp, but thankfully it was dry and sunny there, and hadn’t rained any more. I was glad, because our lovely blue tarp had blown off our tent. Aaron tied it to some trees so it would be more secure.
We had picked up a bundle of firewood before we got back to camp, and Aaron and the kids made a fire while I cooked dinner.
I had brought along some homemade dehydrated pasta sauce and pasta to try. It took awhile for the meat to rehydrate (and it stayed pretty chewy), but I must say it was so nice to just put some water in the pot, heat it up for a bit, and have a tasty meal with very little prep in camp. We paired that with a fresh salad I had made at home, and we had a great little dinner. S’mores and cocoa ended our evening. We saw some deer in camp as we went to do our final visit to the outhouse.
We all slept really well that night. The next morning we took our time getting our stuff together and did some more exploring around the campground.
There is a little trail that leads down to Early Winters Creek and along it. The creek is not one that is safe to play in, but it is gorgeous and worth a look.
We listened to the birds some more, looked at flowers and took photos, and just enjoyed our last morning out.
We left the campground a few minutes before noon, and headed back west over Hwy 20. On the drive back, we stopped at most of the overlooks and took tons of photos.
We also stopped at the Happy Creek Forest Walk and did the easy little hike there.
It’s a delightful destination and great place to stretch the legs, plus it’s wheelchair accessible and friendly for small children.
Several hours later we were home, unpacking the trunk and running warm baths and showers.
This was a really fun trip for our family. If you go, it would be best to allow a few more days for the sightseeing, and it’s a ton of driving for one weekend. But it’s doable. We liked having one camp to come back to, instead of packing up the first morning and camping closer to Republic. It was nice not to have to worry about where to stay and the work of breaking camp and settling in to a new one. We all thought that Klipchuck is our new favorite. It has running water, clean pit toilets, and lots of privacy. It’s about a mile off the highway, so you don’t get very much noise from the traffic.
We saw spectacular scenery, tons of wildflowers, birds and critters, and rocks and fossils. It was a great weekend!