Part agriculture, part recreation and all tourism, the Bountiful Byway allows travelers to circumnavigate Thurston County in a self-guided tour.
The county commissioners starting imagining the route in 2010 because of one reality: Thurston County has more than 68,000 acres of farmland and $122 million in annual market sales, yet most travelers cut straight through the county on Interstate 5, never seeing the bounty of agriculture that includes farmers markets, wineries, and farms large and small that produce meat, eggs, fruits and vegetables.
They also miss many of the county’s most beautiful hikes.
So the commission established the agritourism overlay district in south Thurston County in 2012. The Byway was officially launched in 2014.
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The 62-mile route stretches from Mud Bay, skirting Capitol State Forest, across south county, turning north at Yelm and ending at Nisqually.
“The goal was to get people off the freeway and spend time and money locally,” county commissioner Sandra Romero said.
“Agritourism and culinary are the two biggest tourism attractions,” said Shauna Stewart, executive director of the Olympia-Lacey-Tumwater Visitor & Convention Bureau. She said tourists — especially from China, the United Kingdom and Germany — seek agritourism.
The county has produced a preliminary map and brochure on the Byway, and a Facebook page has been created. Signs have been put on along the route so drivers can find their way.
However, while some tourism points are highlighted on the brochure, there are not yet any signs along the Byway that say “stop here.” So for the time being, drivers are on their own to figure out which sites are worth pulling over for.
“We’re still taking baby steps,” Romero said, explaining that the map, both digital and print, is a work in progress.
Stewart said the VCB will help develop a social media presence, a website and new map to highlight attractions and help businesses take advantage of Byway traffic.
The VCB plans to do business readiness training, and as more businesses become aware of the Byway potential, they will have the option of buying signs that would have the Byway emblem, the business name and an arrow.
Businesses that fit into the agritourism mold can become Byway members at a cost of $200 per year. Nonprofits making less than $100,000 are charged $100. The application form also notes that businesses can ask about trade opportunities.
Not everyone along the Byway is a fan. Missy Genson, co-owner of the Mason Dixon Line Restaurant in Rochester, says the fee to be part of the Byway promotion is unfair to small businesses.
“It’s unfair that small businesses are charged double from nonprofits,” Genson said. “The concept of agritourism and Bountiful Byway is based on the county’s hostility to real agribusiness, not some cute, boutiquey drive that’s never going to happen here.”
But Romero says the Byway is set up to promote existing businesses and farms.
“We’re not trying to create boutiques and squeeze anybody out,” Romero said. “We’re trying to promote tourism to support agriculture.”
Tourists — whether from out of the region or locals on a day trip — will find the route can be driven in one day, but it also easily breaks into segments.
The western leg is great for hiking and includes McLane Nature Trail, Margaret McKenny campground and trailhead, and the Mima Mounds.
The southern leg goes through the county’s small towns and is a good choice for checking out storefronts, including wineries and antique stores.
The eastern leg turns north in Yelm and ends at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, another great area for a nature hike.
Visitors who want to break their exploration into loops can turn north in Grand Mound and get on the freeway. Or if they are driving the western leg, turn east at Littlerock. Drivers can get hop on Interstate 5, or cross under it, to explore Millersylvania State Park.
“I’ve done the Byway a couple of times, but I don’t do the whole thing at once,” Romero said. “I’ve taken it in a couple of chunks, which works pretty well for me.”
She advises people to plan ahead on some key stops and check for visiting hours.
And don’t forget to take a Discover Pass, which allows visitors parking access at state parks and recreation areas along the route.