The Yakima River Twists and Turns Along an Ancient Course
Carved by the river as ridges rose around it, Washington’s Yakima River Canyon offers recreation and scenery for all seasons.
A decades-long tradition takes place in the middle of winter on Washington state’s oldest scenic byway.
For a few hours on a typically frigid January or February morning, the Eaton family herds pregnant cattle down Washington State Route 821 from their winter range near Selah to spring pastures in the Yakima River Canyon. This “rodeo parade,” as one family member calls it, includes help from friends on horseback and curious onlookers in parked cars along the route.
This nostalgic spectacle — scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 6 in 2021 — is a seasonal highlight on the Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway between Ellensburg and Yakima. The two-lane highway winds 25 miles along the east side of the river past basalt cliffs, hills carpeted with sagebrush, bighorn sheep and ponderosa pines dotting the riverside.
Because of COVID-19, please take recommended safety precautions if you are planning a future trip, and always check the availability of services, events, amenities and other details before you go.
The Yakima RIver Canyon’s Past, Present and Future
Wildfire blackened the west side of the canyon in 2020, presenting a stark contrast when snow falls in winter, followed by the potential for incredible wildflowers in 2021 and beyond.
“The excitement [will] be seeing the canyon come out of the fire in the winter and regrow itself in the spring,” says Jill Scheffer, the board president of the Kittitas Environmental Education Network (KEEN) in Ellensburg.
Conservation groups like KEEN are working to protect the canyon’s shrub-steppe, a diverse habitat with many plant and animal species that can’t survive anywhere else.
Washington State Gov. Dan Evans designated the byway — also known as Canyon Road — in 1968 for motorists to slow down, relax and enjoy the picturesque drive.The river meandering just as slowly through the valley’s ridges is what carved the curving canyon in the first place; this antecedent stream existed before tectonics formed the ridges, and the flowing water cut through these ridges over millions of years as they rose. Now, the region is surrounded by ranching and irrigated farming, with the nearby Ellensburg Canyon Winery offering scenic views of the canyon.
The river and salmon within it are just as crucial to the Yakama Nation as they were centuries ago, says Brian Saluskin, whose family members have been tribal fishermen for generations. He works with the Yakama Nation Fisheries as a fish passage biologist, restoring sockeye salmon throughout the Yakima Basin.
“It’s not just about the tribe or the Yakama Nation,” he says. “It’s about all of us. We’re doing our best to preserve the resource and have it excel and exceed any of our dreams.”
Along the Yakima River
Drive the Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway at dawn or dusk in any season for a perfect view of the canyon’s changing colors and shadows without getting out of the car. Take in some of the best scenery at pullouts along the highway and look for bald eagles and osprey nesting in trees along the river.
The hillsides come to life in spring with yellow balsamroot, purple lupines and the rare basalt daisy, which grows only in the southern portion of the Yakima River Canyon. The canyon’s incredible songbird and raptor diversity includes yellow-breasted chats, lazuli buntings, ash-throated flycatchers, olive-sided flycatchers, golden eagles and prairie falcons.
Summertime brings cool mornings, sometimes with fog that settles in the canyon and glows in the rising sun. Access the river at the Bureau of Land Management’s Umtanum, Lmuma Creek, Big Pines and Roza recreation sites, which allow camping year-round. (Umtanum has a foot bridge across the river to a colorful creek hike in spring and fall, but the site is closed for construction until June 2021.)
Layer up when taking in the canyon’s fiery fall foliage as summer’s high temperatures near 90 degrees transition to autumn lows averaging in the 30s and 40s. Watch for snow and ice in the winter when temperatures dip below freezing.
On the River
Some sights of the Yakima River Canyon are best experienced from the river. Families and anglers float the slow-moving Yakima in the summer for an eye-level view of the basalt rock columns that line the canyon, deer by the banks and raptors soaring along the cliffs above.
This section of the Yakima River is a catch-and-release trout stream and has high quality fishing year-round. Winter is a favorite time for local anglers, when the river runs low amid a landscape seemingly pared to the bone, says Jack Mitchell.
He’s an outfitter who has guided anglers on the Yakima for more than 30 years, seeing elk, blue heron and the rare cougar along the way.
“It’s a dynamically great piece of water to see in one day,” he says.
–Written by Nicole Foy
–Top photo of the Eaton family cattle drive along the Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway by Sofia Jaramillo/Yakima Herald-Republic
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2021 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.