Not long ago we drove through Yakima Canyon and I couldn’t help thinking about why we enjoy living here.

The beautiful valley with its rich soil, surrounded by rolling hills and mountains with views of Mount Stuart and friends. And nearby is arguably the most scenic and uniquely spectacular canyon in the universe as we know it.

So it makes sense to preserve it to the best of our ability for our continued enjoyment and for the enjoyment of our grandchildren and future generations.

As we drove through the canyon the colors were startling. The reds and oranges of the shrubs riverside, the golden leaves of cottonwoods and aspens, the black basalt cliffs, and the tan grasses, with the liquid light of the river running through it — a more beautiful scene we could not imagine.


We spotted some bighorn sheep as we drove along and some deer on the hillside. A bald eagle was perched on a branch of a large ponderosa pine. “Wishermen” wading and floating the river were casting flies to where they were sure lie a fat, hungry rainbow trout.

We passed Umtanum Creek where a bridge crosses the river. From there a trail heads into the Umtanum Canyon. It is broad at the entrance and narrows as you go deeper.

A mile from the river you can see remnants of an old homestead, where apple, pear and walnut trees still produce their fruit. In the spring look for lilacs and flowering quince that still bloom at the site. Beavers on the job are always attempting to reroute the creek. Sometimes in the process they drown the trail in places.

We then passed the other major trailhead which goes straight up the hill to the east from the highway, presenting would-be hikers with good exercise and great views of the Kittitas Valley and the canyon below.

There are many other excellent hiking opportunities in the canyon. It is no wonder that Ellensburg residents take out-of-town guests to marvel at the beauty in our own backyard.

If it’s birds you are looking for, search no more. Umtanum Canyon was named an excellent birding area by the Audubon Society. From raptors soaring on high to songbirds such as the uncommon lazuli bunting, Lewis woodpecker and Bullock’s oriole, the canyon is a bird lover’s paradise. A great horned owl flew in front of us on one of our hikes into the canyon. We have spotted golden eagles soaring and a nest of prairie falcons high on the basalt cliffs.

There is so much to do in the canyon. The scenery alone is worth the drive. You can watch eagles and osprey dive into the river to catch a trout. Or you may want to catch one yourself with a well-placed fly.

If it’s rocks you like, the dark colored basalt are a brilliant contrast to the colors of the season: the green of spring, the tan grasses of summer and fall and the autumn colors along the river.

And sometimes a mantle of white decorates the black cliffs in the winter. Whatever your pleasure —  wildlife viewing, hiking or floating a lazy river — Yakima Canyon has much to offer.

But we aren’t the only ones who have enjoyed the canyon. There is evidence that people have lived in river corridor for over 3,000 years. Unfortunately, many traveling and recreating along the byway are unaware of the bounty of cultural history that surrounds them. The heritage of the area is too remarkable not to be shared. 

Increased and updated interpretative signage along the byway, in addition to the proposed Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway Interpretative Center, will provide the much needed educational opportunities. KEEN (Kittitas Environmental Education Network) has been educating folks for 13 years by putting on Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe in the spring. At the one-day event in May you can learn from experts about the geology and natural history of the diverse shrub-steppe environment.

Scenic byway

There are close to 30 organizations sponsoring the Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway Initiative. The major goal is to ensure that “the traveler enjoy outstanding aesthetic, historical and cultural values while also allowing access to recreation opportunities like hunting, fishing, hiking and biking in such a manner as to not interfere with the traveler on the highway.”

The effort to preserve and protect the Yakima River Scenic Byway got a tremendous boost recently when it received a $1.625 million grant to from the Federal Highway Administration’s Scenic Byway program for the purchase of critical habitat. The groups also received an $800,000 grant to build an interpretive center at the northern entrance of the canyon at Helen McCabe State Park.

Now the groups need additional donations from interested canyon lovers. We don’t need to go very far to find plenty of them.

Get involved

KEEN is always looking for a few good men and women to volunteer their expertise and labor in a wide range of activities. If you are interested or want additional information about how to help, contact Jill Scheffer or Diedra Petrina at the Forterra office (formerly Cascade Land Conservancy) in Ellensburg at 962-1654. You can go to the KEEN website to learn about upcoming events and read more about the initiative.

Is the Yakima Canyon worthy of our time, money and energy? If you have any doubt, drive through the canyon or take a hike in Umtanum Canyon. And imagine the possibilities ... Choose to become involved in this important endeavor. Let us have the foresight to preserve, protect and enhance the recreational and educational opportunities of an important part of our heritage.

Happy canyon trails!


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