Explore Washington’s Yakima River Canyon

By Rick Stedman

The Yakima River Canyon has always been a special place, even before The Nature Conservancy designated it in 1993 as a “desert oasis in eastern Washington.”

It’s easy to appreciate that description while driving through the canyon that parallels the Yakima River, which is flanked by precipitous basalt cliffs rising as much as 2,000 feet. Photographers like the famous Ansel Adams have photographed these stark features that are everchanging as the sun moves across the sky.

To get to the Yakima River Canyon, drive east from Seattle on I-90, and take exit 109 near the town of Ellensburg. This puts you on Highway 821 – the Canyon Road – which leads you into the Yakima River Canyon.

The 25-mile Canyon Road connects the towns of Ellensburg and Yakima, following the contours of the Yakima River. While nesting hawks, eagles and falcons enjoy the cliffs above, visitors explore the Yakima River Canyon and all its year-round offerings. This bucolic setting also features the tamest waters of the 214-mile Yakima River as it gently meanders through the canyon.

Outdoor playground

Outdoor activities are plentiful within the Yakima River Canyon, which is popular for wildlife viewing, fishing and floating the river. From May through September, many visitors rent rubber rafts from local vendors and float this part of the river, which is a Class 1 category, the tamest of all on the 1-6 scale.

Fishing is another draw in the Yakima River Canyon. Anglers can find two types of trout in the Yakima River – rainbow trout and westslope cutthroat trout. The state manages this area using selective gear regulations, and it is catch and release with all trout. But it’s the thrill of landing a fighting wild trout that continually draws anglers back to this portion of the river.

The Bureau of Land Management oversees more than 9,000 acres in the Yakima River Canyon, including four developed but primitive camp sites that offer river access. Those campgrounds include: Umtanum, at milepost 16; Lmumu Creek campground at milepost 12; Big Pines at milepost 10; and Roza campground at milepost 7, a half-mile above Roza dam. Also, at the Umtanum site, you’ll find a footbridge that provides the only pedestrian access to the west side of the river within the Yakima River Canyon. 

The sites are open year-round, however, there are no hook ups or potable water available. This is strictly dry camping. Available amenities at all four sites include picnic tables and fire rings, vault toilets, a river put-in/take-out site and garbage collection.

Reservations for campsites can be made at recreation.gov from May 15 to Sept. 15. Overnight camping is $15 a night and day-use is $5 per vehicle. In addition to camping, picnicking, swimming and fishing, visitors can also hike and explore the numerous trails. 

Upscale options

Located near milepost 15 is Canyon River Ranch. This upscale property offers plenty of pampering for visitors. This unique private property features more than 1,000 feet of private waterfront, fabulous views, spacious suites and Red’s Fly Shop, which can set you up for fly fishing, rafting or numerous other activities. There’s also a winery on the property and scrumptious cuisine at the Canyon River Grill. Canyon River Ranch visitors can also experience the exclusive Bighorn Campground, a private campground located on the river at milepost 22. 

Washington wine country

With more than 1,000 wineries in the state, it’s not hard finding a Washington winery. The state is second only to California in U.S. wine production, and eastern Washington is the epicenter of wine growing and manufacture.

One of those wineries is Ellensburg Canyon Winery, which is located right on Canyon Road; turn left on Canyon Vista Way, less than six miles from I-90. Serving wines like Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Riesling, the winery also features award-winning Cougar Gold cheeses, which are produced at Washington State University in Pullman. Nothing complements a good glass of wine better than a good cheese.