Between Ellensburg and Selah in Central Washington
Wildlife viewing and birding
North entrance: Canyon Road on the south side of I-90 at Ellensburg.
South entrance: Firing Center Road on west side of I-82 near Selah.
This preview is for a Washington State Scenic Byway rather than a single location. Highway 821 travels through the Yakima River Canyon for 27 miles between Ellensburg at the north end and Selah (near Yakima) at the south end.
The Yakima River flows between basalt cliffs and steep shrub-steppe hills, with the road following its course through the canyon. In some places the cliffs rise 2,000 feet above the river.
The geology of the area is interesting. Unlike canyons such as the Grand Canyon, the Yakima River didn’t cut through bedrock to create this one. The river is a relatively slow-moving meander, which means it has sections that curve sharply back on itself.
Meanders only form when flowing over a flat landscape, and they make lateral shifts as their courses curve and realign. So the river first flowed when the topography was dramatically different. Based on the age of ash deposits on top of a layer of river rock in nearby downtown Ellensburg, two miles from the river’s present course, geologists know that the river was here at least five million years ago.
Techtonic uplift slowly re-sculpted the flat landscape. Pressure originating in California and Nevada began moving everything northwards. The pressure eventually culminated in the Washington basalt being pushed up against the Yakima River, rising into ridges and cliffs around its meandering course to create the canyon we see today, and trapping the river permanently into its current track.
The first graded highway through the canyon was completed in 1924 after four years of construction. It was a gravel surface highway and the route included tunnels blasted through the basalt. In 1932 the highway was paved for the first time with concrete. In 1963 the route was realigned in places to bypass the old tunnels because traffic had outgrown their narrow confines.
In 1967 Washington State passed the Scenic and Recreational Highway Act in order to highlight scenic drives that show off the natural beauty of the state. Highway 821 (Canyon Road) through Yakima River Canyon was one of the first highways to receive the Scenic Byway designation.
In 1971 Interstate 82 was completed over Manastash Ridge to the east, and its opening relieved the traffic congestion through the canyon. I-82 is the quicker route to Yakima from I-90, and the four-lane freeway is much friendlier to trucking than the winding two-lane canyon road. That has left the slower canyon drive mostly for recreation purposes, though many do still use it as a through route to Selah and Yakima.
Yakima River Canyon is home to a lot of wildlife including deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and coyotes. It is an Audubon Important Bird Area with some of the highest densities of eagles, falcons, and hawks in Washington State.
As the list at the top shows, numerous recreational opportunities are available here. It’s the kind of place you can spend an hour or two on a scenic drive with a few short stops, an entire day engaging in activities, or a weekend of dry camping and outdoor recreation. There is also a private resort if that is more to your tastes for overnighting.
There are four developed Bureau of Land Management recreation sites along the river that provide day-use facilities and campgrounds. The BLM manages over 9,000 acres in the canyon area which contain hikes and are open to hunting in-season.
All of the developed BLM sites have fees. At this writing the fees are $5 for day-use and $15 for overnight. If you only stop by for a quick walk around to snap a few photos you can skip paying the fee. (Or at least, I did.) If you’re going to stay more than a few minutes pay the fee. (The money is used to maintain the rec sites.)
I haven’t spent lengthy periods in the canyon, and have only been in one of the BLM sites, so I can’t describe everything there is to see and do here. Under “Web Resources” in the Things to Know section below are links to several sources of more detailed information.
I will start at the north end near Ellensburg and mention a few points of interest along the drive heading south.
Old Gas Station
A bit south of the I-90 interchange truck stop, before you enter the canyon, there is an old abandoned gas station on the left. For most people it’s not a terribly interesting attraction, but if you enjoy photographing derelict buildings you may want to stop and have a look.
Helen McCabe State Park
As state parks go there isn’t much to this one, but since it’s on the route it deserves a mention. A Discover Pass is required, but if you’re just making a brief stop like I did and not venturing far from your car, you can get away with not having a pass.
The park is named in honor of Dr. Helen McCabe. Dr. McCabe was a Professor at Central Washington University in Ellensburg and a leader in recreation programs in the Pacific Northwest.
The park is 64 acres, 8 of which are taken up by a large pond. The pond is a result of the gravel extraction done here, with the gravel being used in the construction of I-82. The park site was originally intended to host a Yakima River Canyon interpretive center but funding has never been appropriated for it. Maybe someday.
The entrance to the gravel parking lot is on the east (left) side of Canyon Road before you enter the canyon. There is a pit toilet located in the northwest corner of the parking lot.
I didn’t see any signs of picnic tables or benches, but I only walked as far as the edge of the pond close to where I parked.
There is a trail that goes all the way around the pond and the ground is level, so if you don’t need benches for rest stops it would make for an easy and pleasant walk if its not too hot. There are trees around the edge of the pond but I don’t think there’s much shade here in the summer.
Umtanum Rec Area
The Umtanum Recreation Area is one of the developed BLM sites, and is the first one you come to after entering the canyon.
This is the only rec area in the canyon I have personally been in. It’s a bit rough, with a gravel road and parking lot, and no shade trees to speak of, but it’s a neat spot.
From the main parking lot a short gravel path leads up a to an overlook with two benches. It’s not far or steep so most people with mobility issues can still handle it.
A narrow boat launch provides access to the water but there isn’t much in the way of a beach here. If you want to play in the river there is better access across the footbridge on the other side. Other rec areas may be easier if you plan to spend the day by the water and have a lot of chairs, coolers, etc. to lug around.
A few picnic tables are located on the western edge of the parking lot. Bushes prevent a clear view of the river from the picnic area, but you still get a great view of the surrounding hills and cliffs.
Two pit toilets are located between the parking lot and campground. I’m not sure how many campsites there are, but it’s not many. Camping here is best for camper vans and RVs, not tents.
The main attraction at the Umtanum Recreation Area is a suspension footbridge across the river. It is the only river crossing in the entire canyon. Vehicles of all type are prohibited and the bridge’s entrance gate design may make wheelchair access impossible as well.
On the other side of the river are several hikes, including the popular 2 mile roundtrip Umtanum Creek hike, and access to birding and hunting. Even if you don’t plan to cross the river to go hiking it’s fun to stop here to walk out onto the bridge.
Canyon River Ranch
The Canyon River Ranch is a resort on the river, and is on one of the few privately owned tracts of land in the canyon. The ranch’s lodge has timeshare condo suites that are privately owned, but that are also rented out to the public when owners make nights available.
The ranch also offers two private campgrounds in the canyon, one at the north end and the other next to the Umptanum Rec Area. The campsites are available to the public. (I could not get info on camping fees due to their reservation system being closed for the winter.)
The Bighorn Campground at the north end can be used as a launch site for boats and inner tubes for those who want to float the river. You have to make a launch reservation to get a gate code for access. I’m not sure if there is a fee for this but I assume there is.
If you want to float the river but don’t have a boat you can rent one from Canyon River Ranch and launch at Bighorn. The ranch also offers guided float, fishing, and hunting outings.
The ranch has a fly fishing shop and restaurant located near the lodge. The restaurant is open Thursdays through Sundays. (Check the website for the seasonal menu and hours.)
Big Pines Rec Area
I haven’t actually stopped in at Big Pines, but have looked at it with aerial and streetside map views. This is the largest of the developed BLM rec sites and is also a bit more polished. The road and campsite pads are paved.
As the name implies, there are some lovely pine trees near the river in one section. If you’re tent camping these are probably the best BLM campsites for you in the canyon.
Undeveloped Rec Sites
In addition to the named BLM rec sites that have picnic, toilet, and camping facilities, there are two or three undeveloped sites along the river. Dirt roads lead off the highway to these sites that have parking and river access.
The easiest way to find them is to first look at an online map aerial view of the canyon and make note of their location in relation to the named sites. There are no markers on the highway for these undeveloped sites.
Wide Spots in the Road
There are gravel turnouts at various places along the highway all through Yakima River Canyon and these are great spots to stop for photography and wildlife viewing. I highly recommend bringing binoculars with you because you never know when there will be eagles or bighorn sheep in the distance at one of your stops.
* The highway and BLM sites are open year-round.
* The canyon can get busy in the summer, especially on weekends in July and August when lots of people come out to float the river. Because of this, the campgrounds take reservations from late spring through early fall. Campsites are first come, first served for the rest of the year.
* Other than lots of people, summer has the disadvantage of intense heat much of the time, with shade being very limited to non-existent in parts of the canyon during the hottest part of the day.
If you’re out for a day by the river you’ll want to have camp chairs with you so you can park yourself under a tree wherever you can find one if you need some respite. Most or all of the picnic areas are in the open. If you plan to do any hiking or river floating make sure you have a broad-brimmed hat, sunscreen, and plenty of water.
* Potable water is not available at any of the rec areas so bring enough with you to last the length of your stay. I believe there are a few water spigots, but the water should be filtered first for cooking and drinking. None of the campsites have hookups for RVs.
* Summer is the time to go if you want to float the river. If you want lots of company do it on a weekend. If you prefer less river traffic try to go on a weekday. Though even weekdays can be busy on the river in good weather.
* If you’re like me and prefer a more relaxed experience with lighter highway traffic, fewer people, and more comfortable weather, I recommend spring or fall, especially on weekdays. Making the drive after a fresh snow in winter would be stunningly beautiful and a good option also as long as the road isn’t icy.
* Sometimes sections of the highway are closed for day-long annual events, including a cattle drive in January or February, a marathon and bicycle tour in the spring, and a heritage tractor run in the summer. It’s a good idea to check before going if you’re making a special trip on a weekend during those times.
* The other “when to go” concern isn’t seasonal, but time of day. Because it’s a canyon, different sections are in deep shadow at different times of the day. In the afternoon the hills and cliffs to the west bring shadows to the rec areas early in some spots.
This is especially true during the short days from late fall through early spring. You’ll get the most sunlight from late morning through early afternoon. (Based on the length of daylight, not clock time.) This is a consideration mostly for those who are just driving through the canyon for the scenery or photography.
All of the photos on this page were taken between 2 and 3 pm in early November. The Umtanum pics were from a little over 2 hours before sunset and you can see that the hills were already blocking the sun in the campground and picnic areas. Only the little viewpoint still had sunlight.
* If you want to make the most of the scenic drive and gawk at the views, go slow. For most of the year traffic isn’t very heavy and you can drive at your own pace.
Some people do use the canyon highway as a through route instead of I-82 and want to get where they are going in a speedy manner. I recommend making liberal use of the turnouts if you have vehicles behind you in order to let them pass. That way you can mosey along at a relaxed pace and enjoy the scenery without slowing others down or picking up an irritated tailgater.
* Powered watercraft are prohibited on the river through most of the canyon. The exception is the stretch between the Roza Rec Site and Roza Damn at the south end. Also, I believe that fishing is flyfishing only, and only catch and release for all or most of the year. If you plan to go fishing check current regulations for the time of your trip.
Things to Know
No time of day or seasonal closures.
Two benches at the Umtanum viewpoint.
Picnic tables in all of the developed BLM rec areas.
Pit toilets at McCabe State Park and all of the developed BLM rec areas.
Parking lots are available at McCabe State Park and all BLM rec areas. Most of them are dirt or gravel.
For most of the year finding parking is no trouble. In the summer, especially on weekends, the rec areas can get busy, especially where river floaters put in and take out.
A Discover Pass is required at McCabe State Park but there is no fee. The developed BLM sites have a $5 day-use fee to park. I don’t think there is a fee at the undeveloped sites.
Gravel turnouts along the highway provide places to park for brief stops, and are sometimes used for longer parking by flyfishers and boaters on the river. Outside of summer there is usually room at all or most of the turnouts. In the summer some may be full but others will have room. No passes or fees required at the turnouts.
I have only been in the Yakima River Canyon in the fall. Twice in earlier fall in September and October in the north section, and once in early November through the entire canyon. I think all trips were on weekdays. Traffic was fairly light all three times and usage at Umtanum was medium to very low.
I’m not sure how busy the canyon typically gets on warm weekends and in the summer, but based on the numerous recreational opportunities and photos I’ve seen of floaters on the river, you can expect things here to be hopping at times with a lot more traffic on the highway.
Elk, deer, bighorn sheep, hawks, eagles, falcons, and other birds.
River, basalt rocks, trees, boats, suspension bridge, canyon landscapes, wildlife.
Best light: morning or afternoon, but at least an hour from sunrise or sunset or too many areas will be in shadow. Two to three hours provides more cushion and more areas in direct sunlight.
Map location (This link is for the state park. Zoom out to see the wider area and canyon route.)
REI webpage with info about the canyon
City of Selah webpage with info about the BLM sites and canyon recreation opportunities
Bird Fest (annual event in May)