Rare basalt daisies growing in part of the longest known lava flow on Earth. The densest population of nesting hawks, eagles and falcons in Washington. Native rainbow and cutthroat trout. The longest river lying completely within our state’s borders. The Yellowstone Trail. Drift boat anglers and schools of rafters sporting lots of sunscreen and beverages.
Need we say more?
That, of course, describes Washington state’s first scenic byway, State Route 821, known affectionately to locals as the Canyon. Winding along the beautiful Yakima River, SR 821 draws travelers from near and far.
But if the lure of world-class fly fishing, swimming, camping, birdwatching, hiking, boating, and searching for flora and fauna, both native and imported, are not enough to reel you into a drive through the Canyon, how about award-winning cuisine and wine, or a hunting or fishing trip with professional guides recruited from around the world?
The past year saw some curtailment of activities in this storied area, as with most places. But heading into summer 2021, nearly all areas are up and running wide open. Lists of activities as well as advice on preparing for them is easily found by searching online for Yakima River Canyon.
Some of the information comes from government sites such as www.recreation.gov, used by the U.S. Dept of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management for information about public land use. BLM manages about 9,000 acres in the Yakima River Canyon region. The developed river access sites are the Umtanum, Lmuma Creek, Big Pines, and Roza Recreation areas.
Those four spots are considered dispersed camping, meaning away from developed recreation facilities, and with limitations on the length of stay. The BLM sites are open year around, do not have drinking water or hookups available, but do provide picnic tables and fire rings, vault toilets, a river put-in/take-out site and garbage collection. The fee is $5 for day use, $15 for an overnight stay.
On the website, reservations may be made up to six months in advance for mid-May to mid-September. The rest of the year camping is on a first-come, first-served basis.
The Umtanum site has been undergoing improvements and repairs to the bridge, which provides the only way to walk across the Canyon. It will remain closed until at least the middle of this month.
Guidelines for visiting BLM lands are posted on their website and follow CDC guidelines. They currently include staying home if sick, practicing social distancing and good hygiene, traveling with items such as toilet paper, and soap/water/hand sanitizer, avoiding unnecessary risks in order to not put a strain on local first responders, medical providers, and/or search and rescue teams, wildfire prevention, and following leave-no-trace practices.
Leaving no trace is in line with management of the entire Canyon. The Selah Cliffs Natural Area Preserve was established in 1993 to protect habitat of the endangered basalt daisy, which grows only in the Yakima River and Selah Creek canyons.
The preserve includes an interpretive trail system including an ADA-accessible crushed-gravel half-mile loop with interpretive signs. Access to it is from a small parking lot off an access road just south of mile marker 3. The entrance is about seven miles north of Yakima.
A Washington State Discover Pass is required to park and no restrooms are available. In the past, volunteer stewards have led educational field trips and helped maintain the area.
As of mid-May, DNR lands were beginning to open fully and information on the current status of the Selah Cliffs NAP can be found at www.dnr.wa.gov/SelahCliffs or by calling the southeast region National Areas manager at 509-925-0906.
A preserve to help protect the fragile daisy habitat was also established in 1993 by The Nature Conservancy. Originally 391 acres, a portion of that land was transferred to the BLM to be managed under its Yakima River Canyon Management Plan.
The Nature Conservancy retained 105 acres, which even includes an island in the river. Their goal is to “protect plant and animal life along with scenic and recreational resources considered significantly beneficial to the region’s economy and residents.”
While the outdoor activities available in the Canyon attract many visitors, even those who prefer to observe from inside find plenty to see. The winding, two lane road has been rated among the best scenic highways in Washington. Most of the route has 45 mph speed limit and every year from May 15-Sept. 15 it is closed to commercial truck combinations.
A Sunday afternoon drive or a trip through as part of the “Yellowstone Trail” could produce sightings of bighorn sheep, elk, deer or bald eagles perched on nests near the riverbank. The Yellowstone Trail was a project to create an automobile route across America in the early 1900s, resulting in maps, travel guides and increased tourism on what are today, mainly slower, less traveled roads.
At certain times during the year, SR 821 may be less traveled, but summer and fall are not that time. Hunting and fishing enthusiasts head to Red’s Fly Shop, where experts are ready to help anyone looking to wet a line in the world-renowned catch and release fishery of the lower Yakima River Canyon. The state department of fish and wildlife considers it Washington’s most abundant rainbow trout fishery.
Also creating traffic and filling parking areas on warm summer days are the river floaters. Many Yakima Valley residents have a tale to tell about floating the river, and it often becomes an annual event. Rafters are encouraged to consult online advice regarding safety issues and general information including water temperature and speed and length of float. All can be found for free at www.redsflyshop.com. The site includes a downloadable Yakima River Canyon Floaters map and mileage chart.
The shop also rents various sized rafts which includes the use of their valet shuttle service. The Yakima Canyon vehicle shuttle service may also be purchased separately with cost depending on the length of the river float.
Nearly all services at Red’s, near mile marker 15, are open for service, including Canyon River Grill, a restaurant run by award-winning executive chef Kevin Davis. The shop is on the 37-acre Canyon River Ranch, which includes a 20-site real estate development, the Canyon River Lodge, a private vineyard, hiking trails, a swimming pool, and private boat launches. Cabin rentals remain on hold, but lodge rooms may be booked at www.canyonriverlodge.net/reserve-your-suite/
CRR also owns and operates Bighorn Campground and boat launch near mile marker 22. The private tent and RV dry campground takes online reservations only at www.redsflyshop.com/camping-at-bighorn/. The fly shop also offers guided hunting and fishing opportunities, with information available on their website.
Adventures, big and small await visitors to the Yakima River Canyon. Perhaps the discovery of a bright, white and gold one-of-a-kind flower or a ewe and lamb in a herd of bighorn sheep dotting the sagebrush hillside. Maybe even a trophy-sized rainbow on the hook or a view of raptors soaring above 2,000-foot cliffs.
Or perhaps all of them at the same time, seen with feet cooling in the water while bobbing down the river. Anything’s possible in our Canyon.