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Five walks and one drive to enjoy fall colors in the Yakima-Ellensburg area

After a brutal summer characterized by record-setting heat and wildfire smoke, now is the time to get outside in the Yakima Valley.

I would argue that autumn is the best season for hiking in Central Washington. There’s less wind, cooler weather and lots of places to explore if you are interested in fall foliage. It’s a great time to check out some new areas and revisit old haunts.

Here are five short, gentle walks and one drive that will provide ample opportunity for viewing fall colors. All of these options are family-friendly and would be good outings for smaller kids. Most of these will be familiar to locals, but if you need a reminder to venture out before the snow flies, consider this it.

Yakima walks & hikes

Yakima Arboretum: The arboretum is a must in October for the colors emanating from the oaks, maples and sweetgums. A gentle walk around the property is restorative, as is a stop at the Japanese garden, one of Yakima’s best-kept secrets. It’s an ideal place to spend a sunny fall afternoon with family. Bring a blanket and a picnic. If you’d like a longer walk, take the path up to the Yakima Greenway along the Yakima River.

Cowiche Canyon Trail: All of the Cowiche Canyon Conservancy trails are worth exploring right now, but I’d like to point people to the main canyon trail. After hiking the canyon in early July with out-of-town guests, I put it on hold because of the heat. I went back on a weekday evening in late September and was reminded how peaceful and beautiful it can be. The sumacs were a brilliant red at that point, and the entire landscape was transformed. An online trail report from a hiker this week said the willows are yellow and the water birch are starting to turn.

Tieton River Nature Trail: This is the place to go for garry oaks, but you’ll also see cottonwoods, aspens, willows and red-osier dogwood. There are two main access points: the footbridge across from the Oak Creek Wildlife Area Visitor Center on U.S. Highway 12 or 1.3 miles west at the suspension bridge and Quonset hut. If you are new to this hike, start with the more solid footbridge access and go through the swinging metal gate to the right. Watch for rock climbers on the Royal Columns above. You’ll need a Discover Pass to park.

Ellensburg walks & hikes

Irene Rinehart Riverfront Trail: This short, relatively flat path off Umptanum Road runs next to the Yakima River toward Carey Lakes, also known as People’s Pond. It’s popular year-round but is especially pretty in the fall. It’s a favorite spot for photographers to bring families for holiday photos, so you might see some kids groaning as their parents comb their hair for that perfect Christmas card shot.

Railroad Addition neighborhood and the Central Washington University campus: I try to drive up to Ellensburg to explore the CWU campus and the historic neighborhood immediately west of the university this time of year. The sidewalks are usually covered with leaves that make a satisfying crunching noise as you walk. The neighborhood is home to the CWU president’s residence and Craftsman-style homes. Bonus points if you find the buckeye trees.

Fall drive in the mountains

If you’ve never driven around the back side of Rimrock Lake on Tieton Reservoir Road, let me recommend a new adventure. It’s about an hourlong drive from Yakima on U.S. Highway 12 to the lake. Once you get up there, set aside about 45 minutes for the Tieton Reservoir Road detour, with time for stops. It’s a wonderful way to take in the Cascades with lakeside views, and you’ll likely see quaking aspens among the deep forest green.

If you have time, I’d recommend packing lunch and spending time at the Clear Lake day-use site. It’s a great place for bird watching (it has several bird blinds), fishing and strolling. The trails along the lake are ADA accessible. You’ll need a Northwest Forest Pass to park at the day use area.

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