Take the scenic drive along the Yakima River, through the canyon of the same name. It’s a beautiful desert landscape laced with a ribbon of blue water and green vegetation, railroad tracks, and pavement, all squeezed in between some rounded, rolling hills.
It was getting to be late afternoon as I made the final push towards Yakima. I knew there were just a few hours left before dark, and I hadn’t seen or done much all day, except for drive — all the way from Montana. I could have headed on to my motel for some much-needed rest, but I couldn’t help notice the squiggly line on my map, running almost parallel to I-90. Squiggly lines usually take me somewhere interesting. And since it was on the way, I decided to turn off the interstate and hop onto Washington Route 821.
I was headed into Yakima Canyon, and I didn’t even know it.
Highway 821 follows every twist and turn of the Yakima River through Yakima Canyon — or as it is officially known, the Umtanum Ridge Water Gap. Here, the river slices through the Umtanum and Manastash anticlines — upward swells in the earth’s crust. The gap is a National Natural Landmark, administered by the National Park Service. The Nature Conservancy also owns some of the land in the canyon.
This used to be the primary road between Yakima and Ellensburg, Washington, to the north. Until the 1970’s, when I-82 was built, this road was US 97. Once the freeway opened, this road was renumbered, and US 97 was rerouted onto the interstate.
This is the southern end of the gap, near the town of Selah. Notice that the railroad tracks are also sharing the narrow space with the river and the road (which is up on the hillside, on the left, at this point).
The drive through Yakima Canyon was so nice, I decided to devote the first part of the following day to another drive through it.
Back at that same spot, near the southern entrance to the canyon, everything was beautifully lit the next morning.
I drove up the canyon to the Umtanum Recreation Area, where a rickety cable bridge carries pedestrians across the Yakima River, to a nice trail on the other side. I’ll tell you more about this adventurous hike on a separate page. (By the way, it’s free to drive through the canyon, but the developed parking/picnic/hiking areas require you pay a day-use fee, or display a National Parks pass on your dashboard.)
If you drive north through Yakima Canyon, you can make a nice loop back to town via Interstate 82. If you do…
… be sure to stop at the rest area, just north of Yakima, for a view of the impressive concrete arch bridge that carries the highway over Selah Creek. The Fred G. Redmon Bridge, also known as the Selah Creek Bridge, was the longest concrete arch bridge in the U.S. (and second-longest in the world) when it was constructed.
The Bottom Line
I highly recommend you detour off Interstate 82 and take the scenic drive through Yakima Canyon. It will take longer, but this is definitely a scenic route that’s worth the extra time and effort. If you have more time, take a hike, picnic, or camp here.
Washington Highway 821 runs through Yakima Canyon, between Ellensburg and Yakima, Washington. You can access the road from I-82 exit 3 or 26. Route 821 parallels the interstate, so you won’t be going out of your way to enjoy this scenic byway.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive southbound…
… and northbound through Yakima Canyon: