Need a change of pace from alpine hiking at Mount Rainier? Want to escape the rainy days at the mountain for some dry desert fun? Take a day trip from Rainier to Yakima, then drive up Yakima Canyon and go hiking at Umtanum Creek. It might not be the most extraordinary hike of your trip, but you will enjoy it — if you can stay on the trail.
After a rainy day of driving the day before, I was anxious to get outside and hike a trail under blue skies. My plan was to end the day near Portland, Oregon, and I could see that it was going to be rainy over there, so I decided to try a hike near Yakima before starting the drive. A little research led me to the Umtanum Creek Canyon trail.
I had driven through Yakima Canyon the previous evening, so I knew I could expect some beautiful scenery. The trail begins at a nice day-use picnic area, at this suspension bridge over the Yakima River. Just before you cross, there’s a sign reminding you to pay your day-use fee (or display a National Parks Pass on your dashboard). I saw a park ranger checking cars — so be sure that they are serious about ticketing people who don’t pay.
The rickety, swaying bridge takes you over the river, and into a thicket of brush on the other side. It’s just the first of many times that you’ll find yourself pushing through overgrown foliage on this trail. In mere moments…
… you’ll pass underneath these railroad tracks, then climb up to the railroad grade. It’s a nice place to take some pictures — just be aware that you could see a train.
The trail parallels the tracks for just a moment, then turns off into the canyon. It’s at this point that you get an idea of the scenery that’s ahead. You’re headed up this canyon for as far as you can go. There isn’t any specific, big, “wow” moment up ahead. Instead, it’s just a steady walk between the canyon walls.
The Umtanum Creek Canyon trail alternates between being easy and difficult. At least half of the time it’s easy to follow, the path is clear, and it’s relatively level. But then, all of a sudden, it’s overgrown, or the path splits, and you have no idea if you’re headed the right direction.
It didn’t take long for me to reach the first, frustrating point.
Just a short distance after these old fence posts (remnants of an old homestead), the trail crosses Umtanum Creek. If you know where to cross (and you will, because I’m about to show you), it’s easy. If you don’t, it’s darned near impossible.
Okay, here’s the secret:
After the fence posts, watch for this rock. It looks like a good place to sit. Right after that…
… the trail splits. The trail to the right looks like a side-trail down to the edge of the creek — an apparent dead-end. That’s why I stayed to the left, and kept going until I reached a dead-end at the creek, where there was virtually no way to cross the creek. (To be clear: the RIGHT fork is the RIGHT fork!)
Before my hike, I had read that there was a creek crossing, and that you may need to carefully cross atop a beaver dam. I managed to find a beaver dam, and make it across the creek, but there was nothing but overgrown brush on the other side. I was suddenly …
… in the middle of this: a tangled, overgrown mess. I stood there for a few minutes, trying to figure out where I was going and how to get there. I didn’t see any path, or any break in the brush anywhere. I was moments away from giving up, turning around, carefully re-crossing the creek, and walking back to my car.
Then, I heard some other hikers. They were chatting and walking effortlessly, on a path that was no more than ten feet in front of me. I would have never seen the path if they hadn’t walked by. I crouched down as they approached, realizing that they had no idea that another person was just a few feet away. I was thoroughly camouflaged in the weeds. I could have frightened the heck out of them.
Instead, I let them walk by, ignorant of my presence. And now that I was no longer ignorant of the location of the trail, I pushed through the wall of tangled twigs and vines, scraping and scratching my way through.
Back on course, I continued up the canyon.
All of a sudden, the trail was easy again. I was passing between beautiful brown hills, weaving my way through patches of green. The clouds were puffy white, and the sky around them was stunningly blue. It was, once again, a great trail.
… I reached another trouble spot. Once again, I encountered a spot where an apparent side-trail led to a dead-end at the creek. I should have paid attention to those other rocks, scattered across the trail. (This picture is facing down the canyon — at this point I was still heading up the canyon, walking towards the camera.)
I stepped over those rocks and continued on what seemed like the obvious path for a few more minutes, until, once again, the trail became overgrown, and was dangerously perched on the edge of a small cliff.
So once again, I backtracked until I reached this junction, snapped this picture, and headed downhill…
… to this spot, where I could easily cross the creek once again. And all was well for a little longer…
… until I found myself pushing through weeds once again, in the middle of this pleasant little grove of aspen trees.
And that’s when I said, “That’s it! I’m done!”
This spot is about 1.5 miles from the trailhead (as the crow flies, and not counting twists and wrong-turns and backtracking). A sign at the trailhead announced that the trail was closed 3.25 miles ahead, from February 1 through July 15, due to sensitive wildlife. So I guess I only got about halfway to the closure point, which isn’t even the actual end. I don’t know if you’re supposed to keep pushing through that ever-narrowing trail, or if I was once again headed the wrong way, after missing an obscure turning point. I would have loved to have hiked another mile or two, and seen what was up ahead, but I couldn’t take any more frustration.
Heading back, I was determined to figure out where everyone else was crossing the creek with minimal effort. From the other direction, it’s quite easy to find this spot…
… and carefully walk across the top of this beaver-made bridge.
Click on the image for a larger version.
I used the GPS data in that photo to pull up this map of the area. The red marker is where I took that picture, at the easy beaver-dam crossing. You can see how the trail appears to continue on, until you reach a dead-end at the creek. Getting this part of the hike right will alleviate a lot of your frustration. Hopefully, the BLM or Park Service will figure out that this trail needs just a few minor improvements, to make it much more accessible and enjoyable. Until then, you’re on your own.
The Bottom Line
The Umtanum Creek Trail is a nice hike, if you don’t mind some trial-and-error path-finding and some occasional thick brush. This area provides a nice (and often dryer) alternative to Mount Rainier-area hikes, so you may want to consider it if you’re stuck in rainy weather on the mountain. Just be sure you know where to cross the creek, and enjoy the adventure of wandering through the canyon.
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.
The Umtanum Creek Recreation Area is located about 9 miles from I-82 at the northern end of the canyon.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive northbound from Yakima into the canyon:
Might that be, “…trail-and-error”? (rather than trial 😉
Very nice write-up. Thank you for all your hints and photos.