If your mental image of Washington only includes rain, grunge, or gumwall, it’s time to introduce yourself to the rest of the state. While I’m not suggesting that Seattle doesn’t belong as a travel-worthy place on your list of places to visit, there’s plenty of Washington outside of Seattle.
Take a drive with me on a sunny day (Yakima Valley gets over 300 days of sunshine a year, so the odds are in our favor!) and explore the Yakima River Canyon. This drive is beautiful any time of the year, but if you want some truly stunning scenery, plan this trip in the fall.
The Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway connects Yakima to Ellensburg. The drive is just over 25 miles each way. Also known as Washington State Route 821, this designated scenic drive offers views of the Yakima River and the pastures that tower above the glistening river. It’s a beautiful, peaceful drive down a winding road with a safe guardrail.
Note: I was a guest at Visit Yakima and the town of Union Gap. My accommodation, my meals and my activities were entrusted to me to facilitate my care. All opinions are mine.
The Yakima River Canyon Marathon and Half Marathon takes place every April and closes the road to runners, so if you’re planning a walk in the spring, be sure to check the calendar.
Here is a list of five points of interest, but plan to make more stops. There are several unnamed but well-marked exits and rest areas that are great for taking pictures and admiring the views.
Pro tip: Don’t depend on cell service. Download maps or go old fashioned and grab that paper map to know where you’re going if you lose connectivity.
1. Umtanum Creek Recreation Site
Umtanum Creek Recreation Site is a scenic and pristine location for hiking, fly fishing, rafting and scenery. The area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and has many hiking trails, campsites, and boat ramps. Check the BLM website for more information on trails and user fees.
Most of the trails are moderate to difficult, so if you have mobility issues or aren’t in great shape, you might not want to venture too far from the trailhead. There are panoramic water views from the deck that are accessible to almost anyone. The bridge is near a set-up area and it’s fun to watch the fly fisherman go on an adventure.
2. Yakima Skyline Trail
The Yakima Skyline Trail is a moderate hike that offers stunning views from the Canyon Rim. The full trail is 4.4 miles round trip, but it is an out and back trail with various points where you can turn around if you prefer a shorter hike. This trail is at its best in the spring when the wildflowers are in bloom.
3. Canyon River Grill/Red’s Fly Shop
Red’s Fly Shop offers boat rentals, guided fishing trips and boat tours. Lunch and dinner times at the adjacent Canyon River Grill are quite limited, but a meal on the deck may be worth planning your trip. The menu has a Cajun twist, which is quite unexpected in the Yakima Valley. The chef is originally from Louisiana and has added his own twists to many dishes.
If you don’t make it for lunch or dinner on designated days, there is a breakfast bar with coffee and breakfast sandwiches as well as take-out lunches. There’s also an adjacent resort, Canyon River Ranch, if you’re looking for an upscale spot for a longer stay.
4. Precision Fruits and Antiquities
This part of Washington is agricultural country. Spring and summer bring an abundance of fresh, local produce. Visitors to Precision Fruit and Antiques will find asparagus, peaches, apples, cherries and more, depending on the season.
Locally made sauces, glazes and jellies, as well as unique gifts and antiques are available year-round. Fresh, seasonal produce is always a fun find, but Washington’s variety of produce is especially great on the go.
5. Gard winegrowers
Gard Vintners has several locations in Washington, including one in Ellensburg. Their wine tasting flight includes six one-ounce installments for $10, which are refundable if you buy a bottle to take home. They also serve beer and a variety of light bites, such as paninis, flatbreads and salads.
As active as you want
One of the best things about this scenic drive is that it’s accessible to almost anyone. If you or someone in your party has mobility restrictions or physical limitations, seeing the beautiful scenery from a car window is low physical challenge. Visitors looking to kick the activity level up a notch have plenty of options for walking and more strenuous hikes along this scenic route.
Want to see the sights without driving?
The Yakima River Valley is home to a plethora of wineries and breweries. Most of the world’s hops for brewing beer come from this region, and Washington State in general is known for its excellent wines. If you’re a craft beer fan, the phrase “kid in a candy store” will apply…there’s plenty to choose from. I came away thinking, “So many beers, so little time,” which beer lovers can probably relate to.
If you want to combine your scenic drive with a day of drinking, hire a driver. Little Hopper Yakima Valley Beer Tours (they also do wine tours) is a hop-on, hop-off tour bus, but they are also available for private rentals. They are knowledgeable about the Yakima River Canyon and are able to arrange a personalized tour that includes the stops you want. The folks at Little Hopper are a great resource for things to do and see in the area, so even if you don’t want to focus on beer or wine, it’s worth contacting them to see if a personalized tour suits you.
The changing leaves make fall the best time to do it, drive but don’t count the Yakima River Canyon Scenic Drive if a fall trip isn’t in your plans. Spring wildflowers are also a must see.