Seattle, WA: Umtanum Ridge Walk (Early Season in the High Desert)

Explore the Pacific Northwest’s high desert steppe on this trip through the foothills of the Cascades. BY PAUL CHISHOLM
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Explore the Pacific Northwest’s high desert steppe on this trip through the foothills of the Cascades. BY PAUL CHISHOLM

I wake to the smell of sage and unzip my tent, which is perched high on a ridge facing the Cascades. Sunshine paints the snowy domes of Rainier and Adams pale pink; due south, I can just make out the pyramid of Hood. But while those peaks are still cloaked in snow, I’m awash in spring color. Purple spikes of lupine and golden bursts of arrowleaf balsamroot peek above a white carpet of phlox. It will be at least three more months before hiking season really kicks off in the Cascades, but here in the desert, spring is bringing its best act.

Trip stats
Distance: 14.3 miles
Time: 2 days

Turn-by-turn
From the Umtanum Creek Recreation Area

(1) Cross the Yakima River via a bridge to a fork.
(2) Pick up the Umtanum Creek Trail and head upcanyon to a grassy slope at mile 2.5.
(3) Turn south and follow a switchbacking game trail 1.3 miles to an old road. (This route uses a jigsaw of decommissioned roads that are so overgrown, they feel like double-wide trails.)
(4) Take the road south to a junction on Umtanum Ridge at mile 4.4.
(5) Follow the Skyline Trail a mile east to a spur.
(6) Veer south .2 mile to the campsite .
(7) Continue southeast on the Skyline Trail to a junction at mile 8.4.
(8) Take the east option onto another old road that plunges 1,600 feet in .8 mile to the rim of the Yakima River Canyon before meandering 4.3 miles along the rim to a fork at mile 13.5.
(9) Head .8 mile north on the Umtanum Ridge Trail to your car.

Campsite
Umtanum Ridge (mile 5.7)

Secure tent-door views of the Cascades and the green Wenas Valley on this grassy knoll at 3,400 feet. The first-come, first-serve site is dry, so fill up water at Umtanum Creek en route.

Geology
Umtanum Ridge is part of the Saddle Mountains, a basalt uplift that extends east across central Washington from the Cascades. Normally a geologic disturbance of this kind would displace local rivers, but the excavating activity of the Yakima River kept pace with the uplift, resulting in the 1,000-foot-deep Yakima River Canyon.

Wildlife
From December to April, look for overwintering mammals, like elk and bighorn sheep, bedding down among the canyon’s cottonwoods.

DO IT Trailhead
46.855378, -120.483241; 14 miles south of Ellensburg off SR-821 Season Year-round, though winter may bring a dusting of snow at the higher elevations. Permits None Custom mapbit.do/BPmapUmtanum ($15) Contactbit.do/WenasWildlifeAreaTrip databackpacker.com/umtanum

Trail Facts

  • State: WA
  • City: Spokane, WA
  • Distance: 14.3
  • Contact: bit.do/WenasWildlifeArea
  • Land Type: Other