Often when traveling, particularly via Interstate highway, I look for scenic byways that parallel my path. Places with scenery, where a few good photos can be taken, without going far out of my way. Washington State Route 821 through the Yakima River Canyon is such a route. If you are traveling on Interstate 82 between Ellensburg and Yakima, Washington (basically on the main route from Seattle to eastern Oregon, southern Idaho and Utah), it is worth taking the few extra minutes to travel this road. The road add about 15 minutes drive time, but less than 5 miles to the route. Of course, if you are tempted to get out and take a few photographs, go on a hike, or view wildlife, it may add much more than a quarter-hour to your trip.
If traveling south from Ellensburg toward Yakima, to reach this scenic byway, you can take the Exit 109 (signed Canyon Road, Ellensburg) and turn left onto Canyon Road at the bottom of the off ramp, or take Exit 3 on Interstate 82 (signed 821 South, Thrall Road) and turn right on Thrall Road at the end of the off ramp, then left onto Canyon Road. Once on Canyon Road, within several miles, you will be driving a 25-mile long, twisting two-lane highway that follows along the eastern shore of the Yakima River.
The river forms an oasis in the otherwise dry foothills on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. In the summer, lush pockets of green contrast with the dryland hills and cliffs above the river. In the spring, when the hills can be green, the contrast is between trees denser foliage along the river and the mostly grass and scrub brush on the hills. In fall, the riverside foliage, including a mix of cottonwoods, aspens and evergreen conifers, presents a contrasting yellows, reds and oranges. In winter, there is often snow along the river and in the hills. Whenever you visit, on this side of the Cascades, the weather is often sunny and the sky blue (no promises though!).
There are four recreation areas run by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These offer places to stop with camping spots, picnic tables, and vault toilets. They also have boat launches, which present an additional way to enjoy the canyon – by boat, canoe or kayak. The river is calm throughout the canyon, but if you do boat the river, be sure to use the take out at the Roza Recreation Area to avoid the Roza Dam that is shortly downriver (above Roza, only non-motorized boats are allowed) . The first recreation area heading south on the road, Umtanum, is particularly worth a stop. Here a suspension bridge spans the river, leading to a fine hike up Umtanum Creek. The hike leads through Untanum Canyon, away from the river, and into the pristine wildlands of the Wenas Wildlife Area . The recreation areas have a $5/vehicle daily use fee (or use an Interagency, ie National Parks, pass).
Away from the recreation areas, there are plenty of pull overs along the road to practice photography or look for wildlife. Mule deer, elk, and bighorn sheep, as well as eagles, hawks, falcons and other birds frequent the area. Also be aware, that in spring and summer, rattlesnakes are also common.
Most of the photos illustrating this post were from my recent trip through the canyon earlier this month. The last several are from earlier trips.