Thursday, April 30, 2020

Umtanum Ridge Crest

View of Manastash Ridge from Umtanum Ridge
6 miles round trip, 2200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous; some very steep sections
Access: Paved road to trailhead, BLM day use fee or America the Beautiful Pass required

Umtanum Ridge is one of many parallel ridges that separate Ellensburg from Yakima in Central Washington State. The ridge's open, sagebrush-covered slopes bloom with a profusion of wildflowers each spring, making it a good hike when the higher elevations of the Cascades are still snow-covered. The views from atop the ridge are some of the best of any hike in the Yakima Canyon area and some of the nearby trails offer opportunities for exploration; however, parts of this trail, including the final ascent up the ridge, are very steep.

I hiked this trail in late April, making a day drive out from Seattle to Yakima Canyon. From Seattle, I took I-90 west to Ellensburg, exiting onto Canyon Road at exit 109 and then following that road south into Yakima Canyon until coming to the Umtanum Creek Trailhead on the west side of the road. I parked at the lot at the end of the short gravel road, which required either a one-day $5 BLM day use fee that could be paid in cash onsite (Northwest Forest Pass is not valid here) or an America the Beautiful Pass.

From the trailhead, I crossed the suspension bridge over the Yakima River. Cliffs of columnar basalt rose directly above the Yakima River.

Yakima River
The trail led through tall brushy vegetation and under the railroad tracks before coming to a signboard indicating the trailhead for Umtanum Canyon. Here, the Umtanum Canyon Trail led to the right while the Umtanum Ridge Trail led left; I took the trail to the left, which led quickly across the canyon and then began ascending up a narrow side canyon. As the ascent began, there were good views of the cottonwoods and the aspens at the floor of the canyon; the canyon walls were green with the arrival of spring.

View over Umtanum Canyon
The rocky trail ascended along the side canyon, passing a number of small waterfalls along the way.

Waterfall in the canyon
About three-quarters of a mile up the Umtanum Ridge Trail, the canyon walls died down and I came to a grove of aspens near the confluence of two streams. During a previous autumn visit, the aspens were brilliantly golden; while the hike up to the crest of Umtanum Ridge is a good spring hike, hiking the length of Umtanum Canyon is nice during the autumn for the canyon's brilliant fall colors.

Aspen grove and Umtanum Ridge
Fall in the aspen grove
Part way through the aspen grove, an unmarked path broke off to the left, heading downhill and crossing the stream. I took a short detour here to check out a viewpoint over the Yakima River, following this path across the stream and then taking it north as it followed the contours of the mountain. The trail wrapped around the mountain for the next half mile, with fairly flat hiking and nice views over Umtanum Canyon. As the trail turned from Umtanum Canyon into the Yakima Canyon, huge views opened up of the Yakima River flowing through a bend below.

Yakima River Canyon
After enjoying this view, I backtracked to the aspen grove and returned to the main trail. Continuing my ascent, I passed another unmarked path heading off to the right, which I ignored, staying along the main trail that followed the creek.

As I continued on the ascent, I admired the widespread wildflowers in the grasslands surrounding the trail, which included spring blooms of showy balsamroot and phlox.

Spring wildflowers blooming
Balsamroot bloom
Phlox blooming
The trail followed the creek for another half mile after the aspen grove before heading up the slopes on the right bank of the creek to ascend to the ridge. The next three-quarters of a mile were brutally steep as the trail tackled the ridge, ascending with no switchbacks as it made a beeline for the Crest. The steep ascent was ameliorated somewhat by the wildflowers coating the hillsides and the improving views to the north, which soon encompassed Manastash Ridge and the snowcapped Wenatchee Mountains. I could clearly see I-82 cutting a gash across the landscape of desert ridges starting from its high pass over Manastash Ridge.

Trail up Umtanum Ridge
The climb finally ended as I gained the broad, flat ridge crest where the trail met up with a dirt service road running the length of Umtanum Ridge. I crossed the road and followed the last stretch of trail another hundred meters to a protruberance in the ridge that marked the high point of the hike. From here, there were sweeping views of the grassy ridges and canyons making up the Yakima Fold Belt. The green farms down below in Kittitas Valley contribute to Washington State's notable wheat harvest but most notably produce hay for export. Although the sun was shining east of the Cascades and I could see Wenatchee Mountains to the north of Ellensburg, clouds still engulfed the crest of the Cascades and hid the mighty Stuart Range, which can usually be seen from this vantage point.

Kittitas Valley and the Wenatchee Mountains
The deserted series of ridges and high valleys to the east constitute the Yakima Training Center, an Army installation affiliated with Joint Base Lewis McChord. This large tract of desert, principally used for military exercises, also once housed an NSA facility. The Seattle Times and other national publications have reported that the satellite facilities here may once have been involved in the NSA's secretive global surveillance programs, but the agency has since shuttered its program here in 2013.

Umtanum and Yakima Ridges
I enjoyed the views before backtracking to the trailhead. While not superlative, this is a nice hike for spring wildflowers or fall aspen colors and is a good rainy day alternative when it's pouring in the Cascades but sunny on the east side.

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