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Explore the Outdoors: Yakima River Canyon

May 17, 2016
You might sit on one of these ridges on some warm spring afternoon just to watch the Yakima River glide through the canyon below. You'll swear that river hasn't really moved, hasn't changed, hasn't heard anything anyone has said for 10,000 years.
It's one of those Northwest constants, you might tell yourself. A comfort in an upside-down world of computerized chaos and political provocation. A free spirit that's oblivious to the hum of Interstate 82 traffic over the crests to the east, the buzz of boat motors on its surface or the throaty snarls of Harleys that make their way up and down scenic State Route 821 along its banks.
And yet...
And yet, as canyons go, this is as capricious a place as any. This is a land, after all, shaped by the turbulent Missoula Floods as the last ice age melted. Its basaltic walls, shrub-steppe hillsides and that easygoing river are used to change.
But having endured centuries of coexistence with humans, the Yakima River Canyon is experiencing a renaissance unlike any in its history: It’s gone from an underappreciated and largely neglected outback to a regional attraction known for easy access to a remarkably diverse range of outdoor experiences. In the past decade or so, this rugged 27-mile north-south stretch between Ellensburg and Selah has ceased to be central Washington’s private playground.
It’s been discovered.
According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, more than 1.1 million people now travel the canyon annually to pursue some of the Northwest’s favorite outdoor activities -- hiking, fly-fishing, hunting, rafting, camping, road and mountain biking, running, motor sporting, birdwatching, horseback riding, hang gliding …
“They have discovered,” says Steve Joyce, “that the canyon is a pretty unique place to come.”
Since 2001, Joyce has run Red’s Fly Shop, a canyon landmark for more than half a century that boasts world-class trout and salmon fishing. But not long after Joyce and his two partners, Anthony Robins and Richard Leider, purchased the business from longtime owners Red and Marlene Blankenship, Red’s and the nearby Canyon River Ranch became part of a transformation at the heart of the canyon. No longer a modest stop with basic services for overnighters, the remodeled, natural-wood resort looks like one of the idyllic backdrops in a Cabela’s catalog, beckoning upscale visitors with rustic cabins, fine dining and a retail store as well as guided river trips, fishing lessons, equipment rentals – even a small syrah vineyard.
Joyce is intent on keeping the original spirit of Red’s, emphasizing a wide range of family activities while adhering to high standards of stewardship for the natural setting.
And, like a number of groups that now work to maintain the canyon’s environmental health, public access and overall charm, Joyce preaches taking care of the setting – packing out your garbage, following trail and river rules, and appreciating how special the surroundings are. He credits public educational efforts by groups like KEEN (the Kittitas Environmental Education Network) and state and federal officials with better organizing and supervising river usage, which he says has led to a more respectful class of visitors.
“It’s just a different type of user than it was a decade ago,” Joyce says.
Clay Graham, vice president of the Selah Chamber of Commerce, says local officials and private groups have worked together to promote the canyon and maintain public access. The area’s campgrounds and trails, he adds, make it a favorite destination for Scouts, four-wheeler groups and sports enthusiasts.
“There’s definitely more activity than there used to be,” says Graham, who has spearheaded several tourism-promotion initiatives on his own during his 15-plus years in town.
KEEN hopes canyon visitors leave with a greater reverence for the outdoors, says retired game warden Deb Essman, a self-described “hard-core, avid birdwatcher” who’s been part of the organization for years. She leads regular birdwatching trips and helps with programs aimed at teaching younger people about the canyon’s native plants, wildlife and its physical features.
“They finally figured out that kids learn better if they’re outdoors,” notes Essman, who’s also the president of the nearly century-old Kittitas County Field and Stream Club. She marvels at the canyon’s variety of birds and animals – she says she’s spotted 60 types of birds in a single day, along with elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep and other animals.
The wildlife, wildflowers and all that scenery are part of the allure of events like the Yakima River Canyon Marathon, which started in 2001. The annual early-spring run – which this year added a half-marathon – has drawn upwards of 600 elite runners from all over the world in its peak years, says the race’s 86-year-old co-director, Lenore Dolphin. She and her husband, Bob, who’s run more than 500 marathons, agreed to head up the marathon when it began, and Lenore says the setting has given the race a national reputation.
“It’s the beauty,” she explains. “You go around one corner and it’s beautiful, and then you go around the next and it’s even more beautiful.” And, she adds, “the community support is really, really good.”
Sheriff’s deputies from Yakima and Kittitas counties (the canyon straddles county lines) volunteer their time to close the scenic byway for the race that starts just outside Ellensburg and ends several miles north of Selah. As breathtaking as the scenery is, the terrain sucks the air out of runners’ lungs, climbing and twisting relentlessly as it takes its toll on knees, feet and ankles after 26.2 miles. The final hill-climb overlooks Roza Dam and – if the skies are clear – offers a striking view of Mount Adams to the southwest.
“They call that the Dam Hill,” Lenore says with a laugh. “and they can put an ‘N’ on it if they want.”
Most of the marathoners who trickled across the finish line this year didn’t, though. As Lenore, who suffers from a weak heart, beamed from her wheelchair and greeted many of the runners by name, the sun cast a golden light on the surrounding shrub-steppe.
And the Yakima Canyon’s free spirits soared.


John Taylor

John Taylor is the digital managing editor for six Townsquare Media radio stations in Yakima, Wash. A veteran newspaper editor, page designer and reporter, his favorite pursuits usually involve writing, the outdoors or out-of-the-way bars. He's on TwitterInstagram and LinkedIn.

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