Umtanum Creek, Yakima River Canyon
Without a doubt, Umtanum Creek is one of my favorite Eastern Washington places. It's a great place to hike, camp, view wildflowers, birds, and wildlife. A big bonus is that it's relatively under utilized (if you backpack in) yet easily accessible (only a 2 hour drive from Seattle). Granted I've only been a little more than a handful of times, but each time I get to see something I haven't seen before, witness something breathtaking, and just find peace and relaxation.
On this June 2010 trip, we hiked in 2 miles to a site on the edge of a meadow overlooking the rushing creek with a clear view of the canyon walls above us. I was a little concerned that we wouldn't see as many bighorn sheep this year, due to the disease that has spread from domestic sheep into the wild bighorn populations. The state took measures to cull the populations, so I wondered how this would affect the Umtanum sheep. By the end of the trip I was relieved to see a good number still around. We saw 4 groups total - 1 group of bachelor rams, 1 group of ewes, 1 group of a ram with 2 ewes, and 1 group of mothering ewes with lambs. The lambs behaved as adorable as they looked. The lamb jumped and pranced around the rocks as its mother calmly grazed on the grass. You couldn't help but think it was having a little fun instead of it building up strength.
I was not disappointed in the abundance of other wildlife in this beautiful canyon as well. We saw our first Washington badger running through the grass toward us, and paused for a brief second as it saw us before it high tailed it away from us. We got a similar reaction from a river otter that surfaced in the creek while munching on a freshly caught fish. It chewed contently before it realized we were watching it then it quickly dove down under the bank never to be seen by us again. Conversely, a muskrat didn't seem to mind us in the least bit as it gathered and munched on grass in the creek. It lumbered through the reeds and swam in the water as if we weren't standing only 20 feet away. On this trip we also saw several mule deer and one female elk that watched us intently from the safety of the canyon wall high above us. Although it wasn't terribly warm this trip, the turn out of reptiles wasn't too bad either. We saw an alligator lizard, two kingsnakes and Tor almost stepped on a northern pacific rattlesnake.
On this trip, we managed to find the trail to the end - a closed off area at the back of the canyon. Before we thought the trail petered near a rocky hillside. But we plowed ahead and found our way back to the main trail. On the way back, we realized the place where we missed the trail - it was a creek crossing over the first beaver dam. It looks a little precarious, and hopefully the trail won't wear away if more people actually knew that this was part of the trail.
At Umtanum creek, birding is never disappoint in the spring or early summer. We were constantly surrounded by bird song - Yellow-breasted Chat (even at night!), Western Wood Pewee, Western Tanagers, Wilson's Warblers, Lazuli Bunting, Bullock's Oriole, and Black-headed Grosbeak could be heard through out the canyon. The flash of their colors brightened the aspen and cottonwood canopies. Also abundant were Lewis' Woodpeckers, Cedar Waxwing, and American Goldfinches. All adding to the cacophony of bird activity. In the early summer, many of the birds were either tending to nestlings or preparing for a brood. Nest building, pair bonding, and feeding are all easily observed near the creek. A Western Wood Pewee was adding cottonwood fluff to a nest. The Cedar Waxwings did their courtship behavior by passing an insect back and forth with a small back and forth side step before the female (presumably) ate it. A pair of Common Ravens tended to their vociferous nestlings who were sheltered a canyon wall niche.
The wildflowers this time wasn't as impressive as the last time we went. The big show of flowers had faded away, while a smaller showing (although still beautiful) was not as breathtaking. On the canyon walls, lupine, arrowleaf balsamroot, and buckwheat bloomed in vibrant displays, while on the canyon floor, hoary cress and mustard dotted the meadows. Native fragrant roses and pestemone added to the beauty of the canyon floor as well.
We enjoyed one full day in the canyon with good weather and the abundance of wildlife to take in. On our day to leave, however, it started to rain steadily in the early morning and the gray sky showed no signs of letting up. We marched out of the canyon in relative silence through the wet brush that quickly soaked our clothes. A bunting or meadowlark would give out an occasional tune, but the steady fall of rain seemed to damp all activity. As we neared the trailhead, we looked up and on the canyon wall the bachelor bighorn sheep stood watching us with little interest, before they turned and walked out of sight.
Video: Prancing Bighorn Sheep Lamb
Directions: South of I-90 on Hwy-821 (Canyon Road).
Required permit: Annual Interagency Passport or self-register fee at the parking lot