2007 Yakima River

September 24, 2007 at 8:19 AM

The Yakima River| September 24, 2007 by Vance Cordell

Ken Thompson and I floated a thirteen mile section of the Yakima River on September 24, 2007.  We floated what is called the “lower canyon”, specifically between Big Horn and Big Pines Campgrounds.  The water flow on this particular day was approximately 1,100 cfs as measured at the Lmunuma or Umtanum Creek gauge.  This flow rate is much lower than normal , even for this time of the year.  Several local people commented that they don’t remember seeing the river this low before.  In spring, the flow rate is closer to 4,000 cfs.   Still there was adequate water for a good float.  At no point did we get our rafts hung up on rocks.   The section we floated would make an excellent family float.  At no point was the river more than Category II, with few trees close enough to the water to cause sweeper problems.  At the same time there were on a couple of areas where the water flowed so slow that the up-river wind became a factor. The river flows through a fairly tight canyon with State Road 821 on one side of the river and railroad tracks on the other.  This canyon really is a beautiful area.

We put in at Big Horn at 10:00 AM and pulled out at Big Pines at 3:15 PM.  We saw a band of approximately 30 wild sheep approximately 45 minutes to an hour after launching.  Further down river on two separate occasions we saw mule deer on the banks as we floated by them.  Ospreys were also sighted several times.   Fishing is supposed to be fairly good through this section of the river.  We saw fish jump after insects, but we caught none. To some degree, this is due to us selecting a long float which required us to paddle more and fish less.  This river is fly fishing only, catch & release and all fish hooks must have their barbs removed or mashed down.  Several outfitters operate on the river.  Although Ken said that there were numerous boats on the river when he was there Sunday afternoon, we saw only two drift boats (and no rafts) when we floated on Monday.

If you are driving north/west on I-82 or US 90, you can get off at either Thrall or Ellensburg.  Turn south on State Road 821 to drive down the canyon.  SR 821 stays pretty much within sight of the river all the way down through the canyon to the city of Yakima.  .  Although a little narrow in places, it is a good road with pull outs every few miles.  There are also a number of put-ins/take-outs along the river in this area.  Big Horn was a pretty good put-in, but has limited parking.  Reds Fly Shop (509-929-1802) has a good ramp and good parking, but it is private and you have to pay to launch/park there.  They also provide shuttle service at pretty reasonable rates.  Reds has a RV campground.  At present it has room for eight campsites with no services provided for $8.00 a night; however, work is going on to put services in and possibly to expand the number of sites.  The camp sites are next to the river.

Big Pines has a pretty good launch with lots of space for parking.  Camping is allowed (free) and for dry camping it is excellent, as you can camp beside the river.  Big Pines is at approximately Mile Post 10 on SR 821.  Lmuma Creek Recreation Site is much the same as Big Pines except a few hundred yards further north or up stream on the river..  Although I didn’t drive down into it, from the road this park looked like there is plenty of space for parking and dry camping.  Although I didn’t go down to Rosa Site Access Ramp, Ken did.  Ken said that as you approach Rosa, the river really slows down and flows very slowly.

We didn’t go into Ringer Road Ramp, but was told that it is a good launch/recovery site and has parking.  Neither did we see the Ellensburg City Park Ramp, but assume that it is a fairly good launch facility because it is managed by the city. Possibly limited parking since on the map it looks like it is in the downtown section.

On September 24th, Ken and I drove along the river between Ellensburg and Cle Elum looking for launch/pullout sites to do a 5-7 mile float trip.  Although the water through this area has a faster flow to it for some reason there is quite a bit less water…..possibly because the river braids more or there is water taken out for irrigation.  There are also more good size trees lining the banks and fewer put-ins/take-outs.  The river does not run within view of the roads in many places either.  Much of the land beside the river is private and not accessible.  We talked to a fellow in the Yakima Fly Shop (509-674-2144 & cellular 509-929-1357) in Cle Elum about the river.  The owner of the fly shop is Jim Gallagher, and he guides on the river as well as provides shuttle services.  The fellow in the fly shop told us that although the river has no stretches over a class II rating, boaters still get drowned on the upper river every year because of sweepers and other hazards like diversion dams.  He encouraged us to call there or Reds for information before starting out on a float trip down either section of the river.  For a fee they can also provide access to put-ins/take-outs on some private land.

More Information About the Yakima

If you are looking for a great river to float with your family, you might try the lower canyon of the Yakima River. This river has a lot going for it.  First of all the water flow is very steady, being regulated by several dams farther north.  Even in summer there is sufficient water to float the river without getting hung up in shallows.  Secondly and probably more important is the scenery and wildlife……it is absolutely beautiful and abundant. This area closely resembles parts of the Deschutes area.  The land is semi-arid, but supports lots of wild animals.  We have seen numerous wild sheep, wild goats and mule tail deer on the two floats we made.  The fishing is also extremely good (however, it is fly fishing only with barbless hooks and catch & release) Last of all there are good camp sites along the river, both developed and undeveloped.

The section that I have floated several times is in the thirteen mile stretch  between Big Horn and Big Pines campgrounds.  This section is almost continuous Class II waters, has very few flat stretches and none of this section is dangerous.  The trees have been cut back from the edge of the river greatly decreasing the chances of  sweepers being in the river.  I have taken my young grandchildren down this part of the river several times without worry.  They love it, and I feel very safe even with no other rafts with us.   

The best way to get there from the Portland area is to go east on I-84 to Biggs and then take US 97 north from there.  After passing through the city of Yakima, look for State Road 821. Take this road north and pretty soon you will see the Yakima River on the left side of the road.  Although the road pulls away from the river in certain areas, it comes back. You find yourself in a fairly tight canyon with SR 821 on the right side of the canyon and the railroad on the left.  Neither has much traffic during the week; however, I suspect that may not be the case on weekends.

The last time I was there was late September of 2008, and the state had both campground under construction for “improvements”.  Previously, the campgrounds had just been open fields along the river and you camped where you wanted.   It appeared that they were building asphalt parking spaces between designated camp sites.  The camping was free before, but I suspect there are fees charged now.  Red’s Fly Shop (509-929-1802) is located between the two campgrounds.  They provide fishing equipment and  guided fishing trips on the river, as well as shuttle service if you need it.

If you need more information about the river, give me a call at (360) 253-3013 or email me atpyloris58(at)yahoo.com.

Vance Cordell

Tags: Yakima River Pine Tree Campground Big Horn Campground
Category: Trip Report

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