Umtanum Ridge

     Umtanum Ridge is a great Spring destination. Located just south of Ellensburg, it melts out early and the wildflowers are spectacular. I  have done it several times in May and late April but never this early. The weather forecast was for mid  60s and partly sunny. That was good enough for me. Lyn was interested in my description and agreed to come along. We were on the road by 7:45 and pulled into the trailhead off of Canyon Road at about 9:50. The route starts by crossing a suspension bridge over the Yakima River. After immediately crossing the railroad tracks the main trail goes straight ahead along Umtanum Creek. We turned left and entered a side canyon. The trail is an old jeep road that has narrowed down to trail size. Initially we were well above the small creek. As we ascended we met the creek. The road switchbacks to the left and goes around the ridge top to views of the Yakima River. We went this way on our way back. We crossed the creek and continued to follow it. There is a man made grassy area here. down by the creek is large metal basin with a pipe feeding water into it.
       I was afraid we would be too early for any wildflowers. On my last trip here during late May many flowers were in full bloom. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the flowers I remembered were not yet in bloom but numerous others were blazing. Soon after beginning to ascend we saw bright yellow Sage Buttercups. Beyond the grassy spot the trail crosses what's left of the creek and crosses it again. Umtanum Ridge can be seen above with a number of ridges coming down from it. Between each ridge is a small canyon. After crossing back to the right side of the creek the trail begins to climb more steadily. There are no evergreen trees at all on the ridge. The primary vegetation is sage brush. Most of it is only 2 to 4 feet tall. The feeling of being "out in the open" is a nice change from the Cascade forests. The sky was mostly sunny with a few clouds. By 10:30 I was sweating more than I had in many months. There are ticks along this route. I had long shorts and gaiters to cover most of my legs. Shorts and a short sleeve shirt sure felt good. The route became sketchy as we climbed up from the creek to the top of the side ridge coming down from the top of Umtanum. Views of the Stuart Range with lots of snow were to the northwest. The variety of flowers was phenomenal. Yellow and blue were the major colors. The Sage Buttercups continued all the way to the top of Umtanum Ridge. Another yellow flower covered the ground in profusion. Yellow Bells were rarer but many were seen. On the blue side were Desert Bluebells and Sagebrush Violets. These violets have blue petals on the bottom and side and two red petals at the top. They are among the most interesting flowers I have seen. Unfortunately, I can't identify the other two dozen varieties we saw. I did recognize a few lupine that are not yet flowering. High on the ridge were the remnants of last years Balsam Root. They should be starting when these flowers are done.

     Another nice feature of this trip were the birds. We saw several varieties that are not seen on the west side of the mountains. Best of all were their songs. At one point we were in the middle of a dozen birds with a very unique song. One would start then one by one they would join it. It was a real symphony. The trail often disappears and then reappears. It is irrelevant at this point as the way is very obvious. It gets fairly steep near the top but is not difficult to ascend. We reached the top at noon, just in time for lunch. On top we could see to the south. The top of Mt. Adams was in the clouds but most of it was visible. The Yakima Rim Skyline trail is a road along the top of the ridge. I have hiked it from the north trailhead several times. Some flowers are blooming on top but the best flower show there is still a little time away. One hiker came up while we ate and continued on to the west. After lunch we also headed that way. It's not far to the old observatory site at the high point on Umtanum Ridge. When I first came here the building was still standing. Now it is gone. Only the cement foundation and some wood remains. There was a steady breeze on top but it was much appreciated on this warm day. We spoke with the hiker who passed us earlier. He had a great deal of experience in this area. Two others passed us by and continued hiking to the west. It turned out that one of them was Larry whom I know from the board but have still not met.

     After a nice stop on the summit we headed back. The descent down the ridge went very fast. The key is to head down the correct ridge. I placed rocks on the road to mark where we came up. There are many ridges, each separated by a valley and they all look alike. If you head down the right ridge the going is easy. The only trick is picking up the trail again. When traversing the steep slope above the creek the trail is much easier. I was surprised that after a little hunting we picked up the right route again.  Instead of heading right back to the car, we took the route that goes around the final ridge until it is right above the trailhead and the Yakima River. It was a great place to sit down and enjoy the warm afternoon. Finally, at about 4:50, we headed on back. As we were nearing the Umtanum Creek valley we saw several people yelling something. We continued down, crossed the bridge and got back to the car. Soon after the people we had seen yelling came by. They had gone up the side canyon we took. One of their party had turned back. They went on a little farther then they turned around. When the got back their friend had not returned. It was now near 5:30 and they were very worried. It was forecast to drop into the upper 30s that evening and so not a good place for an unprepared person to spend the night. I grabbed my headlamp and we started up the Umtanum Creek trail. We yelled and took every side trail. After running down the trail we met two people coming out. They recognized our description and said the woman was walking up the valley away from us. We now knew where she was and took off up the trail. Shortly after that we found the woman walking towards us. A potentially dangerous situation had a happy ending. The detour made for a longer day than we planned on but it was a lot of fun. The day had a fun route, warm weather, a profusion of colorful wildflowers, and great company. I'll be back to hike this area again soon.

One Sage Buttercup
More Buttercups
Grassy Area
Prairie Stars?
Desert Bluebells
Click on thumbnails to see larger pictures.

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