Outings + Activities | Travel

Raft-tastic! A Family Paddle on the Lower Yakima River

Rafting on the YakimaAfter a busy week at work, it feels good just to close your eyes and bask in the sun. The air smells like sunscreen and rubber rafts, and after this next bend, you know there’s a perfect spot to haul out the cooler for a picnic.

You can relax, knowing that the kids will yell if they spot any local wildlife, such as bighorn sheep, mule deer, rabbits and soaring hawks.

The Yakima River Canyon cuts through the basalt hills between Yakima and Ellensburg, a ribbon of green through the desert landscape of eastern Washington. The canyon was once the main route between the two cities, but today it is a playground for hikers, fishers, bird lovers and rafters. Families armed with only a flotation device, a paddle, a picnic lunch and a sense of adventure are sure to find a day’s worth of entertainment and the memories to last a lifetime.

The Yakima is a Class 1 river, which means that the river doesn’t contain any rapids, and gear and expertise requirements are minimal. Still, it’s smart to be prepared.

Gear and outfitters

Your flotation device can be anything from a pontoon kayak to an inner tube, and a quick stop at a sporting goods store should outfit your expedition inexpensively. Near Ellensburg, Rill Adventures rents rafts, kayaks and all other gear you’ll need. Rill’s “Floater’s Deal” includes raft, gear, a picnic lunch and shuttle service ($135 for four people, $157 for six and $178 for eight). Red's Fly Shop, about halfway down the canyon, rents boats as well.

Speaking of gear, don't forget your life jacket! Properly fitted life jackets are required on the river, says Diane Priebe, outdoor recreation planner for the Bureau of Land Management’s Wenatchee office, because although the river is only Class 1, the water can be swift and cold.

Also pack sunscreen, rope to tie rafts together, snacks and plenty of water. You’ll dry quickly in the hot sun, but extra clothes and towels are helpful. A waterproof bag will be essential to keep your gear dry. Be sure to tie your gear down just in case you overturn your raft by accident.

Where to launch

Coming from Seattle, take exit 109 (Canyon Road exit) to S.R. 821 at Ellensburg. Most people put in at Umtanum (milepost 16) for an eight-mile float to Roza, though many extend the trip to 18 miles by putting in at Ringer Road, or 13 miles by putting in at Bighorn, a private access point at milepost 21. (See Red's Fly Shop for a map of river access points.)

After the initial chaos of launching, it’s time to relax, reapply the sunscreen and take in the scenery. Here, the basalt cliffs stretch up to 2,000 feet above the river, and are home to hawks, eagles and falcons. But this trip isn’t just about nature watching: What’s a trip to the river without a chance to get wet? About a 15-minute float south of Umtanum, you’ll see a giant Pacman painted on the cliffs. The currents can be swift here, so jump with caution, though many people do it every year.

Alternately, all along the river are reedy shallows perfect for pulling off and swimming.

Yakima RiverThe most important part -- the picnic

If after all that jumping and swimming, your clan is beginning to get hungry, you’ll soon float past the shady grove and picnic grounds of Red’s Fly Shop. At about this point, the canyon widens into a stretch of verdant farmland. The sagebrush-covered hills bloom with wildflowers, and close to the water, ponderosa pines and quaking aspen provide shade. Keep your eyes open for great blue herons, ospreys, deer, big horn sheep and, of course, rare rattlesnakes.

If Red’s is too soon for a picnic stop, just pull off anywhere that seems flat, or tie up in the shade of a tree and eat in your boats. For a more secluded picnic spot, try the island located at about milepost 11 (you can see the highway’s milepost signs from the river). Keep to the right, where the water is shallower, and there’s a rocky beach perfect for picnicking and wading.

About a mile past the island you’ll come to Big Pines, the biggest campground in the canyon, with 41 RV or tent sites. The river runs wide and mellow from here on out, but make sure to watch for the Roza sign around milepost 8, then stay near the east bank (the left-hand side). The channel runs fast farther out, and it’s not uncommon to see people having to jump and tow their boats if they miss the landing. But they always come out smiling.

Shuttle service

How do you reunite with your car? Many people go with two cars and leave one at Roza, but you can also arrange with Red’s Fly Shop or Rill Adventures for shuttle service (about $30; call or stop by to arrange).

Make it an overnighter

The Bureau of Land Management runs four campgrounds/recreation areas in the Yakima Canyon. “All the camp areas are crazy on hot summer weekends,” says Priebe. She recommends the smaller campgrounds at Lmuma Creek (seven sites) and Umtanum (six sites), though the larger Big Pines (41 sites) has more modern facilities. Roza (five campsites) can become quite busy as a day-use site. All BLM campsites are $15 per night from May 15 through Sept. 15. The rest of the year is free. All sites are first come, first serve, so on busy summer weekends it’s best to show up early to claim a site. A $5 per vehicle day use fee applies on all BLM sites if you're not camping.

Jessie Kwak is a farm girl in the big city who is addicted to traveling, hiking, and camping. These days, she calls Seattle her home.

Stay safe

Although the Yakima River seems mellow, caution is required. Most accidents are easily avoided through preparation and attention. Ninon Wheatley, owner of Rill Adventures, offers the following advice.

  1. Learn how to properly fit a life vest to a child — a vest that’s too loose will do little to keep a child afloat. Have your child take a deep breath, then cinch the waist straps tightly and pull up on the shoulder straps to make sure the vest won’t pop over your child’s head.

  2. Rafts or kayaks are preferable to inner tubes, which can be unstable and difficult to maneuver — they’re not recommended for use with smaller children. Always have at least one adult in each raft or kayak.

  3. Be careful near the banks, where boats and swimmers can be trapped by logs and rocks.

  4. Be aware of the river’s speed. The Yakima generally runs about 3–4 mph, which looks deceivingly slow. The river is the main source of irrigation for local farms, and its speed increases as the weather gets hotter and more water is required. Therefore the hottest months (the peak season for floaters) is when the river is at its fastest.

This article was originally written in 2010 and updated in 2013.

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