If you are heading to Portland or Seattle from the Tri-Cities, you may be among those who, like me, need a break after a few hours of driving.
Fortunately, there are literally dozens of choices at the two- to three-hour mark. Here are two delightfully short but absolutely beautiful hikes that are within reasonable distance from the highway.
The drive from Ellensburg offers views of the valley and the Cascade Mountains to the east that get better and better with every mile. Along the road, you’ll see more than 100 numbered birdhouses built by local enthusiasts to offer nesting sites for mountain bluebirds. Off the road, you can see some rather amazing old barns and abandoned homesteads, all photo-worthy if you choose to stop.
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Once you park, the trail wanders along Umtanum Creek with a quiet, beautiful, shady, riparian zone and some colorful wildflowers. You have choices to make whether you cross the creek a few times or stay on the southeast side and climb the hill a short way to stay dry and not get your feet wet. In any case, at 1.2 miles you’ll get to the top of Umtanum Falls. It’s flat, easy walking with a few short ups and downs.
You can stop here and take pictures looking over the falls, but don’t get too close to the edge. Getting to the bottom of the falls is tricky. Facing downstream, there is a short, steep trail up and over a narrow canyon that then descends to the base of the falls. If you take it slow and are careful, you can reach the pool and enjoy the remarkable waterfalls that cascade over this hard ledge of basalt rock.
If you go (Umtanum Creek Falls): 2.5 miles (1-2 hours). Add a half hour up and down if you scramble the 0.25 mile to the top of the ridge and back. Elevation gain/loss: 400 feet. Difficulty: easy to moderate, 1-2 out of 5 (2 is for the hill scramble). Parking: red — a Discover Pass or Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Vehicle Permit required. Dogs on leash OK. There are no restrooms; closest facilities are on Canyon Road in Ellensburg.
We were invigorated after a ritual head dunking to cool off, so we decided to scramble up the west slope. The steep grassy slope trail is barely visible, and it’s a stair-step climb to the top. A slow and careful climb is rewarded with a superb view of the canyon and a panoply of stunningly beautiful wildflowers adorning the ridge.
It was here we found lewisia rediviva, also known as the bitterroot, state flower of Montana. This stunning wildflower is named after Meriwether Lewis, who encountered the species in 1806. The plant got its species name because when Lewis took the samples back to Washington DC, he watered them and to his surprise, two years later, they grew again. Native Americans are reported to utilize this plant to treat sore throats.
From the ridge, it’s best if you go back the way you came, find the trail by the waterfalls and then head back to the parking lot. Keep in mind that none of the trail/path junctions have signs, so pay attention to where you are. All told, it’s about 2.5 to 3.0 miles round trip hike plus the 20-minute drive back to Ellensburg.
To get there from the Tri-Cities, drive west on Interstate 90 to the Exit 109, identified as Canyon Road, in Ellensburg. Turn right at the light, and gas stations and restaurants are immediately available. Go 0.7 mile (next traffic light), make a left onto Umtanum Road and follow it for almost ten miles. The road turns to gravel at about mile five, and when you go around a curve across a small stream, you will get to a marked trailhead.
The trail is very popular to hikers from Vancouver and Portland, so be prepared for lots of people. But it is also worth it.
The hike to the falls is flat for the first mile and then increases in steepness as it climbs steadily for the final half mile to the amazing rocky grotto at the base of the falls. It’s a pretty good trail, not particularly strenuous, with just a few steep pitches as you get close to the falls. Children can do this pretty easily, just keep the young ones on a leash!
If you go (Fall Creek Falls): 3.0 (1-2 hours). Elevation gain/loss: 867 feet. Difficulty: easy to moderate, 1-2 out of 5. Parking: available, a U.S. National Forest Pass required. Dogs on leash OK. Outhouse available at the trailhead. The closest facilities are in Carson.
The forest is deep and dark, mature second growth with a few beautiful old trees. The trail offers a few good views of the creek and crosses a beautiful bridge built by the Forest Service across a side gorge. Then around a curve you go and, voila, you are at an overlook facing these amazing waterfalls. You can carefully climb down if you want to feel the misty spray in your face.
Falls Creek Falls is one of tallest waterfalls in southern Washington. Because of the large watershed feeding the creek above, Falls Creek sends a lot of water cascading over the headwall in three distinct steps. The upper falls is hard to get to and difficult to see from the trail, so don’t be driven to climb up the trail any higher. What you see from the bottom is remarkable enough. If you look up, you’ll see the middle falls drop 135 feet in several short segments. It then flows through some boulders and drops the final 91 feet into the narrow amphitheater gorge.
Incredible payoff for a short hike. It’s a great opportunity for a breathtaking experience and some remarkable picture taking. And if you have time on your hands, there are three more waterfall hikes (Puff Falls, Necktie Falls and Panther Creek Falls) all within five miles.
This hike is reached from the Washington side of the Columbia River. From the Tri-Cities, head south on Highway 395 and get off at the last exit in Washington before you cross the bridge and head west on Highway 14. The views are more scenic than from Interstate 84 in Oregon.
Head west until you get to the signs to Carson, make the right turn and head north. At the four-way stop sign in Carson, drive 13.4 miles north on Wind River Road. Turn right onto County Road 30 (Meadow Creek Road) and drive 0.8 miles to Forest Road 3062. Turn right (east), and drive 1.8 miles to the trailhead and parking lot. Note that the forest service road is closed from Dec. 1 to April 1.
Paul Krupin is an avid local hiking enthusiast, retired environmental specialist and a member of the InterMountain Alpine Club (IMAC). He has been hiking the trails of the Pacific Northwest since 1976. Find out more at the IMAC Facebook or Meetup pages. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.