by Andy Stepniewski and Hal Opperman

revised by Andy Stepniewski

Take your pick of three routes between these county seats. (Refer to map on page 292.) All three are about 30 miles long, but the time required to travel them differs greatly. Unimproved Durr Road, the oldest, slowest, and most difficult, goes over the top of a high ridge through extensive shrub-steppe with a touch of riparian habitat. The Yakima Canyon—the leisurely, paved, water-level route, featuring steep cliffs and a fine riparian zone—has the most varied year-round birding possibilities.

The interstate has some birding potential, too, despite limited access, and of course it’s the newest, fastest, and easiest route. 



Durr Road—the stage road from Yakima to Ellensburg in the late 1800s— begins where Sheep Company Road ends, at the entrance to the L.T. Murray Wildlife Area north of Selah (previous page). (Ignore the Dead End sign at E Huntzinger Road.) This gravel and bare-rock road through Wild West scenery reaches Umptanum Road southwest of Ellensburg in about 15 miles. Do not attempt to drive it except in a high-clearance vehicle with sturdy tires (including a full-sized spare), extra drinking water, and emergency supplies. A four-wheel drive is advisable in wet conditions. If you are properly equipped, you can expect to find shrub-steppe species such as Loggerhead Shrike and Sage Thrasher. Brewer’s, Vesper, and Sagebrush Sparrows occur commonly in suitable sagebrush stands. A few Greater Sage-Grouse may survive on this side of the Yakima River, but are seldom reported. Horned Lark and Mountain Bluebird are common on the high barrens, where you might also see Bighorn Sheep. A variety of raptors such as Northern Harrier, Red-tailed, Ferruginous (rare), and Rough-legged (winter) Hawks, Golden Eagle, American Kestrel, and Prairie Falcon should be looked for in this huge area.

The road climbs steadily. Stay right at 2.8 miles (past Bell Telephone Road), then left in 0.1 mile, to reach the top of Umtanum Ridge (5.2 miles, go right at the fork, away from the towers). The view from the 3,500-foot summit is spectacular, with Ellensburg to the north and Yakima to the south, framed by the snowy Cascade volcanoes to the west and the vast Columbia Basin to the east.

Descending northward from the summit (350 feet from the previous fork, stay left), Durr Road reaches Umtanum Creek in about three miles. The creek offers great birding for riparian species on rough trails for the adventuresome hiker, west (upstream) three and one-half miles to Umptanum Road or east (downstream) four and one-half miles to the Yakima River. After fording the creek, Durr Road climbs out of the canyon and continues north about four more miles to Umptanum Road. Look for Lark Sparrow in overgrazed shrub-steppe, before the wheat fields start. Follow Umptanum Road across the Yakima River and into Ellensburg.


If you have at least two or three hours and it’s not midday on a summer weekend (when all of Yakima, or so it seems, floats the river on rafts or roars along it on jet skis), by all means take the Yakima Canyon route. This old highway, formerly part of US-97 but since supplanted by the interstate, was built through the canyon in parallel to the historic Northern Pacific Railroad. The river winds along a magnificent gorge cut through three basalt ridges that host a dense breeding population of raptors. Chukar, White-throated Swift (summer), and Canyon Wren are also common. Access to riparian areas along lower Umtanum Creek is another highlight.

Go north onto SR-821 from I-82 Exit 26, four miles north of Yakima. At the intersection with SR-823 a short distance ahead, reset your trip-odometer to 0.0 and continue straight on SR-821 (aka Canyon Road). Pull off on the right at the first major wide spot after entering the canyon (3.3 miles). From March through June, watch for Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, and Prairie Falcon, all of which nest on the towering basalt cliffs here and elsewhere in the canyon. In winter, Bald Eagles patrol the river for whitefish and carrion (fish or mammalian).

The next pullout (0.5 mile) is around a sharp, blind curve, so slow down and signal as you approach it. Golden Eagle and other raptors nest on the cliffs across the river to the west. Listen for White-throated Swift and Canyon Wren, both of which are common here. In winter, survey the waters and banks of the river below for Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser, and Bald Eagle. Farther up the canyon, a side road comes in from Burbank Valley on the right (3.4 miles). Recreational access points along this stretch allow you to pull off beside the river. After sunset, listen for Common Poorwill on the open slopes and Western Screech-Owl in the riparian groves.

From Burbank Creek Road, stay on SR-821 as it twists and turns along the Yakima until you come to a geological exhibit (4.7 miles) on the left that explains the antecedent nature of the river here. Prior to the regional uplifting of the various east-west trending ridges in the canyon, the Yakima River likely was a mature stream, meandering across a fairly level, low landscape. Uplift of the basalt ridges apparently took place very slowly, permitting the erosive, down-cutting powers of the river to keep pace. Thus, the ancient bends and loops in the river course remain. Looking west across the river, the striking whitish ash layer from the huge Mount Mazama eruption in south-central Oregon 6,600 years ago is visible just above the river. The collapse of Mount Mazama created Crater Lake. The explosion sent 116 cubic kilometers of ash across all the western states and three Canadian provinces, as far eastward as Nebraska. Another favored nest cliff for Golden Eagle is visible from here, high on the shoulder of Baldy Mountain (the highest mountain to the southeast—left, downriver). Look for it to the right of the summit below the west shoulder, on the largest, lichen-coated cliff.

From the exhibit, drive on up the canyon to the Umtanum Recreation Site (3.8 miles). Turn left off the highway and swing right to a parking area (America the Beautiful or daily pass required). A suspension footbridge crosses the Yakima River to the mouth of Umtanum Creek. A trail parallels the creek for eight miles all the way to Umptanum Road (page 292). However, the trail becomes difficult to find after about 2.75 miles, and at 3.5 miles, it is closed to the public for nearly 0.8 mile between February 1 and July 15 to protect nesting raptors.

The lower end of this trail is a favorite in spring for birders and hikers. You may encounter a local population of Bushtits—as yet an uncommon species east of the Cascade Crest. Yellow-breasted Chats are also present. Cooper’s and Red-tailed Hawks, Golden Eagle, American Kestrel, and Prairie Falcon nest on the canyon walls or in the trees along the creek. Rock and Canyon Wrens are also common. You can’t miss Spotted Towhee, except in mid-winter. From mid-April through the end of May a wide array of neotropical migrants (flycatchers, vireos, warblers, Western Tanager, Bullock’s Oriole) should be looked for in the riparian zone.

In the warmer months keep an eye out for Western Rattlesnakes, which are frequently encountered along this trail. Watch them from a distance but do not harm them. In general, this species is not aggressive and would rather avoid you, too. Watch the steep slopes for Bighorn Sheep. A sizable herd (nearly 300 in 2005) resides in this area. Your first clue to their presence might be the sound of dislodged rocks clattering down the talus slopes. Watch also for Yellow-bellied Marmots, the western equivalent of the Woodchuck.

Continue north toward Ellensburg, pulling off along the river at a widening in the shoulder just before a pine grove (4.3 miles). The road embankment has lots of Prickly Pear Cactus. The cliffs across the river should be scanned for Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Prairie Falcon, and Common Raven. The small caves not far above the river may harbor Great Horned Owls. In winter you are sure to see Bald Eagles along this stretch.

Turn left from SR-821 at Ringer Loop Road (4.1 miles), go west over the railway track, and drive this road toward the Yakima River. Shortly before the road turns north, a fishing access on the left (0.3 mile) offers a place to park and wander along the tall cottonwoods and other streamside growth (Discover Pass required). Birds of the riparian zone are a feature here. At night listen for Western Screech- and Long-eared Owls. Ospreys nest in the area, too. Follow Ringer Loop Road as it turns north and crosses a small wetland before rejoining the highway (0.9 mile),

Drive north 1.4 miles to Tjossem Road, and turn right. Go 0.1 mile east to Berry Road, turn left onto Berry, and Tjossem Pond (aka Sorenson Pond) is

0.1 mile ahead on the right. The waters and grassy shoreline of the pond, a private game reserve, often host a good assortment of ducks and geese fall through spring. The pond is generally frozen in late December and January, but is often one of the last in the area to freeze, likely because it’s deeper. In fall, look for Greater White-fronted and Snow Geese among Cackling and Canada Geese. Fall also has produced records of Surf and White-winged Scoters, Long-tailed Duck, and Pacific Loon, though all are rare here. Unusual shorebirds are possible here as well with records of Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet, both rare for the county.

To reach I-90 from Tjossem Pond, continue north on Berry for 0.6 mile, turn left with Berry, and go 0.4 mile to Canyon Road. Turn right—it’s a quarter-mile to I-90.



Much of the arid rainshadow landscape in the river valleys of South Central Washington has been converted to irrigated agriculture. Little natural vegetation survives except along the riparian corridors of rivers and major creeks. However, a significant tract of the original shrub-steppe ecosystem occurs along I-82 between Yakima and Ellensburg, much of it within the Yakima Training Center.

Start at I-82 Exit 26 north of Yakima (there is a Great Blue Heron rookery in the large Black Cottonwood grove to the west of the freeway). As you head north on I-82 toward Ellensburg, the Redmon Bridge crosses the deep gorge of Selah Creek in about two and one-half miles. Unfortunately, there is no place to pull off from the northbound lanes, but if you are traveling south toward Yakima, stop at the Selah Rest Area (13 miles south of Exit 11). The overlook beyond the restrooms provides a dramatic view of Selah Creek. Especially between April and July, check the basalt cliff at the north end of the parking area for nesting Ferruginous Hawk (rare or absent in recent years), Prairie Falcon, White-throated Swift (which apparently nests in openings in the concrete arches of the freeway bridge), and Violet-green and Cliff Swallows. Say’s Phoebe and Rock Wren should also be looked for here. Red-tailed Hawk and American Kestrel are hard to miss.

At Exit 11, signed Military Area, shrub-steppe birds such as Sage Thrasher and Brewer’s, Vesper, and Sagebrush Sparrows can sometimes be observed beyond the fences on both sides of the interstate (easier to find in early morning when traffic is still relatively light). A pair of Common Ravens often nests under the freeway overpass.

In eight miles, take Exit 3 (Thrall Road) and go east less than 0.1 mile to Number 6 Road. Turn left (north) and travel 1.3 miles to a gravel road on the left (signed Public Fishing) that leads to two gravel-borrow ponds (Discover Pass required). These ponds (a large one on the north and a smaller one to the south) can have many ducks in migration and winter when they are not being used by anglers. In fall, scoters and Long-tailed Ducks regularly visit en route to the ocean. One can also walk the east bank for birds of scrub and marsh.

Back on I-82, it is three more miles to the I-90 junction, and a mile west from there to the east Ellensburg exit.