by Hal Opperman and Andy Stepniewski

revised by Scott Ramos

Southwest of the Kittitas Valley, the east slopes of the Cascades are dissected by ravines and canyons with innumerable variations in slope and aspect, creating niches for a wide array of breeding species. The best time to visit is from late May through July; winter snow closes most of the higher elevations. A fine loop through this area goes up Taneum Creek, then south over Taneum Ridge to Buck Meadows, and back out to the east following South Fork Manastash Creek. Coming from the west, take I-90 Exit 93 (Elk Heights). Turn left across the interstate, then right at the next stop sign onto Thorp Prairie Road. At a stop sign in 3.5 miles, turn right onto the I-90 overpass to a junction (0.2 mile), then right onto W Taneum Road.

Exit 101 (Thorp) is your access if coming from the east. Go left (south) across the interstate, and in 0.6 mile turn right onto Thorp Cemetery Road, which will take you in 4.8 miles to the foot of the I-90 overpass; continue straight ahead here onto W Taneum Road. No gas or services are available along this loop.



The valley quickly narrows, as South Cle Elum Ridge rises up on the right and Taneum Ridge closes in from the left. Pull off at a small, inconspicuous rock quarry on the right in 1.3 miles, across from a mailbox numbered 6680. Calliope Hummingbird, Vesper Sparrow, and Lazuli Bunting inhabit the brushy, grassy slopes; look for Vaux’s Swift overhead. The county road ends, and FR-33 begins, in 0.8 mile. Steep rock faces overhang the road on the right (nesting Cliff Swallows).

In 0.7 mile is a sign marking the entrance of the L.T. Murray Wildlife Area. A track on the left a couple of hundred yards ahead leads down to tall trees along Taneum Creek (Warbling Vireo, Evening Grosbeak). The road then runs beside wet meadows and a cattail marsh, accessible on foot in several places. An excellent riparian area can be found in another 0.9 mile. Park and walk toward Taneum Creek; logs have been placed over the stream to create shaded fish habitat. Brush and tall trees along the stream for several hundred yards in both directions have nesting Mourning Dove, Western Screech-Owl, Red-naped Sapsucker, Western Wood-Pewee, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, House Wren, Veery, Swainson’s Thrush, Cedar Waxwing, Nashville, MacGillivray’s, and Yellow Warblers, Spotted Towhee, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Bullock’s Oriole.

In 1.4 miles, primitive Moonlight Canyon Road (high-clearance vehicle advised) leads up the ridge to the right, where the open, south-facing Ponderosa Pine forest offers Williamson’s Sapsucker (higher up), Dusky Flycatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, Mountain Chickadee, Yellow-rumped and Townsend’s Warblers, Chipping Sparrow, Lazuli Bunting, Cassin’s Finch, and Red Crossbill.

Back on FR-33, Taneum Campground (elevation 2,400 feet), across the stream on a footbridge in 0.8 mile, has a small stand of old-growth Ponderosa Pines. At the back of the campground, look for Hermit Thrush and Nashville Warbler.

In another 1.4 miles, primitive Cedar Creek Road turns up the ridge to the right; in 0.2 mile, check the small meadow for Gray and Dusky Flycatchers, Warbling Vireo, Nashville, MacGillivray’s, and Wilson’s Warblers, Chipping and White-crowned Sparrows, Western Tanager, and Cassin’s Finch. In another 1.2 miles is Icewater Creek Campground with a good mix of vegetation. Expect Ruffed Grouse, Downy and Pileated Woodpeckers, Cassin’s and Warbling Vireos, Swainson’s and Hermit Thrushes, Nashville, MacGillivray’s, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, and Townsend’s Warblers, plus Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, Purple Finch, and Evening Grosbeak.


As you continue up FR-33, forests gradually become denser. Ponderosa Pine yields ground to Douglas-fir, and Hermit Thrush replaces Veery. At a fork in 0.2 mile, where FR-33 continues straight, bear left onto FR-3330 (well-maintained gravel), which drops down to cross Taneum Creek, then immediately begins to climb the cooler, wetter, north-facing slope of Taneum Ridge, with many pullouts, side roads, and informal trails. Most of the forest is second-growth, with some recent clearcuts and a few big old trees. Western Larch begins to appear. Note that on June 15 trails are opened to ORVs in this area.

After 2.9 miles of steady rise, the road levels out temporarily at Gooseberry Flat (elevation 3,500 feet), then twists and turns its way upward for another 3.7 miles to Gnat Flat (elevation 4,800 feet), an area of open steppes, aspen groves, and isolated conifer stands. Characteristic species of the habitats here and on the way up include Sooty Grouse, Turkey Vulture, Northern Goshawk, Flammulated Owl (local), Rufous Hummingbird, Williamson’s and Red-naped Sapsuckers, Hairy, American Three-toed, and Black-backed Woodpeckers (the last two rare), Olive-sided and Dusky Flycatchers, Gray Jay, Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, House Wren, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Hermit Thrush, Nashville, Yellow-rumped, and Townsend’s Warblers, Chipping Sparrow, Western Tanager, and Cassin’s Finch. Mixed-conifer forests on these flats are logged in rotation, and the various successional stages attract different sets of birds.

Farther south, the flats have large patches of sagebrush, and in 1.5 miles the road reaches its high point of 4,900 feet at an intersection with FR-124 on the right (signboard with map of road system). Follow FR-124 for 0.2 mile to a grand overlook of the Frost Creek valley with a clearcut below, but a nice lunch spot, nevertheless. Look for Northern Goshawk, Common Raven, House Wren, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Western Tanager, Cassin’s Finch, and Evening Grosbeak.

Return to FR-3330, then, at a junction in 0.4 mile, where FR-3330 ends, take FR-3120 to the right (signed for Buck Meadows). Go left in 0.3 mile onto FR-109, a cutoff road that descends through second growth and clearcuts on a drier, south-facing slope with areas of meadow and sagebrush (Yellow-rumped and Townsend’s Warblers and Chipping Sparrow). FR-109 ends at another junction in 0.5 mile; bear right here onto FR-3111. In 1.2 miles, where FR-115 turns off to the left, stay straight ahead on FR-3111.



For the next 3.7 miles, the road winds down through dry, open forests (Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pine Siskin), meeting FR-31 at Buck Meadows (elevation 4,300 feet). Turn left here onto FR-31 across South Fork Manastash Creek, and in 0.3 mile turn right onto FR-3104. In the first half-mile, meadows open up on the left. Park and walk down to aspen groves and a small stream to look for Williamson’s and Red-naped Sapsuckers, Warbling Vireo, MacGillivray’s and Yellow Warblers, Dark-eyed Junco, Black-headed Grosbeak, and other nesting species of these mid-elevation forest wetland openings.

A similar area is reached by returning to FR-31 and going right 0.5 mile. Park across from an ORV trail (4W311) and walk around a rail fence on the right side of the road. A meadow extends back for a considerable distance. Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Wilson’s Warbler, and Lincoln’s Sparrow may be present in trees and brush along the wetland edges on the left. Stands of Lodgepole Pine, Western Larch, and Engelmann Spruce here and on the other side of FR-31, in Riders Camp, may have Hammond’s and Dusky Flycatchers, Gray Jay, Townsend’s Solitaire, Hermit Thrush, Yellow-rumped and Townsend’s Warblers, Western Tanager, Red Crossbill, and Pine Siskin.


The drive down the Manastash drainage is a recapitulation in reverse of the birding possibilities along Taneum Creek, but on a grander scale. For the next 6.5 miles FR-31 descends smartly in a canyon with steep basalt cliffs, rockslides, and scattered Ponderosa Pines. Stop from time to time to look for Golden Eagle, White-throated Swift (uncommon), American Kestrel, Prairie Falcon, Common Raven, and Rock and Canyon Wrens. Then the valley broadens out somewhat into a generous riparian zone. For about the next six miles, you may find Ruffed Grouse, Calliope Hummingbird, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Red-naped Sapsucker, Cassin’s Vireo, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees, Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches, House Wren, Nashville, MacGillivray’s, and Yellow Warblers, Lazuli Bunting, Purple and Cassin’s Finches, and typical riparian species.

The paved county road begins at 9.7 miles from Riders Camp at Buck Meadows. From here, it is 7.4 miles on Manastash Road to the intersesction with Cove Road in the southwest corner of the Kittitas Valley and another 3.6 miles east from there to an intersection with Umptanum Road, where you can turn left to Ellensburg (easy access to I-90 Exit 109) or right to Wenas.



For an interesting side trip from Manastash Road, go north 2.9 miles on Cove Road and turn left onto Robinson Canyon Road. A gate marks the entrance to the L.T. Murray Wildlife Area in 3.1 miles, at the mouth of Robinson Canyon. Park here, or pass through the gate and park in another 0.3 mile. This small drainage has Gray Flycatchers and most of the other characteristic species of the lower Ponderosa Pine zone, although in lesser numbers than the Wenas Creek region to the south. One or more of Flammulated, Western Screech-, Northern Pygmy-, and Northern Saw-whet Owls can usually be found somewhere along the canyon, and Common Poorwills forage from the road at night. The trail that leads up the canyon has recently been washed out, but a scramble across the creek leads to another trail on the south side; you can walk along it up the gulch for about four miles (mind the rattlesnakes).

Cove Road ends at S Thorp Highway (1.2 miles); a left turn brings you to the intersection with Thorp Cemetery Road (1.4 miles) where another left turn takes you back to Taneum Creek and the start of this loop; going straight on S Thorp Highway, the I-90 interchange at Exit 101 is 0.6 mile ahead.