by Andy Stepniewski and Hal Opperman

revised by Andy Stepniewski

The Wenas Creek region, often simply referred to as “Wenas,” is situated at the lower forest/shrub-steppe margin. Well known to naturalists, Wenas is an excellent place to observe a wide range of breeding birds within a short distance. Habitats range from arid, low-elevation shrub-steppe to park-like Ponderosa Pine forests and higher-elevation mixed-conifer communities. An added bonus is the presence of several riparian-zone environments along permanent streams draining the Cascades’ east slopes. Birding is best from late April into July, with   mid-May through June being the peak time.

Camping at Wenas Campground is a popular way to experience the region. Since 1963, Audubon Society members from throughout Washington have gathered here over Memorial Day weekend at the height of the spring wildflower and birding seasons, when from 130–150 species of birds are recorded.

The loop begins just off I-90 at Exit 109 (the east Ellensburg exit). Total driving distance is about 90 miles. Allow one day to complete the whole loop comfortably. It is described in four segments: 1) from Ellensburg via Umtanum Creek to Wenas Campground; 2) the campground and vicinity; 3) down the Wenas Valley to Selah, just north of Yakima; and 4) three options for the return leg to Ellensburg, described in the following section. A portion of the first and second segments is on gravel roads, parts of which may not be passable in winter or during the spring thaw. Once you leave Ellensburg there are no facilities on the loop until you reach Selah. Make sure you have topped up your fuel tank and have all provisions.

Much of the Wenas Creek Loop falls into the Wenas Cooperative Road Management Area. Roads open to public motor-vehicle travel are posted with a round green reflector on white route markers. These are the so-called “green-dot roads.” All other roads are closed to motor vehicles, but you may walk on them. Many roads are gated from December 1 to May 1. A Discover Pass is required to park or walk on lands surrounding the main road.



From I-90 Exit 109 (Canyon Road) in Ellensburg, go north 0.5 mile on Canyon Road. At the McDonald’s restaurant, turn left (west) onto Umptanum Road. The road crosses the Yakima River (1.0 mile), turns south, passes through flat agricultural fields, and then begins a steep ascent into Shushuskin Canyon. A riparian area that attracts migrants is on the left part way through the canyon (2.3 miles from the Yakima River). At the top of the canyon, the pavement ends at the junction where Durr Road goes left (1.7 miles); keep straight on Umptanum Road, which bends west almost at once. The landscape is mainly shrub-steppe vegetation. Mountain and a few Western Bluebirds nest in the boxes set out by the Yakima Valley Audubon Society along the roadside. Farther west along Umptanum Road, you enter the L.T. Murray Wildlife Area (2.8 miles; sign) and shrub-steppe habitat, composed of Big Sagebrush (grayish-hued shrubs) and Bitterbrush (brownish-green-hued shrubs). In this area, from April through July, look for Loggerhead Shrike, Horned Lark, Sage Thrasher, and Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows. In winter, there are few birds in the shrub-steppe, but the farmland may have Red-tailed and Rough-legged Hawks and an occasional Prairie Falcon or Northern Shrike.

The road continues west, then turns south and crosses into Yakima County, where the road name changes to North Wenas Road. The edge of the Ponderosa Pine zone is reached at a mixed pine and riparian area on the right (1.7 miles). There are often many birds here in spring and early summer, including Great Horned Owl and Lewis’s Woodpecker. Migrant flycatchers, vireos, kinglets, and warblers may be common in April and May. Continue to a WDFW parking area on the left side of the road (0.3 mile). A trail follows Umtanum Creek downstream eight miles or so, all the way to the Yakima River. Even a short walk along this stream can be good for migrants. You reach picturesque Umtanum Falls in less than a mile.

The road bends sharply westward as you leave the parking lot. A brushy stretch along the road in 1.1 miles is a good place to look for Ash-throated Flycatchers, a rare breeder this far north. They sometimes nest in the bluebird boxes; in the past, a good spot for these flycatchers has been in the neighborhood of box 63. As the road continues west and higher into the foothills of the Cascade Range, the Ponderosa Pine forest becomes more continuous (1.5 miles), reflecting an increase in precipitation. The open pine woods along this stretch have Gray Flycatchers, first noted in 1970 in the Wenas Campground, now widespread and fairly common in lower elevation Ponderosa Pine forests in Eastern Washington. Look and listen also for White-headed Woodpecker and Red Crossbill. In areas with pines, the nest boxes along the Umptanum/ Wenas Road bluebird trail have many Western Bluebirds and House Wrens with the occasional White-breasted Nuthatch and Yellow-pine Chipmunk. Hundreds (one year over 1,000) of Western and Mountain Bluebirds fledge from this and several other trails in the Wenas region each year.

Ellensburg Pass (2.2 miles) in the pines marks the high point on the road. From the pass the road continues west, leaving the Umtanum Creek drainage and descending into the Wenas Creek drainage through Ponderosa Pines and a brushy riparian area flanking the road (1.5 miles). This habitat is good for Lazuli Bunting. At dusk on warm spring or summer nights, Common Poorwills call from the bordering slopes and are often seen on the road. Drive slowly to avoid hitting these remarkable birds. (Road gated in winter.)

The pavement begins again at a three-way junction (2.1 miles). Turn right from the main road onto an unpaved road that forks immediately. Stay right onto Audubon Road (North Wenas Road on some maps). A gate at the end of the county road in 1.4 miles is locked winter through spring, usually opening in early May. Initially, this bumpy road traverses shrub-steppe composed mainly of Bitterbrush and scattered Ponderosa Pines. Lewis’s Woodpecker, Western Bluebird, Spotted Towhee, Brewer’s (a few) and Vesper Sparrows, and Cassin’s Finch should be found along this stretch. As you proceed northwestward, the road gets rougher (but is usually passable to standard automobiles), and soon meets North Fork Wenas Creek (0.3 mile). Water flows over the road in spring, but the bottom is good and one can usually drive through easily. However, go slowly and be especially cautious if the water is high.

You’ll skirt fine riparian habitat here, with tall cottonwoods, willow and alder thickets, and aspen glades. This area has many birds—Vaux’s Swift, Red-naped Sapsucker, Western Wood-Pewee, Black-capped Chickadee, Veery, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow Warbler, and Black-headed Grosbeak are common. Turkey Vultures may nest along the steep escarpment above the road. Keep left at a junction (0.5 mile) with a dirt track leading to Mud Flats (four-wheel drive only). The road leaves the riparian zone and continues west through grassy fields and open pine woods to a junction (0.5 mile). Turn left here, across the bridge over North Fork Wenas Creek. A few yards ahead is a large sign marking the entrance to the campground.



The Wenas Campground is well known for its variety of breeding species. It is also a popular destination and therefore best visited on weekdays. On weekends during spring and summer you will likely encounter throngs of campers, horseback riders, dirt-bikers, and archery groups from the Yakima area. The campground is primitive and unpatrolled, with no piped water, toilets, hookups, or telephone; if you plan to stay here, bring all your own supplies. It’s a good place to find birds of the lower Ponderosa Pine zone.

Four different habitats, each with a distinct complement of breeding birds, occur in proximity. Along the North Fork, in the campground, is a lush riparian community; Vaux’s Swift, Red-naped Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, Western Wood-Pewee, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, House Wren, Veery, Nashville, MacGillivray’s, and Yellow Warblers, and Black-headed Grosbeak are common. The Ponderosa Pine woods in and around the campground have White-headed Woodpecker (scarce in some years), Gray Flycatcher, Mountain Chickadee, White-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches, Townsend’s Solitaire (usually nesting near a steep bank), Chipping Sparrow, Cassin’s Finch, and Red Crossbill (irregular, depending on pine seed crops). Brushy slopes mixed with young pines surrounding the area are excellent for Sooty Grouse, Calliope Hummingbird, Dusky Flycatcher, Nashville Warbler, and Fox Sparrow. Finally, moister forest is encountered a mile or so north from the campground, along with nearby riparian vegetation. Hammond’s Flycatcher and Yellow-rumped Warbler are found here.

The campground proper is best visited on foot. Adjacent areas, described below, are partially accessible by car, but hiking is the most rewarding way to experience them if you have the time and the inclination.

From the south entrance sign, a dirt road heads west along the north side of Dry Creek. A short walk or drive up this track leads to three good areas for birds. In 400 yards, at the intersection with Hog Ranch Road on the right, continue straight ahead on Dry Creek Road for another 250 yards and drive or hop across the creek—usually not difficult, but pay attention when the creek is full in early spring. Immediately after crossing, explore the brushy hillside to your left. Calliope Hummingbird, Dusky Flycatcher, Townsend’s Solitaire, Nashville Warbler, and Fox Sparrow should be encountered from May through July in the Deerbrush, which creates a brush field reminiscent of the chaparral found in the mountains from Oregon south through California. Sooty Grouse are often heard booming on the slopes above. Look also for Prairie Falcon, which nests in the Yakima Canyon and commutes to these Cascade foothills to forage.

From the parking area at the end of Dry Creek Road, hikers may wish to continue westward beyond the berm, along the decommissioned road that follows Dry Creek, a fine riparian corridor with occasional rock outcrops, bordered by drier slopes with Ponderosa Pine habitats and open, grassy ridges. In 2.5 miles, watch for Yellowjacket Creek coming in from the left. Turn onto the trail that follows it, and continue another 1.5 miles to a section-line fence. (A short spur road switchbacks steeply from this point to FR-1701 at Canteen Flats, page 319.) This four-mile (each way) hike with a gentle, 1,300-foot elevation gain, offers an excellent transect of east-slope habitats, ending in moister, mixed-conifer forest at 3,900 feet. Among many other species, look for Ruffed Grouse, Western Screech-Owl, Common Nighthawk, Calliope Hummingbird, Pileated Woodpecker, Hammond’s and Dusky Flycatchers, Cassin’s and Warbling Vireos, Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, House and Pacific Wrens, Veery, Swainson’s and Hermit Thrushes, MacGillivray’s, Yellow-rumped, and Townsend’s Warblers, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, Purple and Cassin’s Finches, Red Crossbill, Pine Siskin, and Evening Grosbeak.

Return to the spot where Dry Creek Road crosses the creek, backtrack the 250 yards east to the intersection, and turn left (north) onto the green-dot road (unmarked Hog Ranch Road). This is an easy drive for ordinary vehicles for 1.5 to 2 miles with a few parking areas for exploration on foot. Walk north along this dirt track for a few hundred yards. The brushy, willow-lined hillside to the west is another good area for Calliope Hummingbird, Dusky Flycatcher, Nashville Warbler, and Fox Sparrow. The open pine forests on this bench, with little or no undergrowth except Pinegrass, are the favored habitat for Gray Flycatcher, first recorded in the state in 1970 at Wenas Campground. White-headed Woodpecker, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Cassin’s Finch may also be found here.

Those with a four-wheel-drive vehicle may drive beyond this bench and uphill on Hog Ranch Road, through open pine and Douglas-fir forests interspersed with rocky, treeless balds. Flammulated Owl (local), Common Poorwill (dusk), White-headed Woodpecker, and Western and Mountain Bluebirds can be found along this road, which eventually reaches higher-elevation mixed-conifer and subalpine forests on Bald Mountain. However, the rough jeep track is difficult even with four-wheel drive. Access to this area is much easier from the southwest, off SR-410 via FR-1701 (Benson Creek) and FR-1702 (Rock Creek). These graded roads are suitable for ordinary vehicles (page 319).

To explore moister habitats, return to and cross the bridge below the campground entrance. Turn left onto North Wenas Road, which leads to habitats with Douglas-fir, Grand Fir, and tall riparian vegetation. The road is easily traveled by ordinary vehicle, and there are several places to park and explore the riparian area by foot.



Back at the junction just off Wenas Road, where Audubon Road begins, take the other branch and head west on Maloy Road. This gravel road passes hay fields at first, then enters fine riparian habitats of cottonwoods and aspens at the crossing with North Fork Wenas Creek (0.7 mile). This is private land and you must bird from the road. Veery and Swainson’s Thrush occur in the woodlands here. Look also for House Wren, Yellow Warbler, and Black-headed Grosbeak. The agricultural edge habitat is attractive to Purple Finch, a local nester east of the Cascade Crest. A number of “eastern” vagrants or spring overshoots have occurred in this area from early June through mid-July, among them Least Flycatcher (regular; may breed), Ovenbird, American Redstart, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Farther west on Maloy Road, you reach a fork (0.3 mile). DNR closed the road here while it negotiated to acquire land to provide public access to BBQ Flats (to the west). The department said it would add toilets, fencing, gates, and road extensions; it expected access and facilities to be ready by July 2015. Explore the open pine forest in this area, looking (and listening) for White-headed Woodpecker, Gray Flycatcher, White-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches, Cassin’s Finch, and Red Crossbill.

Return to the pavement on Wenas Road. Take a right (southeast) and drive down the Wenas Valley, a mosaic of hay and grain fields and riparian habitats. The Hardy Canyon entrance to the Oak Creek Wildlife Area is on the right in 4.0 miles, at a pipe gate that is usually locked. Park, walk through the pedestrian access (locked December 1 to May 1), cross Wenas Creek on a wooden bridge, and go exploring on foot. This beautiful area is filled with birds associated with riparian, field, and shrub-steppe habitats. In the breeding season look for Ruffed Grouse, Cooper’s Hawk, Least and Pacific-slope Flycatchers (along Wenas Creek), Ash-throated Flycatcher (some years present near brush on the sidehill south of the creek), Eastern Kingbird, Warbling Vireo, Tree Swallow, Gray Catbird (a few), Nashville and Yellow Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chat, Spotted Towhee, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Lazuli Bunting. Spring migration (end of April through mid-May) can be impressive. Depending on weather conditions, flycatchers, vireos, warblers, and tanagers can be found in good numbers then. Early May is a good time to look for Golden-crowned Sparrows, after the main northbound push of White-crowneds (race gambelii) has gone through.

A five-minute walk south from the bridge brings you to the upper edge of aspen woodlands. From here a rough, seven-mile road heads up Hardy Canyon to the 4,700-foot summit of Cleman Mountain (the ridge between the Naches River and Wenas Creek). Shrub-steppe vegetation in the lower part of the canyon is attractive to Vesper Sparrows. If you continue to climb you will notice a gradual change to coniferous forest.

Return to Wenas Road and turn right (southeast). Look for a sign indicating Public Fishing Access on your right (1.5 miles). Take this down to Wenas Lake (0.1 mile; poorly maintained pit toilets). High water and hordes of anglers often make Wenas Lake unattractive to birds during spring and early summer. However, lower water levels expose a wide area of mud by late July or August in many years. If and when this happens, Wenas Lake can be good for shorebirding. Common fall migrants include both yellowlegs species, Solitary, Least, Semipalmated, and Western Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Red-necked Phalarope. A number of rarities have been encountered here, including Wandering Tattler (one record), Willet, and Stilt Sandpiper. A fine riparian area can be reached by walking upstream from the parking area along a trail bordering Wenas Creek. From May through July, look for Eastern Kingbird, Bank Swallow, Gray Catbird, Yellow Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, and Bullock’s Oriole.

Continue southeast on Wenas Road. At Longmire Road (3.8 miles), stay left on Wenas Road. Anywhere along this stretch of agricultural land keep an eye out for Swainson’s Hawk (spring and summer). At Sheep Company Road (6.3 miles), turn left (north) and continue to the entrance of the L.T. Murray Wildlife Area (1.3 mile), a large reserve of shrub-steppe and stony ridges. Just south of the entrance sign, look for a pair of Burrowing Owls on the east side of the road. Long-billed Curlews are occasionally seen in spring on the grasslands here.

Three choices for returning to Ellensburg are described in the following section. One of them, Durr Road, goes north across the wildlife area from this spot, but is recommended only for high-clearance vehicles. To access the other two, return along Sheep Company Road to Wenas Road, turn left, and continue east and south to a junction with SR-823 (4.8 miles). Straight ahead, SR-823 (Wenas Road) soon reaches Selah. A left turn at this intersection onto SR-823 (Harrison Road) brings you to SR-821 (1.8 miles). Turn left to follow the Yakima Canyon route to Ellensburg, or turn right to the Exit 26 interchange with I-82. Here you may go south to Yakima, north to Ellensburg, or straight ahead to the Yakima Training Center (page 304).