by Andy Stepniewski

revised by Andy Stepniewski

The Yakima Training Center comprises the largest remaining contiguous block of shrub-steppe habitat in Washington—365,000 acres stretching from the Columbia River west to I-82 and from I-90 south to the outskirts of Yakima. This U.S. Army subinstallation (of Joint Base Lewis-McChord) is one of the few areas of the state where the shrub-steppe ecosystem continues to function on a landscape scale.

Nearly all bird species characteristic of this zone can be found here, including the declining Greater Sage-Grouse. Birding is superb in riparian areas during migration.



The Yakima Training Center is one of two sites in Washington where Greater Sage-Grouse still occur in significant numbers. Your best chance to observe them is on one of the organized tours conducted during the peak courtship period in March, offered by center biologists in conjunction with the Yakima Valley Audubon Society (P.O. Box 2823, Yakima, WA 98901 or and the Seattle Audubon Society (206-523-4483). At other seasons, you are unlikely to get more than a brief view as birds flush in the distance. The tour will take you to a lek where females gather to observe displaying males, starting well before sunrise. While at the lek site, look for other shrub-steppe species such as Horned Lark, Sage Thrasher, and Vesper and Sagebrush Sparrows.



You may enter the center on your own in any month, although access to some parts of it may be restricted from time to time due to military exercises, changes in rules, or closures to protect sage-grouse. It is illegal to come and go any direction other than the MP Station on the west side of the training center; you cannot exit by the East Gate.

Take Exit 26 from I-82 just north of Yakima. You will need a Recreation Card ($10 in 2015). To obtain this card (and a good map), get instructions from the entrance checkpoint (0.7 mile), as the process to obtain this card changes from time to time. You will need your current vehicle registration, driver’s license, and proof of insurance. You will also be asked to state the purpose of your visit (birdwatching) and your destination. Allow 35–45 minutes for the check-in process. While birding can be productive in many parts of this huge installation, birders are advised to stick to the Cold Creek Road (aka Firing Center Road), described below. Access to this area is usually granted. The route goes east from the MP station to East Gate and passes through a variety of shrub-steppe and riparian vegetation communities, giving an opportunity to see many bird species of these habitats. Military activity may be evident year round, but most tracked-vehicles remain on a side road paralleling the main road. The round trip from Exit 26 is about 60 road miles; excursions to and from Hog Ranch Buttes, Umtanum Ridge, Cairn Hope Peak, and Selah Creek will add another 15 miles. The Cold Creek Road provides a very full day of birding, especially if you take advantage of the hiking possibilities.

Depending on the timing of your visit, the center may be crawling with soldiers and military machinery or it may be a deserted wilderness. In either case it is potentially a hazardous place. Some precautions are in order:

It is wise to carry a cell phone and make sure you have the MP’s phone number. Get the current number when you check in (this number has a curious way of changing). The MP will assist you in an emergency.

You will fare better if you drive a high-clearance vehicle (with six-ply tires if possible) and carry a shovel. Make sure your spare tire is in good shape.

Drive gravel roads slowly, especially on curves (to minimize risk of sidewalls of your tires coming in contact with sharp rocks).

Carry extra food and water, especially in summer, and emergency clothing in winter. Be aware that there is often an extreme fire hazard on the installation in summer. Do not drive a low-clearance vehicle over Cheatgrass or other weedy or grassy terrain. A Cheatgrass fire can outpace a vehicle in motion!

Wearing hunter orange, at least a vest, is usually required.



From the MP station, continue east onto Cold Creek Road. You soon pass ASP Road (unsigned, 0.7). The Kiddy Pond behind a grove of introduced Black Locust trees at this corner has birds of the riparian zone in migration. East on Cold Creek Road, at a road marked Refuse Collection Site (0.7 mile), turn right (south) and drive a short distance toward the dump, a good area for Sagebrush Sparrow. Return to Cold Creek Road and turn right.

From here to Range Control (4.0 miles) is fine shrub-steppe habitat, especially on the south side of the road. If conditions are noisy due to tactical vehicles and other traffic, hurry along. If not, stop occasionally to look and listen for Sage Thrasher and Brewer’s, Vesper, and Sagebrush Sparrows. Sagelands along this stretch are home to many Black-tailed and a few White-tailed Jack Rabbits—one of the few sites in Washington where these rabbits can still be found. Because of the high rodent and Jack Rabbit population, this is a good area in which to look for raptors such as Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, Golden Eagle, and American Kestrel. At Range Control (now closed, but buildings still there), Sagebrush Sparrows are common in the sagebrush on the north side of Cold Creek Road. Grasshopper Sparrows may sometimes be found in the weedy, grassy terrain uphill and south from here.

From the east side of the Range Control complex, turn right (south) and keep on the paved road. Short-eared Owls are often seen on the slopes just to the south of a major bend in the road (1.5 miles), particularly at dawn and dusk. Stop to search for Sagebrush Sparrow, which becomes less numerous eastward from this spot to well beyond the Cold Creek Divide, as increasing moisture induces a grass cover higher than its liking. Continue east to the Range 10 sign (5.0 miles), where the sagebrush is good for Greater Sage-Grouse, Northern Harrier, Short-eared Owl, Prairie Falcon, Sage Thrasher, and Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows.

Taylor Pond is on the right (south) in another 2.7 miles—not visible from the road but marked by the first riparian-zone vegetation east of Range Control. This sensitive area, protected by fencing, is a magnet for many birds. Enter on foot through an unlocked gate. Northern Harriers are common. Look also for Long-eared Owls and migrant passerines in the trees. An extensive Greater Sage-Grouse conservation area, off-limits to military activity, lies between Taylor Pond and the following site.

Greely Pond (2.6 miles), an isolated stand of riparian habitat, offers excellent birding for migrants in spring and fall. To enter, walk to the east side of the fenced area and downstream. The small pond may have nesting Soras. Great Horned Owls nest here, as do Bullock’s Orioles. Dense Big Sagebrush east of the pond once hosted a summering Clay-colored Sparrow. Passerines are often thick in migration.

Continue east from Greely Pond to a well-maintained gravel road (1.7 miles), turn left, and climb four miles to the summit of Hog Ranch Buttes, former site of several communication towers. Do not attempt this side trip if there is mud or snow on the road. Chukar, Gray Partridge, migrant raptors (including Northern Goshawk and Gyrfalcon), Snow Buntings (late fall), and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches (winter) have all been seen on this route, and good-quality lithosol plant communities attract Horned Larks. The view from the summit (elevation 4,100 feet) extends from Mount Jefferson in Oregon north to Mount Stuart.

Return to the Cold Creek Road, turn left, and climb 1.2 miles to a broad pass, the Cold Creek Divide, at an elevation of nearly 3,000 feet. Here you leave the Selah Creek drainage and enter that of Cold Creek. The extensive Three-tip Sagebrush/Bluebunch Wheatgrass habitat is a prime foraging ground for nesting raptors such as Northern Harrier, Swainson’s and Red-tailed Hawks, and American Kestrel. Watch for Short-eared Owl at dusk and dawn. Fall raptor migration (late August–October) can be exciting, too. Watch for Northern Harrier (61 one September day), Sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, Swainson’s, Red-tailed, and Rough-legged (beginning in October) Hawks, Golden Eagle, American Kestrel, and Prairie Falcon, as they circle and sail south from Umtanum Ridge. Common Ravens also migrate south in large numbers. In fall, listen and look for Lapland Longspur and Snow Bunting. Gray Partridge occurs in these grasslands, but is difficult to spot.

The shrub-steppe community along the north slope of Yakima Ridge (to the south), from the divide east along Upper Cold Creek, is in excellent condition. A hike up one of the fire-break roads should produce Sage Thrasher and Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows. In 1.1 miles from the divide, riparian areas with thickets of Black Hawthorn, wild rose, Coyote Willow, and Blue Elderberry, and groves of Black Cottonwood, Peach-leaf Willow, and Quaking Aspen, offer sensational birding for migrants. From late April through early June, and again from late July through September (and even October), the area can be alive in early morning with migrant flycatchers, vireos, kinglets, warblers, tanagers, and sparrows. This is especially so in the fall when hundreds, even thousands of birds can be viewed each hour winging their way west and up the valley on any given morning. In the brushy thickets, abundant fruit attracts Lewis’s Woodpecker (early September), Townsend’s Solitaire, American Robin, Varied Thrush, and Sage Thrasher. Some species occur in stunning numbers (e.g., 65 Hammond’s Flycatchers and 675 Ruby-crowned Kinglets tallied in one two-hour period). Sharp-shinned Hawks (as many as 20 one morning) provide an escort.

Unusual migrants noted here include Barred Owl, Gray Flycatcher, Pine Grosbeak, and Purple and Cassin’s Finches. Black Swift—almost unknown as a migrant east of the Cascades away from its breeding haunts—has been noted twice in early September. The abrupt eastward bend in the Columbia River at Priest Rapids (five miles north), and the availability of food and shelter along Cold Creek, may prompt many southbound passerines to strike south and west on a direct overland route rather than detouring east around the White Bluffs along the Hanford Reach. This area is recovering from fire, but there is regrowth here, and similar, unburnt areas are accessible downstream.

Continue downstream 2.2 miles and turn right to an abandoned ranch, where riparian habitat hosts many nesting and migrant birds. Continue east on Cold Creek Road. On the left in 0.2 mile, Old Filey Road (gravel) leads to the crest of Umtanum Ridge. En route, Greater Sage-Grouse, Sage Thrasher, and Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows may be found in the excellent Three-tip Sagebrush habitat. The view from the crest is vast. Directly below is Priest Rapids Lake, to the north are the Saddle Mountains and the Stuart Range, and to the east are the many nuclear reactors on the Hanford Site, with Rattlesnake Mountain rising in the southeast.

Return to the Cold Creek Road and turn left (east). Turn right in 2.1 miles onto a road that descends and crosses Cold Creek, then steeply climbs the north flank of Yakima Ridge below Cairn Hope Peak (1.0 mile). The Nature Conservancy and the Washington Natural Heritage Program recognize the plant communities on this slope as some of the finest remaining Big Sagebrush/Bluebunch Wheatgrass shrub-steppe vegetation in the state. All of the regularly occurring shrub-steppe passerines can be found here readily. (Grasshopper Sparrow is uncommon.)

Return to Cold Creek Road and continue downstream to East Gate (1.2 miles). In addition to the plants mentioned for Upper Cold Creek, Water Birch (copper-colored trunk and branches) is abundant along these lower stretches; the buds are an important winter food source for the now extirpated Sharp-tailed Grouse. Taken in conjunction with the high-quality shrub-steppe vegetation along the ridges south of Cold Creek, this is potentially excellent habitat for Sharp-taileds and a prime site for a reintroduction effort.

Return to the major intersection at Range Control and turn right (north) to a crossing of Selah Creek (0.5 mile). A hike downstream on the dirt track on the south side of the stream leads past riparian habitats and, farther on, to cliffs. Many raptors nest in this area—Northern Harrier, Swainson’s, Red-tailed, and Ferruginous (at least formerly) Hawks, Golden Eagle, Great Horned, Long-eared, and Short-eared Owls, American Kestrel, and Prairie Falcon. The lower part of the canyon has no trails and reaching it involves a rigorous hike. Watch out for rattlesnakes in the warm months. Whitethroated Swift, many Violet-green and Cliff Swallows, Rock and Canyon Wrens, Lazuli Bunting, and Bullock’s Oriole may also be found along the creek.

Turn in your visitor pass at the MP checkpost on the way out.