The Rattlesnake Dance Ridge Trail and other paths in the Yakima River Canyon offer spring outings with frequent sun and no snow, and the river is a treasure for fishing, floating and bird-watching.

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I got the prize — incredible views — and I didn’t even have to do the dance.

As I munched a sandwich while perched atop a craggy knob along the Rattlesnake Dance Ridge Trail, I pondered how the path got that name, which is hand-painted on a post near the trailhead.

I’m guessing it has to do with fancy footwork performed by hikers who have almost stepped on buzzing, coiled reptilian “trail hosts” on the way to this path’s 2,600-foot summit.

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That’s the downside: This hike a few miles south of sunny Ellensburg is prime rattler country, and online-trail notes from other hikers confirm that snakes are sometimes encountered on the trail.

The up side (I thought as I ate): a virtual smorgasbord of scenery.

I use the culinary term advisedly. The sheer variety of views makes your eyes bug out like you made too many trips through the all-you-can-eat buffet.

And while we’re milking that metaphor: Don’t overeat before setting out or you’ll never get to the top. This steep, rocky trail immediately climbs from river level at a pretty unforgiving angle — rising 1,200 feet to the summit. But hikers are rewarded within five minutes with lovely views of a big bend in the green river that almost encircles the hill you’re climbing.

The trail is just one of many spring and summer recreational opportunities in this scenic canyon, a treasure for birders, fishermen, hikers and river rafters.

Ancient origins

According to geologists, the canyon formed when the same forces that forged the Cascade Mountains millions of years ago lifted the land through which the Yakima River flowed. But the land rise was so gradual the river’s erosive forces matched it, causing the steep, narrow gorge.

However, the river current wasn’t enough to erode a straight channel, thus the occasional hairpin meanders of the canyon, which runs for 25 miles between Ellensburg, in Kittitas County, and Selah, Yakima County. Today, it’s dotted with river-access recreation areas and campsites courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.

Getting back to those diverse views: Beyond the river, railroad tracks stitch the shore, making my lunch spot on the Rattlesnake Dance trail a train-spotter’s dream.

Rising abruptly just beyond are tan, sculpted hills of basalt from ancient volcanic vents. From my high vantage point, I watched drift boats full of fishermen glide silently on the gentle river current, far enough below that the only discernible detail was the hypnotic looping of fly lines as they caught the sun with every back cast.

When I climbed five minutes farther from my lunch spot, northward views opened of the snowy Cascades, including the spiky peaks of Mount Stuart and the whole Stuart Range dividing Cle Elum and Leavenworth.

Don’t just look, but listen: From the lower slope this day, the river’s gurgle and the “grock-grock” of ravens in riverside cottonwoods competed with the growl of semi trucks and motorcycles on the highway. Higher up, cooling winds — which other hikers warned can be strong on this ridge — muffled other sounds.

A popular route

The canyon is a regular playground for residents of nearby Ellensburg, several of whom I met along the trail.

“It’s gorgeous, I do this climb … as a way to stay in shape physically and mentally,” said Sarah Cannon, an espresso-hut barista, who was hiking with her yellow dog, Harper.

“The view from the top is 360 degrees, it’s like being on top of the world!” said Kathy Allen, who did the climb with trekking poles. “I’m sure happier doing this than being home cleaning my kitchen!”

I’d dawdled along the road north from Selah, stopping at recreation sites and making notes for future visits. Highlights I noted:

• Besides being a designated Blue Ribbon trout fishery, the river is ideal for lazy float trips on inflatable rafts or, in the heat of summer, on inner tubes. Some riffles and fast-moving water are just enough to give some excitement (it’s rated Class I to Class II, the mildest waters).

A good launch point is Umtanum Recreation Site, near Milepost 16 (mileposts count upward from the south end of Highway 821, at its intersection with Interstate 82). The typical takeout (and farthest you should go downstream) is Roza Recreation Site, at Milepost 7, a half-mile above Roza Dam, allowing almost 10 river miles.

• The Umtanum site is another good spot for hikers, as well as birders (it’s an Audubon Society-designated Important Birding Area, and a stop on the Great Washington State Birding Trail; see Look for chukars, California quail and Northern flickers year-round, plus raptors and migratory songbirds.

Here’s the canyon’s only access to the west side of the river, via a pedestrian-only suspension bridge that leads to a network of well-used, mostly unsigned trails.

One wanders about 2 miles up Umtanum Creek (watch for beaver dams and old fruit trees marking homestead sites). Others climb 2,000 feet to Umtanum Ridge. All ridge trails in the canyon are good places to see late-spring wildflowers such as arrowleaf balsamroot, bluebells and more. Also watch for bighorn sheep — and rattlesnakes.

Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or

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