Here’s an early-season hike to treasure while high-country snows melt and lowland trails dry out.
There’s a good reason why people in Seattle are nicknamed “mossbacks.”
All winter, you feel like you’ve been submerged in water, and when spring finally arrives, the days get longer but your body still feels damp.
Around you, moss is growing in places it shouldn’t, such as rooftops and sidewalks, and there comes a point when you half expect to find green stuff growing on your skin.
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Now I’m going to tell you what you can do about it: Dry out in a place that claims 300 days of sunshine a year.
While high-country hikes are still buried under several feet of snow and lowland trails a sloppy mudfest, a trip to the desert is exactly what’s needed to cure a severe case of mossback.
For an early-season hike, the Yakima Skyline Trail (also known as the Yakima Rim Trail) shines for its convenience, prolific wildflowers and consistent sunshine.
The Upper Yakima Valley, in south-central Washington, is only about 2½ hours from Seattle, yet the semiarid desert climate feels more like Arizona than rain forest.
During the early spring, rolling foothills of shrub-steppe are in their prime — popping to life with bursts of new wildflowers.
I love large, dripping forests as much as the next Northwest native, but if you want a changeup, here you won’t see a tree for miles. Instead, rolling knolls loaded with bunch grasses ripple in the breeze.
A mile into a recent spring hike, I met Majid Mirbagheri, who traveled from Seattle with a group of seven friends. Yakima was his group’s “plan B” after they arrived at their mountain campground and discovered it was still closed for the season.
With some quick online research they ended up at the nearby Yakima River Canyon Campground and discovered the Yakima Skyline Trail. Little did he know, they stumbled on one of the state’s best early-season destinations.
From the parking area, the ridge above you looks like the bow of an enormous sinking ship.
The trail traverses a section of the protected Wenas Wildlife Area, which begins on the northern fringes of the Yakima Valley, near Selah.
Start by gradually climbing upward through swaying grasses and fresh green shoots. Old fenceposts mark the way, which is reassuring but not really necessary since the trail is obvious.
Early payoffs are always appreciated on a hike, and within the first half-mile you reach the rim of the Yakima River Canyon, and your first good overlook to the river below.
This is a hike that’s more about the journey and less about the destination. Views come fast and mountain peaks are frequent companions as you travel.
In the first mile, you begin to take notice of the snowy summits of Mount Rainier, Mount Stewart, Mount Adams and Mount Hood — all nice distractions as you climb.
The trail follows the ridge, providing ample opportunities to peer over the plummeting canyon, and after about 2.2 miles you reach the first summit, marked by a horse-hitching post and a view of Roza Dam. This is a good turnaround point for most day hikers, but with more time and energy, a longer loop is possible.
The trail turns inland, cruising through fields of dense wildflowers and eventually climbs to Gracie Point, at elevation 3,208 feet. With a little off-trail route finding — the landscape is wide open, so it’s tough to lose your way — you can make a loop back to the parking area, for a total of about 10 miles.
Without any shade and little water, this would be an uncomfortable hike in midsummer. For now, wildflowers are springing to life. It’s a pastel colored landscape full of muted colors mixed with dark stones coated in lichen.
Ten seconds into the trail, the ground was peppered with splashes of yellow balsamroot and desert parsley. Once I stopped for a closer look, I began to notice tiny clusters of sagebrush violets.
Throughout the spring, cheatgrass, purple bitterroot, lupine, purple larkspur and buttercups are commonly seen on the trail.
If I told you that pelicans could be seen soaring over Yakima, you’d probably say, “You mean Yucatán, right?”
No, Yakima, as in the arid, landlocked fruit town.
It’s true — since the early 1970s white pelicans have been making a slow recovery in the state, and during the past 20 years they have made surprising inroads along the Yakima River, according to Dennis Paulson, director emeritus of the Slater Museum of Natural History, part of the University of Puget Sound
After two miles of climbing, I found a sunny, protected crevice overlooking the canyon and decided to sit quietly and watch for pelicans.
On the steep hillside below, I could see game trails where bighorn sheep, deer, elk, coyotes and marmots had crisscrossed the grass.
The evidence of creatures large and small abounds on the trail, from the fresh deer scat to the prolific holes dug by burrowing mammals. Sage grouse, chukars, quails, magpies, hawks and eagles also call this land home.
I watched and waited, but on a busy Saturday nothing stirred except the acrobatic swallows darting overhead. Nevertheless, I’m a firm believer in putting yourself in places to succeed. Even if you don’t see an animal, the wait is rarely a waste of time.
Just feeling the sun’s heat beating down on my head was enough to make my mossy skin feel like a distant memory.
If you go
Yakima Skyline Trail
From Seattle, take Interstate 90 east to I-82 and head south to Exit 26. Turn right off the freeway and then left onto Harrison Road. After 2 miles turn right on Wenas Road. At a Y intersection, continue straight on Gibson Road and travel 0.3 miles to Buffalo Road. Turn right and the road will soon turn to gravel; it’s another 1.5 miles to the trailhead.
The trail begins about 100 yards beyond an unmarked wide spot in the road. It’s obvious thanks to the well-worn path and old fenceposts marking the route. A Discover Pass is required to park.