Yakima River canoers paddle towards looming cliffs picture

Cliffs loom over the Yakima River.

Yakima River swimmers jumping off bluff picture

Bluff jumping on the Yakima.

Yakima River view from on high picture

Yakima River from on high.

Cidery tour: Rafting on the Yakima perfect for a lazy summer day

Road Journals Blog—On the eastern slope of the Cascades Range, not far from the bucolic Tieton Valley and Tieton Cider Works (which I visited for a VIA magazine story I recently wrote on cideries), the Yakima River runs cool, deep and clear through one of the most spectacular canyons in the country. Basalt cliffs tower 2,000 feet high, meadows are dotted with fragrant sagebrush, and bald eagles circle overhead, rising in columns of sun-warmed air.

The river offers modern-day explorers the same sense of adventure enjoyed by Huck Finn as he launched his raft into the current.

The 15 miles of river that rafters frequent are not only spectacularly scenic, but are also calm and gentle, perfect for family outings. Accordingly, a number of rental companies offer fully equipped rafts and shuttles to and from launch spots.

The summer day on which my family launched our rental raft had air as warm and thick as honey. The river’s current caught our raft as soon as we put in, and propelled us downstream. Dipping our paddles into the water, we cruised slowly past quaking aspen stands, the leaves shimmering in the light breeze. The gentle murmur of the river and the warmth of the sun was a soporific combination, and we soon abandoned our paddling to let the river carry us where it would.

We wound ever deeper into the canyon, and rounding a bend came across a 25-foot-high bluff with local kids lined up, leaping off. Eric, my daredevil husband, immediately took the challenge and jumped off, too, into a gentle current that carried him back to our pull-in spot. Aqua, my daughter’s friend, gave it a go next, flinging himself far out over the water and plunging in with a splash.

We could see his grin from 20 yards away as he floated back to us. “It’s minty fresh!” he shouted.

Back on the river, we entered a set of riffles that made the front of our raft bob up and down. We broke out the paddles to keep on a straight heading, and soon spied a sandbar backed by a low bank and a prairie of meadow grass. A perfect spot for a picnic. Afterward, we followed an enticing trail that wended its way through a deep cut in the mountain, in search of the basalt daisy that grows only here. (The canyon, managed by the Nature Conservancy, is home to a number of rare species.)

We didn’t find the daisy, but did discover drifts of pink, yellow and white wildflowers.

Back on the water, massive basalt columns marched toward the river, casting a narrow band of shade across the water. We craned our necks, looking for bighorn sheep that perch on the rocky crags. Crevices held the nests of eagles, hawks, osprey, and falcons.

On the river, swallows scalloped the air, and above us a magnificent pair of eagles caught in a thermal updraft circled each other serenely in an ancient dance.

Q: Have you had any perfect days on a river? Where? What made the experience so special?

Leslie Forsberg wrote about cideries in the Pacific Northwest for the March/April 2011 Oregon edition of VIA.

Photography by Leslie Forsberg (cliffs, bluffs); Dan Hershman/Flickr (above Yakima River)

This blog post was first published in April 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.