There’s still time to scurry to the east side where fall color is making its last stand at Umtanum Falls and other trails in the region. The transitional seasons, spring and fall, are my favorites for this short but spectacular hike. In spring the sensuous hills and valleys are splashed with balsamroot and in fall the aspens turn gold. We’ve also hiked there in winter though daylight hours are short and is not a place to hurry, especially when the trail is icy above the waterfall. We cannot emphasize enough how dangerous this hike can be when the trail is icy, especially near the waterfall.
Warning – if the trail is iced over consider another hike in the region as a slip off the trail would be deadly near the falls (see additional information). In fall/winter we recommend good boots, gaiters and trekking poles.
From Ellensburg the drive to the trailhead is beautiful with views of colorful barns, fine homesteads and even an abandoned homestead or two. The trailhead is easy to find, well-signed and only about 10 miles from Ellensburg.
The trail never ventures far from Umtanum Creek and in places it may be boggy depending on rainfall, snowmelt or how busy the beavers have been. In a short distance you’ll come to an unsigned junction; both paths lead to Umtanum Falls. We recommend you take the left fork as we did (because it avoids some of the creek crossings) and contours a little above Umtanum Creek. Beavers have created ponds and the stream crossings are different every year. While the stream crossings on either path are not dangerous they lack bridges and they are a little too broad to jump (you won’t drown but you risk getting your boots wet).
On the trail in mid-November we were hemmed in by walls of gold, orange and red vegetation in contrast with the slender, white trunks of aspens clustered together as densely as bamboo. A few handsome Ponderosa Pines can be seen on or just below the ridgeline. The grasses were molten gold, the sky Lapis lazuli–blue and every shrub sparkled with Halloween-candy colored foliage.
As the canyon narrowed we began looking for a way to cross the creek and spotted a jerrybuilt bridge made out of small limbs. After crossing the creek the trail is obvious and widens as it approaches the lip of Umtanum Falls; the waterfall will be on the left side of this path.
We stopped near the lip of the waterfall for photos. From there you can look into the deep, volcanic bowl formed by basalt, its cliffs slathered with moss above a still pool. Don’t get too close to the edge; though the view is good the views from the base of the waterfall are better (do not cross the creek above the waterfall).
If trails are not icy there are two ways to get to the base of the waterfall; neither recommended for inexperienced hikers in wintry conditions. The route we took down went as described here: from the lip we turned right (south) on a path that climbs to a grassy ridgeline. While hikers have created social trails over time take the most obvious path toward the ridge as it curves above and around the waterfall before it descends steeply to the base of the waterfall. If unsure as to the “correct” path follow the path that looks the “best” and work your way down to the base of the falls.
Once you are in the canyon bottom you might notice another obvious trail continuing deeper into Umtanum Canyon. We’ve followed that trail ½ mile or so in the past but found it brushy and difficult to follow.
Once we reached the base of the falls we stopped to revel in the wild beauty of this setting in which we found ourselves. No matter how often you view this waterfall it is never the same waterfall; it changes its mood season by season, month by month and day by day. Here the waterfall is only a few steps away; an easy rock-hop across a small tributary gets you even closer to the pool below the falls. It was chilly in this rocky bowl though we lingered for photos of the pool and the twin cascades of the waterfall plunging down the mossy cliffs. We watched with some trepidation as two hikers above blithely crossed the creek at the lip of the falls; something we do not recommend.
Rather than retrace our route we took another path we were familiar with that climbs to the other side of the canyon. The path had deteriorated since our last visit though it has advantages (one of them, being in the sunlight). It is steep, exposed and in a few places you’ll be crossing loose talus. While we don’t consider it dangerous you should hike with caution, taking care not to kick rocks down on companions or slip and slide on the steep hard-pan you will encounter from time to time. Mercifully the trail is short and gets better the higher you go.
You’ll come out near a rocky outcropping with lichen-splashed columnar basalt. Work your way around the backside of the outcropping or drop down a little bit below it and find another well-worn path that weaves a safe route up through the rocky columns to the summit ridge, the ideal spot for lunch. There we lingered, relishing the warm sun and a leisurely lunch. In spring and summer be on the alert for ticks and rattlesnakes.
Unless you are familiar with the trail system go back the way you came or continue, following the best path that heads down to the creek from the outcropping where you will find a couple places to cross the stream. Turn right and follow that path back to the parking lot. In other words you don’t need to return to the base of the waterfall to get back to the trailhead. Keep in mind that trail/path junctions are not signed.
Directions: From Seattle drive east on I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass, continue to Exit 109 in Ellensburg then turn right, go under the interstate and at 0.7 mile go left onto Umtanum Road (there is a traffic light). Follow this road which turns to gravel in just a tad over five miles and about 10 miles from Ellensburg find the designated trailhead/parking (left). A Discover Pass or Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Vehicle Permit required.
Additional Information: The hike is 2.5 miles round-trip with about 400 feet of gain. There is no Green Trails map for this area. You can purchase a map from the Department of Natural Resources though they are large and cumbersome. A good resource for other hikes in this region is “Best Desert Hikes Washington” by Alan L. Bauer/Dan A. Nelson (Mountaineer Books).