Hiking Notes: Umtanum Creek Falls

Umtanum Creek Falls Trail is an Ellensburg classic that I continue to return to time and time again. The short, 3 mile out and back trail snakes through Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine and crosses Umtanum Creek, adding a dimension of playfulness as the hike dares you to hop over and move around the water. At this point in the season, the trail opens to a crystal-like waterfall and a frozen pool surrounded on three sides by basalt draped in icicles. I hiked Umtanum Creek Falls a lot back in college and I usually saved it for the winter because the elevation didn’t summon as much snow as the surrounding areas- making it the perfect escape from the post-holiday blues.

Winter Wonderland
The hike welcomes a traveler with arching trees dusted in microscopic ice artistry. In the Spring, this trail is freckled in wildflowers like yellow desert-parsley, bluebells, squaw currant, and bitterbrush and in the cold months, the dried remains transform the area. I think of the spiked brush as the skeleton of each species, softened by snow. 


The trail is quite easy, as it is well defined and settle to slope upward. I have seen bighorn sheep on this one in the past, but this time came across a few hawk and eagle, a downy woodpecker working away, and a daddy longleng, which catapulted me into random arachnid research. Fun fact- I learned that spiders are cold-blooded and can live at temperatures down to 23 degrees fahrenheit! 

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Wear Boots with Traction
On my last trek to UCF, I mistakenly wore duck boots for the snow, ones with a rubber bottom and hardly any grip. I paid the harsh price for this far too many times as my body hit the cold, iced over the trail over and over again. The consistent hikers this winter hardened the ever falling snow making it icy and slippery in many areas. I had to work hard to not slide down the hill that the trail lined and found myself sliding on my bottom every once in a while in order to catch my breath. This trail is one of the few that doesn’t require snowshoes for in the Winter, but I recommend wearing YakTracks, or at least a pair of more traction designed hiking boots. 


The Falls
You know you made it to the viewpoint when you hear the rush of water and arrive at the top of a 40-foot waterfall. In the Spring and Summer months, you can admire it from the bottom if you follow the trail to the left of the waterfall that hugs the rocks and wraps down to the lower section of the falls. In the Winter, it is safest to stay at the top and watch your footing as you creep closer to the edge. The creek and other streams merge beautifully to descend, and the top layer freezes over in the winter, allowing you to carefully walk over the ice. 

At this point, I prefer to play it safe and give myself a few “safety inches” next to edges and thin icy areas. I also consider it the responsibility of a dog owner at this point in time to leash up your pal, just in case they get spooked or unbalanced. Then again, my pug jumped out of a raft once to try and catch a floating leaf, followed by me dumping my body in after her… so I just play it safe these days. 


Trail Teachings
I haven’t done this hike in a couple of years and it was just as fun as I remembered it. When I first started hiking this trail regularly, I was pretty out of shape. I remember trying to climb up a rock wall and grunting with effort, while this time the “wall” seemed much smaller and less intimidating, a simple pile of natural rock. It was very rewarding to find this trail much easier than I remembered. Feeling my body float across the trail with ease made me feel a sense of pride and nostalgia that cannot be developed without effort. 

One step at a time,
Madison Ford


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