Aug 29, 2023

Taking a fresh look at exploring Washington's Yakima Valley

Views of the Yakima Valley from Gilbert Cellars winery

For Seattleites who haven't crossed the Cascade mountains into Central Washington in a while, a trip to the Yakima Valley might bring to mind acres of apple orchards, fruit-packing warehouses and juice processing plants surrounded by brown hills and sage brush.

The fruit industry is still alive - Washington continues to produce more apples than anywhere else in the U.S. thanks for an average 300 days of sun, a desert climate and irrigation -but, like everywhere, the economy is shifting. The valley grows half the state's wine grapes, and 75 percent of the nation's hops.

Due in part to creative young entrepreneurs returning to their roots, visitors will find wineries with tasting rooms overlooking lush vineyards, breweries and cideries; art galleries in warehouses once used for cold fruit storage; and restaurants serving everything from noodles and dim sum to Salvadorian pupusas.   

I made a three-day visit to the area a few weeks ago, the first in many years. I could have done without a couple of 100-degree-plus afternoons, but not only was I surprised at what I found, I left determined to come back, perhaps in fall or spring when the temperatures drop.

Here are some suggestions on what to explore: 

Downtown Yakima

Hotel Maison

Yakima is one of the oldest communities in Washington, and many of historic buildings in the walkable downtown have been repurposed as tap rooms, tasting rooms, cafes and restaurants.

Our group stayed in the Hotel Maison, former Masonic Temple built in 1911, now a boutique hotel with 36 guest rooms.

A few blocks away is the old Northern Pacific train depot, a major transportation hub in the early 1900s, now the North Town Coffee House, a cozy cafe with vintage decor, and near the site of Downtown Summer Nights, a Thursday night festival with food and craft vendors and live music. 

Other buildings and craftsman-style homes house restaurants and coffee shops. Locals like Mak Daddy, a roaster that keeps a guitar next to the fireplace, and  serves avocado toast topped with roasted tomatoes, feta and balsamic vinegar. 

Single Hill beer garden

Sitting vacant is a  sprawling former shopping mall awaiting someone with the money and vision to convert to another use. Meantime, Single Hill Brewing Co. occupies the former J.C. Penny tire center across the street. Its 16 taps dispense light beers, tart and fruity sours and IPAs brewed with local hops. A large outdoor beer garden faces a 1900s-era church turned into an arts center.

Outdoor adventures

Rafting along the Yakima River

A dry and rugged outdoor landscape defines the valley. Stop for lunch at the Canyon River Ranch in nearby Ellensburg, then float down the Yakima River canyon on a raft equipped with shade canopies, bench seats and a table for drinks and snacks. 

The resort works with guides from Red's Fly Shop to offer two-hour eco cruises ($95 per seat) along the Yakima River as it winds through rolling desert hills and basalt cliffs, some rising more than 2,000 feet. The canyon's crevices and cliffs are home for the densest concentration of nesting hawks, eagles, and falcons in the state. 

Horseback riders model for a photo shoot along the Cowiche Canyon trail

Walkers and hikers can get a feel for the landscape by taking the easy and flat Cowiche Canyon Conservancy Trail, a one-time railroad line that criss-crosses nine old trestle bridges over Cowiche Creek as it flows through a canyon with basalt walls on one side and andesite on the other. Notice the red and black rock formations as you walk on the gravel-packed main path, or follow one of the side trails that lead to views of Mount Rainier and Mount Adams or the tasting room at Wilridge vineyard and winery on the north bluff.   

Drinking and eating

Tacos and tamales are what you might expect to find in an area with a large Latino population -about 50 percent in Yakima County compared to around 13 percent in Washington state. 

Get your fix of traditional fare by following the Yakima Valley Taco and Tamale trail, a list of 26 stops, then branch out and explore a new culinary scene aimed at tourists, Western Washington retirees who have relocated, and young professionals returning to their hometowns to work remotely. 

Chefs and foodies from around the world make pilgrimages to Los Hernandez Tamales in Union Gap which won a James Beard culinary award a few years ago.  

The four-table restaurant in Union Gap

Owner Felipe Hernandez

The Hernandez family turns out Texas-style tamales by the hundreds daily in a nearby commercial kitchen, but little has changed at the brick-and-mortar restaurant they opened 33 years ago. There are still only four tables and four types of tamales for sale (pork, chicken, cactus and asparagus when in season) for $2.33 each.

Kennedy Wilson-Avalos, manager at E.Z. Tiger, displays a Punch Buggy cocktail

Going in the opposite direction is E.Z. Tiger, a sleek and spacious dim sum and noodle restaurant in downtown Yakima. The all-female staff turns out Pacific Rim-inspired dishes such as Beijing dumplings and  green papaya salad. Signature cocktails include the Punch Buggy, a rum and lime juice concoction made with jalapeño simple syrup and tamarind paste from Thailand, then rimmed with ground grasshoppers imported from Mexico. 

Crafted in downtown Yakima

Crowded even on weeknights is Crafted, "considered Yakima's finest restaurant," according to a discerning friend who lives there. Opened by Dan and Mollie Koommoo in 2016, the downtown restaurant focuses on shareable dishes with ingredients gathered from within a 100-mile radius. Menus change frequently, sometimes daily. The vegetarian in our group didn't find many choices the night we visited, although a sample menu online lists many. The standout desert for me was the black sesame ice cream, an Asian treat rarely found on Western menus.

Freehand Cellars tasting room

Among many wineries with tasting rooms, Freehand Cellars might do the best for atmosphere and food to go with a glass of wine. Perched on a hillside overlooking the vineyards, the spacious tasting room has comfortable seating that invites lingering. On the menu is pear or peach caprese, a flatbread pizza and seared shrimp. 

More rustic is the farmhouse-style tasting room at Two Mountain Winery in Zillah. Matthew and Patrick Rawn, Fourth-generation family members began, converting 26 acres of Golden Delicious apples to vineyards in 2000. That grew to 150 acres across eight estate vineyard sites, certified green and sustainable. 

There's no food, but the winery encourages visitors to bring a picnic and relax on the grounds. The $10 tasting fee here is a bargain. Guaranteed you'll go home with a four- pack of Rosé , an idea the owners came up with one day while drinking Miller High Life out of clear glass bottles. 

Picnic packs of Two Mountain Rosé 

Beer lovers have lots of tap rooms and breweries from which to choose. One of the newest is Outskirts Brewing Co. in Selah. The young owners opened a few months ago after transforming a former horse barn and farm into a brewery and restaurant. There's live music on Way Our Wednesdays, a large outdoor patio and a bison burger on the menu. Kids welcome.

Local groups play Wednesdays at Outskirts Brewing

Thirty miles from downtown Yakima, the tiny town of Tieton is worth seeking out for its art galleries, mosaic factory and a cabinet maker housed in repurposed fruit packing warehouses.

Tieton artists are crafting mosaic tiles for the new Redmond light rail station

Tieton's main drag

Seattle art book publisher Ed Marquand and a partner bought nine buildings at auction in 2005 after the collapse of the red delicious apple business with the idea of connecting creative entrepreneurs with local resources. The goal was to improve the local economy, generate jobs and experiment with adaptive reuse architecture to revitalize old buildings.

Most of the vacant storefronts are now filled, with traditional businesses such as a Mexican bakery and Don Mateo Mexican-Salvadorian restaurant, sharing the downtown with an espresso cafe and a maker of handmade art books.

Recently opened is Nomad Kitchen, a farm-to-table restaurant with communal dining in the same location as Nomad Mercantile, a shop selling outdoor adventure gear, wine, cheese and locall-made goods.

If you go:

The Yakima Valley is 140 east of Seattle. Order or download a Yakima Valley Travel Guide from Visit Yakima

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