The Yakima River binds a region of great contrasts. Snowcapped volcanic peaks and evergreen-covered hills overlook a natural shrub steppe turned green by irrigation. Famed throughout the world for its apples and cherries, its wine and hops, this fertile landscape is also the ancestral home of the Yakama people from whom it takes its name.
The river flows southeasterly from its source in
the Cascade Mountains near Snoqualmie Pass. Between the college town of Ellensburg, at the heart of the Kittitas Valley, and Yakima, the region's largest city, the river cuts steep canyons through serried, sagebrush-covered ridges before merging with the Naches River. Then it breaks through Union Gap to enter its fecund namesake, the broad Yakima Valley. Some 200 miles from its birthplace, the river makes one final bend around vineyard-rich Red Mountain before joining the mighty Columbia River at the Tri-Cities.
Mt. Rainier stands west of the Cascade crest but is often more readily seen east of the mountains, where the air is clear and clouds are few. South of Rainier is the broad-shouldered Mt. Adams, the sacred mountain of the Yakama people. The 12,276-foot-tall mountain marks the western boundary of their reservation, second-largest in the Pacific Northwest. Here, today, as they have for centuries, wild horses run free through the Yakama Nation and can be seen feeding along Highway 97 south of Toppenish. Deer and elk roam the evergreen forests, eagles and ospreys soar overhead.
Orchards and vineyards dominate Yakima Valley's agricultural landscape. Cattle and sheep ranching initially drove the economy; apples and other produce came with the engineering of irrigation canals and outlets in the 1890s. The annual asparagus harvest begins in April, followed by cherries in June; apricots and peaches ripen in early to mid-summer. Exported throughout the world for the brewing of beer, hops are ready by late August; travelers may see the bushy vines spiraling up fields of twine. The apple harvest runs from late summer through October.
The valley's real fame, however, rests on its wine grapes, which have a growing reputation as among the best in the world. Concord grapes were first planted here in the 1960s, and they still take up large tracts of land. But vinifera grapes, the noble grapes of Europe, now dominate the local wine industry. Merlot and white Burgundies boosted the region, and Syrah is often regarded as the grape of the future. There are fine Cabernets, Grenaches, Rieslings, Chardonnays, Gewürztraminers, Sémillons, Sauvignon Blancs, Chenin Blancs, and Muscats, as well as such lesser-known varietals as Sangioveses, Nebbiolos, and Lembergers.