Beating the Heat in the Washington Desert: Tips for Floating the Yakima River

We recently met up with John’s brother to float down the Yakima River in central Washington, about two hours southeast of Seattle. Having just come from seeing Dead & Company at the Gorge Ampitheatre about an hour away, it seemed like the perfect way to spend a hot summer day in the Washington desert. Yes, a lot of Washington is desert and a very fertile one at that when they irrigate it! Tons of vineyards and orchards – the Washington apples you’ve been eating your whole life are grown in the desert – weird, huh?

Anyway, the float trip is a beautiful, relaxing one down the calmest part of the Yakima, below the basalt cliffs that populate the area. However, there are some things you’ll want to think about before heading out…

1. You’ll need two vehicles – one at the put-in spot, another where you want to get out. Unless you want to hitchhike back to your car in a wet bathing suit and with a ton of stuff, as it’s apparently legal out here, but having two vehicles is better if you have them.

2. Map out where you want to put in and get out. There are marked spots along the route to get in and out. The average trip is three hours, with a maximum of five if the water is calm and you choose the farthest points. We put in just shy of the most upstream point, and got out at Big Pines, where we had a campsite. Which brings me to my next point…

3. Bring a few bucks cash – Some of the put-in spots charge $5 for parking your car. We were able to avoid this by getting in the water near a pulloff in the road, but it definitely would have been easier from the boat dock where we had originally planned had any of us had cash on us. It is also helpful if you decide to reserve a campsite as it is an exact change self-pay system.

4. Consider a campsite – If you have the time, seriously consider setting up a campsite where you plan to get off, especially if you’re going to have a couple of beers on the river, which also appears to be legal, or at least not explicitly prohibited anyway. Things out West really are much more laid back! We paid $15 for an overnight site at Big Pines.

5. Come prepared with these supplies

*Sunscreen! – As someone who is made up of every ethnicity that burns in the sun and thinks a tan is when your freckles come out, definitely lather up before heading out and bring more to reapply if possible.

*Cooler/floatation device – If you are going to imbibe, you’ll want something to keep your drinks cold in. My brother-in-law found a device on Amazon that we placed the cooler on and just rested our feet on to keep from floating away. It will make others jealous for sure!

*Inner tubes – This one seems obvious but there are a ton of different options out there. You’ll probably want something with more of a seat and with cup holders as opposed to the ones that kids float in the pool. Keep in mind the water is probably going to be pretty chilly, too, if you want something that keeps your butt farther out of the water. (I had goosebumps even though it was 97 degrees out!)

*Water shoes – John learned the hard way after he lost his flip flops that you’ll really want some waterproof shoes to wear down to the put-in spot and as you climb over some river rocks to get out there. Especially because the ground was super hot and full of those horrible prickly balls that get caught on everything!

*Frisbee – Can come in handy as a paddle to keep you going the right direction.

*Water proof bag – Whether it is plastic or the kind that seals up and floats, if you want to take your phone or anything you don’t want to get wet, this is a must-have.

*Waterproof camera – This is a personal preference, but we took our GoPro with the waterproof casing along with us and just kept it next to the cooler on that raft. Now we’ll have the memories forever!

*Snacks – You will get hungry out there or at the very least when you’re finished.

*Know how to navigate water – It is very important to look out for water hazards such as shallow water (watch your butt on those rocks!), branches (which you can get tangled in) and floating pieces of wood. As someone who started out the whole trip getting pulled into a current, between some rocks and tried feebly to catch up to the guys by kicking my legs the wrong way (don’t worry, this is par for the course for me), I felt firsthand how even though the water looks calm, there potentially dangerous hazards out there.

*Firewood – If you reserve a spot, there will likely be a campfire site where you can cook food or just relax at night to dry out.

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