Image: Scott Butner

SERENELY FLOATING ALONG THE YAKIMA RIVER as it wound between sage-brush-speckled hills, I was jarred alert by a booming voice. “Bighorn sheep!” A quick glance at the left riverbank revealed two rams casually munching shrubs while their three friends meandered further up the cliff. “You don’t see them very often,” noted our kayak guide. “They only come out on overcast days when the weather is cooler.”

I couldn’t blame them. With an average of 300 days of sunshine a year and a mere six inches of annual rainfall, Yakima Valley’s desert climate often sees the mercury in the triple digits in late summer. In October, though, it’s cooler and there’s less human traffic, making it an ideal time to float the Yakima River and spot not only bighorn sheep but deer, horned larks, and beavers, too.

But I need to level with you. I wasn’t in this scorched patch of the state just to stare dimly at wild ungulates. Besides scenic landscapes and animal sightings, Yakima Valley is a great place to pair kayak excursions with wine tasting. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the American Viticultural Area, the oldest wine region in Washington. The state itself is the number-two wine producer (6 million gallons a year) in the country. The 600,000-acre region is home to more than 60 wineries—and I was set on sampling as many of them as I could.

To reach the land of wildlife and wine, drive 90 minutes east on Interstate 90, over the river (Snoqualmie River) and through the woods (the Wenatchee National Forest), and then motor another half hour east on -Interstate 82 through the eastern foothills of the Cascades. Turn off the highway just past the legendary sign proclaiming, “Welcome to Yakima: The Palm Springs of Washington,” which has been greeting visitors nearly as long as Yakima Valley as been an official wine-growing region. A carload of friends and I left Seattle before rush hour traffic and arrived in time to dine on antipasti, pork scallopine in Marsala wine sauce, and other delectable classic Italian dishes at Gasperetti’s Restaurant.

Less than 24 hours later we were coasting down the river deep in the Yakima Canyon where the only sounds were splashing waves and chirping sparrows. Kayaking has a rep as a sport for risk takers, but there’s little chance of it resulting in dismemberment or drowning if you don a life jacket and stay roughly in the middle of the Yakima River, which is an easygoing Class 1 waterway (meaning it has about as many rapids as a bubble bath). Comprised of intermediate and beginner kayakers, our group opted for a quick tutorial from Rill Adventures, a kayaking and rafting outfitter in Ellensburg that offers equipment rentals and guided trips.

Before launching our vessels in the river, an instructor took the group to a lake for Kayak 101, where beginners like me practiced driving, turning, and other strokes. After a half hour, we were ready for the river. Our 12-mile trip through Yakima Canyon began at the river entrance at Ringer Loop and Canyon roads. We scanned the banks for critters and entertained ourselves by pretending to furiously paddle whenever a group of baby rapids surfaced.

A few hours in we grew tired of goofing around on the river and were ready for a little R & R (rest and riesling). We hit the only place powerful enough to wash away river stench: Ummelina Yakima Valley Spa Retreat. Lounging under a cabana on the patio I lunched on a sesame oriental chicken salad before indulging in herbal sea salt treatments and an ocean ritual in which 350 massage jets had their way with me in a bath of mineral-rich water.

Tenderized by the spa, we padded next door to Stems wine store, where owner and unofficial concierge of Yakima Valley Brad Baldwin dished on which wineries are worth your time (he swears by the syrah at Sheridan Vineyard) and which to avoid like a $2 box of rotgut from 7-Eleven. Then he leaned in close and offered a secret Yakima Valley wine-tasting tip: “Drive far east on I-82, say as far as Zillah or even down to Prosser, then turn around and start tasting at wineries on the drive back to Yakima,” he advised. “Because as the ruddier your cheeks get, the closer you want to be to your hotel room.”

Thanks for the suggestion, Brad, but we solved that problem by dividing our trip between Yakima, which is closer to kayaking and rafting hot spots, and Prosser, a town of 5,000 located a short drive from the renowned Red Mountain wine region. And as far as a hotel room, we’ve got that covered, too. Little inns perched in the foothills are the way to go in Yakima Valley. Surrounded by dense cherry trees, the Orchard Inn in Yakima is a cozy four-room bed-and-breakfast operated by a jubilant German and Italian couple, Henner Krueger and Karen Merola Krueger, brimming with local restaurant and winery knowledge. At the other end of the valley, Prosser Mayor Paul Warden and First Lady Kerry Warden run the Sunset House Wine Country Inn on a hillside amid 35 private acres with sweeping views of Mounts Rainier and Adams. And no, bunking at the mayor’s house doesn’t grant you leniency on speeding tickets or public drunkenness, so behave.

The ruddier your cheeks get, the closer you want to be to your hotel room.

Back at Stems, the clock was quickly approaching the universal winery closing time of 5pm, so we walked across the street to Masset Downtown Cellars and snacked on hummus and pitas while sipping the their Basket Press Syrah, which recently scored 90 points in Wine Spectator and is crafted using an 80-year-old Italian basket press. The next morning we drove to Red Mountain to visit Col Solare Winery, a collaboration between Washington’s largest wine company, Chateau Ste. Michelle, and Marchesi Antinori, Italy’s leading wine maker. Prior to tasting, guests are given an all-access pass to tour the fields, tank room, and cellar, which takes about an hour. And depending on the time of year, you can inspect different grape clones, taste fruit from the vine, and sip wines straight from the tank. After an education in vineyard management and wine production, you leave Col Solare with a more intelligent palate and deeper appreciation for vino.

We continued the winery tour in Prosser’s Vintner’s Village off Merlot Drive, where we sampled adventurous wines concocted by Dr. Wade Wolfe. His name may sound like it was plucked from an H. G. Wells novel, but the good doctor is an expert on growing -premium wine grapes in the valley, all on display at the Thurston Wolfe Winery. We also sampled reds and whites from the region’s freshman class, including Olsen Estates, started in 2005 by a 100-year-old farming family.

Rosy-cheeked and a little rowdy, we turned our thoughts to the trip back to Seattle. Not yet, we thought, and wheeled over to one last spot, Desert Wind Winery’s La Mesa restaurant, where we fed on tomato empanadas like famished desert beasts.

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