Naches, Washington

by Foster Church on April 9, 2015

Naches sits modestly off US 12 at the foot of the Cascades, fifteen miles west of Yakima.  At the entrance to town, a little white octagonal building, once a gas station, sprouts a spire that welcomes visitors. There are thirteen churches here, and church steeples echo the spire throughout the town. For years, Presbyterian values defined the place, City governments were progressive in outlook, and the town took education seriously.

The tradition of moderation and attention to lasting values may explain why Naches has been reluctant to bang its own horn. It should be better known than it is.  Its location makes it a natural stopover for outdoorsy folks because of its closeness to woods, water and snow.

There are two routes to enter or leave Naches, each exciting in a different way. If you are heading west from Naches, take US 12 along the Tieton River and continue on, past Tieton Dam, Rimrock Lake, Clear Lake Falls and the White Pass Ski Area. The road is kept open in the winter, and the area is well known for downhill and cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.

A retired service station is now a visitors center

A retired service station is now a visitors center

In the summer, you would leave Naches on US 12 but then take SR 410 along the Naches River on the Chinook Scenic Byway. It’s is an unfolding spectacle of jagged, rocky mountains, deep forested valleys and the looming presence of Mount Rainier. Hundreds of miles of trails can be reached from the byway, including  Lost Creek, Boulder Cave, Sawmill Flat and Pleasant Valley.

In 1853, pioneer settlers on the Longmire wagon train crossed into a valley in what is now central Washington, blessed by a fine river and excellent soil. A few stayed; others continued on but returned later. They founded a town and called it Nah-cheese, an Indian name that was anglicized to Natchez. Ditches were cut at the river to bring water to the fertile but dry valley. Farmers found that fruit trees thrived, and over the years, apple, peach, cherry and apricot orchards spread over the land.

In 1906, town leaders, fearing that mail could be misdirected to Natchez, Mississippi, changed the spelling of the town to Naches, and the river and the valley too became Naches.

To get a sense of the town’s setting, drive up the steep Naches-Tieton Road and pull over into a big open area with a view that commands the valley, laid out in green squares. Then continue to the town of Tieton,  which is undergoing a kind of renaissance. Hispanics comprise half the population  and they’ve put their mark on the place with a panaderia, a carniceria and a Mexican restaurant in the business area that surrounds the grassy main square. It’s also home to Mighty Tieton, a daring experiment by Ed Marquand, a Seattle publisher of fine art books. Marquand was biking through Tieton in 2005 when he ran over a patch of goathead thorns and punctured both tires. Reparing the tires gave him time to look and dream. He saw opportunity where others saw a down-in-the-dumps village, and hatched a plan to salvage the place by turning it into an “incubator for artisan businesses.”

Artisans arrived steadily, mostly from Seattle, and gradually they created a core of small businesses, making organic cider, cheese and kites in addition to a book bindery, a print shop and a co-op ceramics studio. He also bought two abandoned fruit warehouses and converted one to urban-style lofts and the other to studios and performance space.

Tieton still feels like a half-empty pitcher that needs filling, but it’s an intriguing place to stroll and discover city people, city shops and city lofts in an unlikely place.

In the summer, the Naches Valley competes with the mountains as a place to bike or cruise by automobile. Irrigation turned this place into one of the great growing areas in the nation, and everything that’s stuck in the ground sprouts  edible things, including apples, peaches, cherries, green beans, cabbage, cucumbers, onions, garlic, potatoes, zucchini, sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, watermelons, cantaloupes, apricots, nectarines and pears. Produce stands along the road compete to encourage fruit gluttony.

One popular route is a twenty-nine-mile circle tour that begins at the Yakima Valley Information Center and circles through Naches Heights on Naches Heights Road to Naches, and returns to Yakima on Old Naches Highway. The Naches Heights in 2012 was named the state’s twelfth American Viticulture Area by the U.S. Department of the Treasury and there are several vineyards with tasting rooms in the area. It took only ten years for this to happen. A local farmer, Phil Cline, decided to give up tree fruit and in 2002 planted grapes on seven and a half acres. The soils proved welcoming, and now his Naches Heights Vineyard grows pinot gris,  riesling and syrah. What has happened in the Heights is only one more reason that Naches and environs are bound to be discovered.

 There are several cafes in downtown Naches and the Walkabout Creek Saloon just outside town on US 12, is a lively, comfortable bar and grill. The Naches visitor information center is located in the renovated depot near the entrance to town at SR 22.

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