Hiking the Lower Deschutes Canyon, Oregon in Spring

30 05 2017

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The winter of 2016-17 brought record rainfall to many parts of the Pacific Northwest, including Portland and Seattle, which saw all-time records for the October – April periods. It was great for skiers. Great for replenishing reservoirs. But it. Just. Kept. On. Raining. Sometimes, the only way to escape Portland’s gloom is to head east, past the Cascades. There, the clouds part and it’s likely a sunny hike can be had!

There are many good springtime hikes in the eastern Columbia Gorge. Wildflowers start coming out in March and peak sometime in late April. One nice choice are the trails along the Lower Deschutes River Canyon. There are three main trails leading from the mouth of the river. One is an old railroad bed converted to a bike trail. Another follows the riverside, snaking along. And a third is in between these two. It is possible to go many many miles upstream following the old railroad bed.

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To get there, take I-84 east from Portland, past The Dalles, to Deschutes River State Park. Park at the area in the southern part of the park.

Laura and I decided to do this hike as it’s a rolling terrain hike and doesn’t involve lots of elevation gain. A loop is possible by taking the river trail about 3 miles to where it climbs and connects with the railroad bed trail.

We had wonderful weather. It was warm in the sun. A train on the opposite side slowly made its way, stopping for a time.

The river was flowing swiftly, emptying Central Oregon of all the excess water from the spring rains.

We saw the occasional balsam root flowers starting to emerge, plus some others I couldn’t identify.

Total hike mileage was 6.5 miles, a good conditioning hike.

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Laura photographs some emerging flowers

The Deschutes River cuts through some of Oregon’s interesting Geologic features. So the trail offers some natural interest. Along the way one can view layers of basalt and ash laid down over millenia. In some spots natural lava bridges formed.

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Weather plus the river have carved some interesting shapes into the rocks here. For wildlife, we saw mostly ospreys and buzzards. Supposedly there are deer and rattlesnakes in the area as well. It’s popular with anglers for the trout and salmon. And backpacking is possible along this trail, too.

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For me, spring and fall are the best times to hike this canyon. Obviously it offers sun when Portland is cloudy. But in the midst of summer, this canyon has three things I don’t like: Intense heat, little shade and often punishing wind. In the summer, it just bakes here. And that heat, which makes air rise, means something has to displace it. And that is air from the Columbia River and the Pacific. In the summer, by afternoon, it can be like a convection vortex here. I have even seen a kite torn from its string! Rafters cannot make progress against this force – often being forced to spend the night and start off in the morning.

So for me, it’s all about the seasons, and this hike is just GREAT in spring!





Backpacking to Mt. Jefferson and Jefferson Park

3 09 2015
Jefferson Park,Mt Jefferson,backpacking oregon,hiking oregon

Russell Lake – Mt Jefferson fills the sky!

One of Oregon’s wonders is Jefferson Park, and Laura and I recently hiked the Whitewater Ridge Trail to spend a couple of Eden-like days in its splendor!

A dormant 10,495ft high volcano, Mt. Jefferson is Oregon’s 2nd highest peak. It sports five glaciers. And sitting just below its northeast side is Jefferson Park – a square mile plateau sprinkled with wildflower meadows and brilliant lakes.

Laura and I backpacked about six miles up 1,800 vertical feet up the Whitewater Ridge Trail to reach it. The day we hiked, it was 85 degrees at the trailhead. Much of the route is exposed to the sun – with beautiful views, but on our day the heat and effort were what dominated our trip up.

Rod Richards,backpacking oregon,hiking oregon,jefferson park,mt jefferson

Now we just need to find a campsite!

But once at Jefferson Park any suffering we endured melted away amongst the sheer majesty of the place. Because once you have arrived, every view is dominated by Mother Nature’s spectacle. Look one way and the mountain covers the sky 180 degrees. Look everywhere and you see carpets of green, plus wildflowers and twinkling lakes. The biggest lakes are Russell, Scout and Bays, then there are smaller ones like Park Lake or Rockpile Lake

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Bays Lake – Dive Right In!

Jefferson Park is a protected area within the Mt Jefferson Wilderness, and there are maybe two dozen designated campsites throughout. It’s very popular so some of it has been marked off limits for the land to recover. It’s all alpine flora, which is super delicate.

We’re trying to find my old favorite spot on Bays Lake. But it’s occupied, so we opt for a spot on Scout Lake. We’ve got nothing to complain about with our view.

Laura enjoying the warm sun

Laura enjoying the warm sun

And Laura has no problems settling into the routine. Before long she’s relaxing reading a book on Tibetan Buddhism in the fading afternoon sun.

We take a bit of time to explore the plateau. We head north up to the Russell Lake area. It’s a ways but worth the effort. We decide to return there the following day. There are not many wildflowers as times I have been here before, because in 2015 we have a severe drought. The wildflower season came very early. But on the other hand, huckleberries are everywhere! We collect huckleberries for breakfast.

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These will be good at breakfast!

Then it was back to camp for dinner. I brought a quick fix rice side and blended it with cooked chicken. It looked huge but I ate all of it. Laura had simple cheese, crackers and some meat like sausage.

It was a beautiful evening. Starry and windless. I slept very well.

I awoke to a rosy dawn, and made hot water for coffee or tea. Those huckleberries went well with my oats and yogurt.

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Our campsite view on Scout Lake

Hunger satisfied, we headed out for an exploratory hike checking out the area, and the first destination was Russell Lake. It’s about a mile north from our camp at Scout Lake, a completely flat trail meandering along the meadows, passing through islands of trees. We could see that a few weeks earlier it was a carpet of wildflowers everywhere.

Once we reached Russell Lake, we took a trail around the lake. We encountered campers, everyone gushing about how beautiful this place is. It was on the northern fringe of the lake where we found a micro-zone ecosystem with a view to knock our socks off.

The stream into Russell Lake

The stream into Russell Lake

There, a three-foot-wide stream meanders across the meadow before entering Russell Lake. It wets the soil enough to allow wildflowers to continue blooming along its path. And in the stream, we glimpsed frogs and minnows.

There was Indian Paintbrush, Lupine and several other species of wildflowers I couldn’t identify.

We spent a half hour taking pictures and examining this micro eco system.

Russell Lake Indian PaintbrushIt was so profound that just a bit of extra moisture kept this area lush with life, with an extended season, long after other parts of the meadows had gone to seed.

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Later, we headed over to Bays Lake for a swim. Bays lake has lots of boulders and it’s deep. We dove in and swam across, back and forth, revelling in the warm water and the beauty! We both decided to bring more friends up here in the future. It’s too beatiful and it’s got to be shared!

Following the evening meal another rock solid sleep.

The following morning, it was time to head out. The trail now would be all down, much faster and easier. We passed by several groups, pretty diverse! Some retirees, and I swear a lady over 80. And three kids, followed 5-minutes later by mom toting an Everest expedition sized 70 pound pack for all of them! Cheers for her!

Well, here is a victory photo. A trip well done! We’ll be back.

Rod Laura trails end portrait