Exploring the final miles of the Deschutes River

Deschutes River State Recreation Area

Beginning at Little Lava Lake northwest of La Pine, the Deschutes River runs north through central Oregon, draining a basin of over ten thousand square miles east of the mighty Cascade Range before emptying into the Columbia east of The Dalles. Along its 252-mile length it passes through downtown Bend and some stunning wild lands. Fittingly for a river so beloved for recreation, its mouth is public land, explorable at Deschutes River State Recreation Area.

The park is 34 acres and offers year-round camping along the river, and the start of the Deschutes River Trail at the end of the paved park road.

A great 5 mile loop incorporates paths along the river and a return along the gravel road. Hiking during Fall through Spring will offer milder climate than the oppressive summer heat, as the entire trail is exposed in the canyon.

Beginning of the trail

This spring, less than a year later the fire line running up the hillside across the river was a clear demarcation of the extent of the burn. Interestingly, everything upriver of the line that had experienced the burn was a far more verdant shade of green, highlighting fires restorative qualities for this type of environment. 

As you hike up river, the area opens up to grassier banks and some spots where you can walk down to the river. After some rambling along the river, the trail starts to ascend along the base of a basalt cliff outcropping.

A small lava rock arch uphill from the trail

This foot path scrambles up and passes below some interesting spots where a long tunnel has been dug into the layer of river rock below the lava flow. I haven’t come across an explanation for them, but they are fun and somewhat creepy feature.  Also keep an eye uphill for a small rock arch, which can also be reached from the trail above. The trail loses its elevation and heads back down to some open spots near the river, and around two and a quarter miles in look for a switchback that heads back up to the road. It is possible to continue on down by the river to Gordon Canyon and reconnect with the road there for a bit longer hike, or even to press on further down to Harris Island for a 22.6 mile round trip journey.

On the return journey it’s worth stopping near a sign board up top of the lava cliffs and checking past it toward the river to check out a small rock arch you can walk under. Just past the sign still on the rise a path veers off the road to the left, providing a more winding and scenic route back to the trailhead.      

Published by Jim Wilson

An avid hiker and outdoor enthusiast, I settled in Oregon after years of working on hiking trails in Southeast Alaska with the USFS and exploring the Pacific Northwest and rest of the country in the offseason.

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