Early Spring on the Criterion Tract above the Deschutes
The Criterion Tract, managed by the BLM, sits on the high point bordering Highway 197 as it runs south to Redmond from the Columbia, extending down to the Deschutes River south of Maupin, an expanse of open, lonely terrain with far ranging views of the Columbia River Plateau and the winding river cutting its way through. It’s one of my favorite early spring spots to visit just when things start to warm up and dry out. In mid-March, the new growth of spring has yet to arrive and the landscape is still the muted tans of and warm tones of winter before. Soon, the landscape will be overtaken in lush greens of new growth of grasses blanketing the slopes, dotted with colors of the flowers blooms.
In summer it is dry and the palette of colors once more drain from the landscape. Water is scarce in the tract above the river, even now and while there are pools that collect in some of the tight canyons, cattle patrol the area, and any sources are utilized by them as well. With a forecast warm day with ample sunshine, I decided to head out east. Rain falling in the Gorge and Cascades broke apart to the east of Hood River and dramatic scattered clouds stretched high across the Columbia Plateau. I started in the morning from the river at Locked Gate Day Use Area and headed up, climbing up amongst sage brush and scattered Junipers while meadowlarks sang and darted about.
Before long as the way climbs up, I left the old path to chase the views of the river from the rimrock cliffs that cut immediately and precipitously from the hillsides. The Deschutes winds its way below, and the expansive open hillsides climbing out of the canyon across the river undulate, dotted sparsely by junipers. I cut in and out of canyons, before arriving at the open landscape ascending up to Stag Point and the single juniper near the hilltop, which I crossed to arrive at the point, the windiest spot in an otherwise mostly calm day.
From there I contoured around the cliffs to the southwest, eventually scrambling down through a break in the cliffs to descend onto a lower bench and out to a precipice over the river. Scattered across the landscape are interesting rocks formed amongst the lava flows, now exposed on the broken soils.
My total explorations for the day totaled over 15 miles and 3400 feet of elevation gained, mostly off trail. As I neared the river, I took a moment to pause and enjoy the overwhelming stillness and silence of the plateau, soaking in the warmth of a sun and warmth that has been sorely missed this winter, the deep quiet only broken by the intermittent singing of the Meadowlarks and the distant chortling of Chukars.
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