Oregon Desert

24. Deschutes River Trail by Matt Reeder

Distance: 11.2 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 200 feet
Trailhead elevation: 217 feet
Trail high point: 331 feet
Season: January - May, October - December
Best: January - April
Map: none needed
Pass: none ($5 fee if parked overnight)
Drivetime from Portland: 95 minutes

• From Portland, drive 75 miles to The Dalles on Interstate 84 and continue another 13 miles to Exit 97.
• Following signs for the Deschutes Recreation Area, leave the freeway at Exit 97 and arrive at a junction.
• Turn left and drive 3 miles to Deschutes State Park.
• Cross the river and turn right into the campground.
• Drive through the campground and park at the south end of the B campground loop, near the camp host and bathrooms. The trail is straight ahead at the end of a grassy field.

Hike: Just 90 minutes from the Portland metro area, the transition from wet Western Oregon to dry, desert-like Eastern Oregon culminates at the mouth of the Deschutes River. Follow an old road and riverside trail up this gorgeous, nearly treeless canyon to a plethora of great campsites and fantastic views of the river. A fire burned this canyon in the summer of 2018 but the vegetation is already returning; in some ways this hike is even prettier now than it was before the fire. Just make sure you avoid this canyon in the summer when it bakes in 100º heat; this is often the hottest place in the state of Oregon.

A snowy Deschutes River canyon, February 2019.

The trail begins on the lawn at the end of the B-Loop in Deschutes State Park Campground. Look for a trail heading upstream that follows the river. Shortly you will reach a junction with a trail darting uphill; this is the way to the road and a possible return trail. Here you are presented with a dilemma; the trail ahead follows the river closely but is in spots poorly defined. The fire cleared much of the brush here, making the trail easier to follow. If you are interested in the most scenic hike, follow the river. You will pass a narrow
spot at about 2 miles, where the trail climbs a bit to avoid a boulder field. Look uphill to an arch on the canyon wall above. At a little over 3 miles, come to the first campsite at Colorado Rapids, complete with a vault toilet. Here the user trail ends, as the canyon narrows upstream; instead follow the access road up to the road bed above. If you’ve arrived here by hiking the road and wish to visit this nice campsite, head downhill on the access road towards the bathroom. If you’re camping, there are plenty of spaces to pitch a tent.

The narrow spot in the Deschutes River canyon about 2 miles from the trailhead.

From here join the road as it climbs above the river next to an incredible basalt cliff. Notice how the rock has formed in numerous strange and phantasmagoric formations, among them a bizarre eye of radiating basalt emanating out of a cave about 30 feet above the road. The canyon here is stunning with basalt cliffs, green treeless slopes and, amazingly, what look like tide pools in the river below. The road parallels the river from this vantage point for a mile before opening back up again into the sunshine. At 5.6 miles from the trailhead you will come to an open spot. Until the 2018 fire, an abandoned wooden boxcar stood here, just off the trail to your right. This is still the recommended turnaround spot, but it isn’t as exciting now that the boxcar is gone. Maybe some day Oregon State Parks will see fit to place another boxcar or some sort of memorial here; we can all hope. Return the way you came.

In memorium: The Deschutes River Trail boxcar, January 2018. The boxcar burned in the Substation Fire during the summer of 2018.