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"Grand" Canyons - Exploring Deschutes Canyon

New trails near Crooked River Ranch offer adventurers a chance to explore Central Oregon canyon country

Jun 25, 2010

By Mark Morical / The Bulletin

The smell of juniper and sage filled the air as I took to the desert. Overhead, an enormous hawk flew circles in the bright blue sky.

Below the trail to the east, a giant crack in the earth stretched out of sight on the horizon.

The 300-foot-deep, four-mile-long Crooked River Gorge offers some of the most breathtaking desert scenery in Central Oregon. And now, a new trail system offers hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians a chance to explore the gorges carved over the centuries by both the Deschutes and Crooked rivers near Crooked River Ranch.

The Otter Bench trail system on the Crooked, and the Steelhead Falls and Scout Camp trails on the Deschutes, were completed and designated this spring by the Bureau of Land Management’s Prineville District.

The 10 miles of trail include entirely new sections and some reconstructed paths that anglers have hiked for decades to travel down the canyon walls and reach the rivers below.

“These are some of the best trails in the Central Oregon desert,” Tom Mottl, recreation planner for the BLM, told me this week. “Some of the most dramatic stuff you’ll see. It’s a totally different environment. If you’re looking for canyon country in Central Oregon, this is it. It’s a mini-Grand Canyon type of experience.”

Hiking the 1.7-mile Otter Bench Trail from the trailhead in Crooked River Ranch on Tuesday morning, I eventually came to a cliff side. Surging river rapids flowed far below the towering, rugged canyon.

It seemed impossible to make my way down to the river, but the newly shaped trails make the journey manageable for able-bodied hikers who don’t mind precipitous, rocky terrain.

I turned onto the Pink Trail, a steep, switchbacking route of three-quarters of a mile that would lead me to the Crooked River below.

When I finally made it down to the water, the solitude and stark beauty of the canyon overwhelmed my senses. I tried to soak it all in before heading back the way I had come, admiring small wildflowers and hoping to avoid rattlesnakes, which are common in the area.

Some hiking paths in the new trail systems are moderately challenging, and some are difficult. The trails down to the rivers are the most demanding and bikes and horses are prohibited on them.

But Mottl noted that mountain bikers may ride certain trails, such as Otter Bench and Opal Canyon, then leave their bikes to hike down other trails to the river.

“You end up with a hike/bike experience,” Mottl said. “But there’s absolutely no biking into the canyon. You’ll destroy the trail.”

Mottl strongly advised summertime hikers on the new trails to set out in the early morning or evening, and to bring lots of water. Extremely hot temperatures can spoil an otherwise pleasant desert excursion.

“I would avoid hiking in there between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.,” Mottl recommended. “When the sun gets in there, (temperatures) can exceed 100 degrees.”

All the new trailheads — Otter Bench on the Crooked River, and Steelhead Falls, Foley Waters and Scout Camp on the Deschutes — are reached via public roads in Crooked River Ranch.

The Steelhead Falls and Foley Waters trails, both popular among anglers, have existed for many years. But they are now defined and designated by BLM.

Scout Camp, like Otter Bench, is new altogether.

Located in the Steelhead Falls Wilderness Study Area, the Scout Camp Trail is a way for hikers to descend to the Deschutes River.

No matter which trail they pick, hikers, bikers and equestrians will be enthralled by the “grand” canyons of Central Oregon.

Mark Morical can be reached at 541-383-0318 or at mmorical@bendbulletin.com.

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