Thursday, March 30, 2017

Deschutes River Trail

It is said that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Well, if it comes in like a lion it must be one wet lion because as I've stated several times before in my blog, it's been raining. A lot. A lot lot. But lately, the weather has been dropping little hints of spring and besides which, I saw a trillium on my last hike at Tahkenitch Dunes. We should listen to the flowers because they certainly know when spring is coming!

Shining river

This time of year, the hikes tend to take place at lower elevations or on the coast, because the mountains are still cloaked in heavy snow. As far as backpacking in the mountains right now: forget about it! But we too, just like the lone trillium at Tahkenitch Dunes, also need to bloom, hiking-wise. So, where to go? And yes, the title of this blog probably telegraphed the answer. But hey, the question was meant to be rhetorical, anyway.

A stand of willows wait for spring
The Deschutes River runs south to north in central Oregon, before joining up with the Columbia River near The Dalles. Being in the Cascades Range rain shadow, the terrain tends to be on the arid side, especially the closer it gets to the Columbia River. Over the ages, the river has carved a canyon approximately 2,000 feet deep into the lava and volcanic ash comprising the Columbia Plateau. An abandoned railway on the east side of the river has been converted to the Deschutes River Trail and for all appearances, the trail looks like your basic gravel road. You probably don't want to hike here in summer as it can become quite hot, making the rattlesnakes and ticks happy and plentiful. But in spring, when trilliums start blooming on the west side of the Cascades, now that is the time to visit the Deschutes River Recreation Area. 

Lots of orange rock on this trip
This time of year, the weather is cooler than the coming summer inferno, and the trail is blessedly free of snow. And because the flowers told us to go ahead do this: Lane, Lindsay, and I hoisted our backpacks for the first time this year and hit the trail for a three-day backpack trip up the Deschutes River.

Day 1

Starting out on a chilly afternoon
The trail began at the Deschutes River State Recreation Area park and campground, located at the confluence of the Deschutes and Columbia Rivers. From the picnic area, we were faced with three choices for hiking trails and pay attention kids: there will be a pop quiz in the morning. The Deschutes River Trail runs high up the canyon and as stated previously, is pretty much a gravel road. The Middle Trail runs below the Deschutes River Trail, and is a "real" trail that runs along a terraced cliff overlooking the river. The River Trail follows the river right along the river's edge, the water virtually lapping at hiker's feet. We chose the River Trail simply because it allowed us to postpone the eventual climb up from the picnic area to the Deschutes River Trail. But then again, we are brave that way.

Trees go wading in the river
The Deschutes was flowing wide and fast; and much higher than normal too, if trees standing in the water like so many arboreal wading birds were any indication. Because it was March, the hills were either green with sprouting grass or orange from sprouting basaltic rock, although the orange rock sprouts all year and not just in March. While trees were in abundance immediately next to the river, there were no trees at all away from the river, and the surrounding hills were as bald as my grandmother. Our little trail perambulated through the tall grasses growing next to the mighty Deschutes.

The Great Sphinx of Deschutes 
On the face of it, the day was sunny and cloudless. And yes, that did make for nice photos and all, but a chill headwind was blowing down the canyon and it was not as warm as the photos make it seem. There should be disclaimer in the lower right corner of each photo: "Warning! Objects may be colder than they appear" The terrain sloped steeply uphill away from us and rock formations loomed overhead. In many respects, Lane and I were reminded of last year's Honeycombs backpack trip.

The trail generally stayed high above the river

At the two-mile mark, we split away from the River Trail and headed uphill to the Deschutes River Trail. The former railway bed is remarkably level except for one section where the roadway drops into and then climbs out of Gordon Canyon. There used to be a trestle bridge spanning the canyon and had the bridge still been in existence, there'd have been no uphill hiking at all. As a side note, there'd have been no whining and/or complaining about the uphill experience, either.

The rock formations were pretty neat
Once on the gravel road, the route stayed high above the river and provided stunning views of the river and canyon scenery. Because of the proximity to the Columbia Gorge's ample hydroelectric projects, you never really get away from massive power lines but they tend to be seen in the distance and except for a couple of instances, generally are not intrusive. 

Practice run for the upcoming solar eclipse
Because of the long drive from Roseburg, we had started hiking mid-afternoon and the sun sank behind the canyon walls just before the 6 mile mark. The very second the canyon plunged into shade, the air became as cold as an ex-wife's stare. The state park system has installed primitive bathrooms every two miles or so, and we camped near (but upwind of) the privy. You can avoid using the bathrooms but if you do then you have to pack your "stuff" out. Not that we are particularly dainty, but we had no problem availing ourselves of the facilities in order to avoid that odious and odiferous mandate. 

Part of the history of the Deschutes River involved one of the United States's last great train wars: the Deschutes River Railroad War, a bitter contest fought between the Oregon Trunk Railroad and the Deschutes Railroad. Rival railroad lines were built, one on each side of the river, and railway workers were maimed and killed in a series of violent incidents. Things are more peaceful nowadays and while we hiked on the abandoned Oregon Trunk Railroad railway bed, long freight trains chugged up and down the Burlington Northern railroad line on the western bank of the Deschutes without dynamite or gunfire being involved.


Dawn comes to our bathroom
Day 2 could have easily been dubbed Scenery Day. It also could have been dubbed History Day, too, as both history and scenery are an integral part of the Deschutes River Trail experience. After striking camp, we walked up to the trail and watered up at a nearby trickling spring. After a short hike, the canyon narrowed and the river snaked spectacularly below, but we were more interested in an old wooden box car perched right on the edge of the trail. We had walked less than half a mile and were already enjoying scenery and  history, totally in keeping with this portion of the trail.

A really big tent
The box car would probably be a nifty place to camp in inclement weather but this day was wonderfully sunny without the cold wind from the day before. A backpacking group of about 6 had spent the night inside, despite the lack of rain. They said it was comfortable, except for the mice running over backpackers trying to sleep.

The scenery was fantastic
Shortly past the box car, two posts next to the river marked the Free Bridge site. There used to be a rickety dirt road running down to and across the river. The old road bed was still visible on the other side, inscribing a steep diagonal line across the face of a formidable treeless ridge. Eeh! The thought of taking a car down or up that road was enough to give one the heebie-jeebies. The next day, we would see a mountain biker toiling up the rough track, giving us heebie-jeebies all over again, not to mention a whole lot of sympathy for the mountain biker.

Posts to nowhere
As we hiked upriver some more, leaving Free Bridge behind, the canyon widened a bit and offered sweeping vistas of windblown ridges, hills, and cliffs. On one bald hill, a single stunted tree grew, which constituted a forest in these parts. And always, the Deschutes River coursed below in wide snaking curves, the water's surface glinting silver in the morning sunlight.

The canyon rim was 2,000 feet above us
There were places where the grassy slopes were supplanted by walls of sun-baked orange rock formations. Definitely cliffy, the canyon rim could be seen on occasion, about 2,000 feet above us. Crows played little crow games and noisy cawings echoed between the russet-colored pyramids flanking the route.

Here come the building inspectors!
About 10 miles from the trailhead, the terrain became somewhat more "farmy" which is probably why the historical Harris Homestead is sited here. Sharing the same surname as the homestead's pioneers, Lane put forth the dubious claim that this was the ancestral home of his tribe. The old farmhouse on the homestead is in quite a tatterdemalion state, being only a few more winters away from total collapse. The rickety structure leaned to the right and the back wall had peeled off. Inside, a brick chimney drunkenly leaned against a wall for support, while stairs led to living quarters that had not been lived in for decades. Hmm, maybe it does belong to Lane's people after all.

Not what it used to be
Surrounding the old farm house are old corrals and pens, harkening back to the era when the homestead was a working ranch. Further up the trail was another abandoned building that looked like it could have been a small railway depot or station, emphasis on "small". It's no Grand Central Station, for sure. This small building was crudely wired for electricity and seeing the cables criss-crossing the wall gave us another case of heebie-jeebies. Back in the day, electricians were apparently unencumbered by building codes or general all -around electrical safety.

The lone remaining water tower
Just past the maybe-a-station, a weathered wooden water tower towered over the trail. We had arrived at Harris Canyon, carved out by Harris Creek. The Deschutes River ran next to the trail and split to go around yes, you guessed it: Harris Island. Anyway, here in Harrisland, a gravity feed from Harris Creek kept the water tower filled. Built to service the trains chugging along the Deschutes River railroads back in the early 1900's, this particular water tower is the only survivor of the 8 towers constructed for that purpose. However, the tower no longer can contain water as woodpeckers have pecked the wall full of holes, but at least the little peckers are happy.

Time to howl with the coyotes
Next to the water tower's stout timbers, we set up camp underneath some rare shady trees at the river's edge. The campsite proffered up a marvelous view of an abrupt ridge that amazingly enough, was not named Harris Ridge. A group of passing hikers pointed out, high up on the ridge crest, some light tan specks barely visible to the naked eye. Yup, we were looking at a small herd of bighorn sheep, something we never see in our Douglas County environs; for us, it was kind of like a field trip to the zoo. The rest of the day was spent lazing in the shady campsite, watching the sheep-dots above, as afternoon quietly slipped into sunset.

Day 3 

Take us home, Lindsay
The plan for the third day was to head back down the river and camp within a few miles of the trailhead. That would make for an easy out hike on the 4th day and a relatively early arrival in Roseburg. But the best made plans and all that...Day 3 was a Saturday and the Deschutes River State Recreation Area is close to Portland. So, the trail naturally was swarming with hikers, backpackers, and mountain bikers: all out to enjoy the spring weather on the Deschutes. At Gordon Canyon, our intended campsite, there were about a dozen tents full of noisy teenagers and that cinched the deal: we just hiked all the way to the trailhead and put out a day early. 

We felt walled in
Probably just as well we hoofed the nearly 12 miles back to the car, the sunny weather from Day 2 was replaced by clouds and a blustery wind. Occasional rain drops fell from the sky and it sure felt like a storm was blowing in. But all the great scenery on a wonderfully level trail from the first two days was still there and we got to enjoy it all over again. 

A lizard enjoys the sun
Passing mountain bikers regaled us with tales of rattlesnakes seen on the trail but the only reptile besides Lane that we spotted, was a blue-belly lizard sunning itself on a boulder. The dearth of venomous vipers meant that we did not have to hear Lane scream like a little girl; or me shouting out "Yowzah!" (in more manly fashion); or otherwise relive our respective snake moments from our Honeycombs backpack last year. We whiled away at least a mile of trail recounting the details of those two snake encounters to Lindsay.

Panorama at Gordon Canyon
After making the decision to eschew camping and fraternizing with the aforementioned tented adolescent hordes ensconced at Gordon Canyon, we stayed on the Deschutes River Trail which was new trail for us, seeing as how we had come in on the River Trail. The trail dipped in and out of Gordon Canyon's canyon, and after all those level miles, our legs were quite shocked to have to hike uphill, they barely remembered how to do that. They didn't like it, either. 

On a real trail, briefly
The last few miles were more of the same what with the trail contouring the canyon walls high above the river. Wide sweeping views, spectacular scenery, yada yada....Actually, that sounds kind of jaded but really, the scenery was pretty cool, especially when we rounded a bend and could actually see the Deschutes River meeting with the much larger Columbia. Where rogue fruit trees bloomed next to the gravel road, we grabbed the footpath down to the picnic area and just like that, our 24 mile hike hike was over.

We always come out early!
On the way back, I texted Dollie we had put out a day early and she replied "You always come out a day early, I expect it, now!" Lane texted Ceresse and she replied "You always come out early!" Not sure what Lindsay's wife thinks, but apparently Lane and I are predictable, unlike the Oregon weather.

Sunset at Harris Homestead
For more pictures of this trip, see the following Flickr albums:




1 comment :

  1. I've taken a dayhike down this trail many years ago but never fully explored it. I may just have to don a overnight pack and go check it out! Great recap and looks like you guys had a wonderful time.