Family Trip to Central Oregon
August 19 - 21, 2003

by Papa Bear

(Photo of Benham Falls)
Benham Falls on the Deschutes River
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e just got back from 10 days in Oregon and had a great time. The trip had three parts:

1) A family outing to central Oregon (Aug 19-21)
2) Running the Hood to Coast Relay with the New York Flyers (Aug 22-23)
3) Climbing Mount Saint Helens

I'll give some highlights here of our central Oregon trip, since if you are ever in that neck of the woods I highly recommend you visit this area.

For an account of our Hood to Coast adventure, see: Hood to Coast page.

For an account of the Mount Saint Helens climb, see: Mount Saint Helens page.

Highlights and the general climate

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e drove east on US Route 26 from Portland. As we neared Mt. Hood, the trees got larger and more majestic and the road got higher above the valleys. This is a magnificent drive, and if you just have a few hours while visiting Portland, by all means visit Mt. Hood. It's awesome. But today we were going past this mountain, the highest in the state of Oregon. A few days later I would be running down this same route as part of the Hood to Coast Relay, but that's another story.

As we crossed over the pass (about 4000') and started down the east side of the Cascades, the forest got sparser and the trees gradually changed from tall Douglas Fir and Spruce, to equally tall Ponderosa Pine and not-so-tall Juniper. The juniper was not like the shrub I know well from the northeast (especially Maine) and grew in size from a small shrub to a medium sized tree. It had brown to yellowish-brown foliage vs. the bluish-green of the Juniper I am familiar with. The spaces between the trees and shrubs became wider and eventually it became a desert. The tall pines receded to the (generally dry) river valleys and in those places which were not irrigated, it was generally a wide flat desert with intermittent patches of sedges, Sagebrush and Juniper trees. Some areas were under irrigation and low level crops such as mint seemed to be popular. I don't know where the water came from, most likely the Deschutes River, the only major river in the area. There was also some cattle farming in areas where grasses and sedges grew. The terrain is known as the high desert, and lies generally at about 3500' and above. It is unusually flat, due to large lava flows that covered this entire area thousands of years ago, which filled in all the nooks and crannies of the landscape.

This area was as unlike western Oregon, especially the Willamette Valley, as one could imagine.

The Deschutes River

(Photo of Deschutes)
The Deschutes River south of Bend

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he Deschutes River (originally French: des Chutes - "the falls") is the only major steam in this area. It rises in the Cascades south of Sisters and flows north a couple of hundred miles and empties into the Columbia River about 150 miles east of Portland. We crossed it several times, and each time there was a dramatic canyon that the river had cut into the high flat plain. It had a fairly large flow (considering how dry the climate was) and was the major source of water for irrigation and drinking for the towns along this route.

Bend, Oregon

(Photo of Drake Park)
Drake Park in Bend

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end got its name from the early pioneers who found a ford across the Deschutes here and established a camp on
(Photo of scene by the Deschutes)
By the Deschutes outside our motel
their trek west on the Oregon Trail. Its name derives naturally enough from a wide bend in the river at this place.

Bend is a lovely small town (I think the population is around 50,000) whose major industries are tourism and farming. It is wholly dependent on the river for its livelihood in both industries. Tourism includes winter sports (skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling) in the nearby Cascades, rafting, kayaking and fishing on the river, and general sight-seeing. It has lots of nice restaurants and motels. It's worth a visit if you have a few days.

The High Desert Museum

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he High Desert Museum is about 10 miles south of Bend off Route 97. It is set in a natural area of mixed desert with some wetlands (artificially created with water pumped in). It has a nice interior museum outlining desert ecology, industry and early settler activities.

The grounds include a walk through areas showing the fire cycle in the desert ecology, early logging activity, and various habitats. The highlight was an exhibit of 2 river otters in a natural habitat. Guides gave periodic talks on various subjects. This would be a great destination for families, and even know-it-alls (like me ) could get a lot out of it. We spend most of a morning there and had lunch in the reasonably priced lunch room on the premises.

Lava Butte

(Photo of Lava Butte)
Looking down from Lava Butte

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little further south on Route 97, we visited Lava Butte. This is part of Newberry National Volcanic Monument. The whole area is INSIDE an ancient volcano crater, about 17 miles in diameter. Hundreds of square miles of lava
(Photo of crater of Lava Butte)
Looking across the Lava Butte crater
flows covered this entire area thousands of years ago.

Lava Butte is a cinder cone. A cinder cone is where a vent in the underlying volcano broke through and spewed cinder and lava for a limited period of time. A cinder cone is very dramatic and easy to recognize. It is basically a very steep, and often bare cone which rises abruptly hundreds of feet above the flat terrain. They are everywhere if you look for them. Mount Tabor in east Portland is one.

This one has a road to the top which was about a lane and a half wide and was extremely scary. My daughter, who was driving, seemed not too phased by this, but my wife and I (who were sitting on the outside of the curve next to the steep drop-off) were literally leaning to the left instinctively to keep the car on the road.

At the top we walked around the small crater. There were a few trees on one side of the cone. I'm told the trees take hold on the lee side of the cone first. It was a hazy day but the 360 degree views, including the lava flows on all sides interspersed with the desert lands was quite an impressive sight. There are a few pictures in the album which should give a good idea of what this unusual feature was like.

Benham Falls

(Photo of Benham Falls)
The Deschutes flowing wildly at Benham Falls

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bout 5 miles south of Lava Butte, in the same park, lies Benham Falls, a series of rapids where the Deschutes has made a path through some lava flows which actually dammed the river about 6000 years ago. The area has one of the few remaining stands of old growth Ponderosa Pine left in the area. The reason the area was not cut over is actually a bit ironic and would be amusing if it weren't so sad. The lumber company that had the lease on this area of the forest used to hold the company picnic at this spot every year, so they left the timber uncut so the office staff would have a nice area to visit. I guess they were hiding the ugly areas they had created even from their own employees.

(Photo of Old Growth Ponderosa)
Walking through old growth Ponderosa
But it was here and we enjoyed visiting it. The river flows majestically through steep slopes with very tall Ponderosa on each side. It was stunning.

A walk along an old rail bed along the river leads to Benham Falls. We met a group of kayakers taking out at a point about a half mile upstream from these rapids and they jokingly called the falls a 6 or a 7. My daughter and I walked along the river which at first was rather tranquil. One could see the lava flows on the right hand side which had come very close to the river. Further downstream they had actually blocked the flow, which eventually led to the rapids when the river broke through.

Soon the river got rougher and the rapids started. After seeing the first few hundred yards I said to myself - "That's no 6 or 7 - that's runnable!". But as we walked along it got rougher and rougher and finally the coup de gras: a narrow canyon which swung around a steep bend and a majestic Ponderosa blow-down lying square across the stream! Then I though "Well maybe that would be a little tough after all." It was rather awesome and exciting, considering how placid and tranquil this same river was in Bend, a mere 15 miles further downstream.

On one side the awesome power of the river showed itself and on the other the tall old growth Ponderosa Pines rose up. It was a remarkable area and well worth a visit. Just get out of your kayak at the take-out!

Sunriver, Oregon and the Sunriver nature Center

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unriver is a small town another few miles south on Route 97. It lies near the Deschutes and is in a mixed area of desert and wetlands. Its unique feature is that it is a totally private development. The Sunriver company had bought the land and built upscale homes, condos, shops, golf courses, and areas for horse back riding. It is stricktly upscale, and like many such exclusive areas, those who work there can't afford to live there!

We visited the nature center there and enjoyed the walk along the desert and streams. One popular feature was a resident Bald Eagle who had a damaged wing but had a whole island to himself. He dutifully posed for us to get great views.

The visitor's center had an observatory with several telescopes equipped with special filters set up to view the sun during the day. We had nice views of prominences and sun spots. This was a unique experience and the first time (except during an eclipse) I had direct views of the sun.

The Columbia Gorge

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he next morning we drove back to Portland. We had originally planned to cross the Cascades near Sisters on Route 20, but this road was closed due to the forest fire near Mount Jefferson. So we took Route 97 and 197 north to The Dales. This was about 120 miles and went straight up through the high desert area, mostly paralleling the Deschutes. Much of the trip was through smoke that was blowing over the whole area from west to east. It was rather smelly and unpleasant. I can't imagine what it must be like to actually be at the fire fighting it!

We had lunch and got gas in the small town of Maupin. It was practically the only town we saw on the whole trip north. The principle industry seemed to be river rafting. There were 2 or 3 establishments luring tourists to do this activity.

Then it was another 50 miles or so through very parched countryside up to The Dales on the Columbia River. From here to Portland we got onto I-84 which passes through the Columbia Gorge. The Gorge is where this mighty river crosses through the Cascades and is rather dramatic. Exploring the Gorge is a whole other adventure and I will leave that for another time.

We got back to Portland in mid afternoon and I had to quickly get out of tourist mode and into running mode. I would be meeting my running team tonight and tomorrow would start my 7th consecutive Hood to Coast Relay.


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