When the weather begins to break in the spring, sunshine finally dominating over gray clouds, I start yearning for Central Oregon, not because of its mountains — it's far too early to hike at elevation — but for its high desert. It's those sagebrush flats and juniper uplands just to the east of the mountains that call.
That eroded landscape of buttes and narrow canyons that is so hot and dusty in the summer is brimming with wildflowers this time of year. Freshened by cool breezes under a saturated blue sky, every detail is sharply etched in an ascendant sun.
Three years ago, during my first visit to Central Oregon's Lake Billy Chinook, hampered by a knee problem, I was frustrated by the allure of the Tam-a-láu Trail, a six-mile path into some of the best of this desert country, accessed from the Deschutes Campground on the south side of the lake. The path rises about 1.25 miles to the tip of a formation called The Peninsula, where there are spectacular views of the Deschutes and Crooked River canyons, and Mount Jefferson in the high Cascades to the west.
On that visit, all I could think about was going on that hike, knowing I couldn't make it. After surgery to correct the knee, I have since hiked the trail, and it is everything I thought it would be.
The walk up The Peninsula, with its panoramas and splashes of flowers is worthwhile in itself. But it is another formation, called "The Island" that makes the trail unique. You never walk on that plateau, but you see it in the distance during the hike as if it were a place existing only in the imagination, as it has been for 14 years now. Because this isolated 200-acre plateau sheltering one of the last pristine ecosystems in the West is barred to recreationists. It was only used for sheep grazing for a short time in the 1920s before being abandoned, and has since been designated a Research Natural Area. It was closed to visitors in 1997 to protect its unique ecology, the same year the Tam-a-láu Trail was created as a federal, state, tribal and private project.
The trail's name comes from an American Indian phrase meaning "place of big rocks on the ground." Indian tribes inhabited the area for thousands of years before white settlers came and still live in the vicinity today. An ancient trail once passed through the area as part of a trade route to the Columbia River.
Created in 1964 when Portland General Electric built the Round Butte Dam to control the flows of the Crooked, Deschutes and Metolius rivers, Lake Billy Chinook was named after a Wasco Indian scout who guided explorer John C. Fremont through the area in 1843. The dam is now operated jointly by the Portland utility and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, whose reservation borders the lake's northern shoreline. Although mostly a summer mecca for boaters and anglers, the lake area also includes 10 miles of hiking trails, with the Tam-a-láu Trail the best of them.
The first part of the Tam-a-láu is steep, rising 600 feet through patches of ponderosa pine near the campground into areas of bunchgrass and scattered juniper to reach the rugged plateau. All along the way are patches of wildflowers, with vistas that get better with every turn.
As you climb, you can consider how the land became what it is today. Ten to 12 million years ago, alternating layers of stream sediments, volcanic debris and basaltic lava flowed from the Cascades into a massive basin. Three million years ago these layers, now called the "Deschutes Formation," were topped by more lava from eruptions in the Cascades. This later layer of "rimrock basalt" can be seen at the crest of the many cliffs in the area.
On a clear day, Mount Jefferson will come into view as you ascend the trail's last half-mile. Once on the top, you can take a 3.5-mile circuit for various views of the lake and its surroundings.
Although the Tam-a-láu is the premier trail in the area, there are others that make going there worth a weekend getaway, including a trail at Cove Palisades State Park to a formation called "The Ship." This formation, which I wrote about in August 2008, is a stack of volcanic ash flow tuffs, sediments and basalt that jut toward the lake like the prow of a vessel.
The state park also features a self-guided nature trail that explains everything from why sagebrush does so well in the dry climate to how the "desert skin" of crypto-biotic crust containing lichens, microorganisms, algae and mosses reduces erosion and resists non-native vegetation.
There are 265 campsites, including 174 RV sites, at the lake, but if you don't want to camp, Lake Billy Chinook is only about 10 miles north of Redmond and about 26 miles north of Bend. Both cities have a good selection of motels.
Although the existence of the lake, created in modern times, gives it a look that didn't exist before the region was settled by pioneers, it is possible wandering along The Peninsula to imagine how things were. The day my partner and I took the Tam-a-láu Trail, there was no one else on it. On the plateau, looking away from the lake there was just the sound of the wind, the call of birds, a solitary lizard on a rock and our own silent thoughts. However briefly, it had become a place whose only laws were nature's.
Steve Dieffenbacher is a Mail Tribune page designer/copy editor. You can reach him at 541-776-4498 or firstname.lastname@example.org.