CROOKED RIVER RANCH, Ore. — A hike in the Central Oregon desert often requires some patience. It can take some time tramping through the sagebrush to reach the payoff. And sometimes the beauty of the desert is in the eye of the beholder.
But the Crooked River Gorge, I believe, would leave anyone mesmerized. The 300-foot-deep, 4-mile-long gorge offers some of the most breathtaking desert scenery in Central Oregon.
A relatively 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.
On a recent Friday, yet another sun-drenched winter day in Central Oregon, I made the drive with my 5-year-old son, Mason, to the western edge of Crooked River Ranch and the Otter Bench Trailhead.
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We started out on the Lone Pine Trail to the northeast, which after just a quarter of a mile or so led us to the edge of the Crooked River Gorge. We decided to skip the steep switchback descent and head back to the trailhead.
From there, we took the Otter Bench Trail west. The ground was frozen, and we had to hike for about a mile before we exited the shade of the canyon wall and the sun shone on the trail.
The Otter Bench trail system is along the Crooked River, and the Steelhead Falls and Scout Camp trails on the Deschutes were completed and designated in 2010 by the Bureau of Land Management’s Prineville District.
The trails — about 10 miles in all — include new sections and some reconstructed paths that anglers have hiked for decades to travel down the canyon walls and reach the rivers below.
A mini-Grand Canyon
“These are some of the best trails in the Central Oregon desert,” Tom Mottl, recreation planner for the BLM Prineville District in 2010, told me that year when I first explored the trails. “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.”
Mason and I needed to hike only about 2 miles to get that experience. After passing through juniper and sagebrush for about an hour, we arrived at the intersection of the Otter Bench, Pink and Opal Canyon trails.
When I hiked in this area in 2010, I took the Pink Trail, which led me along a precipitous path all the way down to the Crooked River.
With Mason along this time, I decided to take the Opal Canyon Trail — which turned out to be a wise decision. After just a short uphill hike, the trail emerged on a cliffside that offered breathtaking views of the deep, rugged canyon and the river far below.
We marveled at the desert scenery as we continued along the Opal Canyon Trail. We came across a mountain biker who was descending the rocky trail along the steep drop-off. (Mountain bikes are allowed on the Otter Bench and Opal Canyon trails.)
Some hiking paths in the trail system are moderately challenging, and some are difficult. Otter Bench is considered the easiest trail in the system, according to the BLM. The trails down to the rivers are the most demanding, and bikes and horses are prohibited on them.
After another half-hour of hiking and gazing at the canyon, we decided to turn around. We headed back on the Horny Hollow Trail to make it more of a loop hike. While most of the trails in the Otter Bench system are single-track, Horny Hollow is more of a dirt road that parallels the rim of the canyon.
We completed the hike in less than three hours, and we saw just two others along the way — one hiker and one biker — not counting those we came across at the trailhead.
Many of the BLM trailheads in Crooked River Ranch — Otter Bench on the Crooked River and Steelhead Falls, Foley Waters and Scout Camp on the Deschutes — are reached via public roads.
The Steelhead Falls and Foley Waters trails, both popular among anglers, have existed for many years but are now defined and designated by the BLM.
Scout Camp, like Otter Bench, is relatively new. 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 hikers choose, Crooked River Ranch is a gateway to the solitude, and the stark beauty, of Central Oregon canyon country.