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Taking a hike to Steelhead Falls

A short hike reveals breath-taking views, history, and wildlife

by: SCOTT STAATS/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Steelhead Falls.

A scream from overhead caught my attention. A golden eagle chased after a pair of bald eagles like a fighter jet in pursuit of two bombers. Farther down the canyon, two more golden eagles circled high. The nests high on the cliffs made this scene clear - this was golden eagle territory.
   Located along the Deschutes River just west of Crooked River Ranch, Steelhead Falls and the surrounding canyon contain a rich geological and cultural history. Before the dams in the Deschutes and Columbia rivers, thousands of salmon and steelhead gathered to rest in the large pool below the 15-foot falls before continuing their long journey upriver. Native Americans also gathered at the falls with nets and spears over the last few millennia, according to petroglyphs carved into the higher rock walls.
   The falls are a half-mile hike from the trailhead. The roar of the river becomes apparent as soon as you reach the canyon rim and head down. Upon reaching the falls, you'll notice an old fish ladder that was built in 1922 to help fish get over the falls during the river-lowering irrigation seasons.
   The colorful high canyon walls record about eight million years of Central Oregon's geologic history, including lava flows and ancient floods. The Deschutes River in the Steelhead Falls area is a designated wild and scenic river as well as a Wilderness Study Area. Among the rare plants in this part of the canyon is Estes' Wormwood (a member of the sage family), found no where else in the world. The isolation of the canyon has protected the area from the impacts of grazing and development.
   Spring is getting closer. I saw my first butterflies of the year and canyon wrens were singing their hearts out from rocky outcrops. Hatches of small insects danced on the water's surface and also shared the air with the remnants of fuzzy cattails. Sunlight striking the mist from the falls created a rainbow. The horseshoe shape of the falls reminded me of a miniature Niagra.
   The trail continues downriver below the falls, at times containing more deer tracks than those of hiker. About a mile below the falls, the trail gets narrower where the river takes a turn. Some large rock spires jutted upward from the ancient volcanic geology.
   If the hike to the falls isn't enough, there's another trail at the south end of the BLM campground leading a little over a half-mile to Folley Waters on the Deschutes River. The trail follows a closed road along the rim through large ancient junipers hundreds of years old. This trail is better suited for mountain bikes and horses than the Steelhead Falls Trail.
   The trail passes through the rimrock and continues down to a large flat bench along the river. Large springs flow from the hillside on the west side, creating an oasis in the high desert. An old wooden structure can be seen across the river. There are many stories related to this building, which dates back to about 1912 or 1915.
   According to rumors, in order to make money by selling shares, the area was salted with bits of gold to make it appear profitable. Sporadic gold was discovered along the Deschutes River from Cline Falls to the Lower Bridge area but not enough to make it worthwhile. Another rumor has it that the building was used for a still to brew alcohol after the mine didn't pay out.
   The Steelhead Falls area is a great place for families to fish, hike, camp and enjoy the breath-taking views. Bring along a pair of binoculars and camera. There are about a dozen primitive campsites along the rimrock in the recreation site.
   Take a left off of Highway 97 just north of Terrebonne onto Lower Bridge Way and head toward Crooked River Ranch. At about two miles turn right onto 43rd. Go about two miles and turn left onto Chinook at the "T." In another mile take a left on Badger. This turns into Blacktail Drive at the bottom of the hill. Take a right at the "T" onto Quail just after the road turns to gravel. In one mile take a left on River Road for a mile to the trailhead.