A scenic drive along Lake Billy Chinook and Lake Simtustus provides some of central Oregon's most beautiful views

by: SCOTT STAATS/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - The calm waters of Lake Simtustus reflect the canyon walls.

Standing on the rim in the early morning, I could hear the flute-like, gurgling songs of a few western meadowlarks calling to each other from atop sunlit junipers. Spring can't be too far off, I thought. Farther down the rimrock, a pair of chukars answered the calls of the rest of the covey far below on the rocky shores of the reservoir.
   I recently took the scenic rim drive along the east side of Lake Billy Chinook and Lake Simtustus and was rewarded with great views of the Cascades, the two canyon-entrenched reservoirs and a variety of birds.
   Before heading down the hill into The Cove Palisades State Park, take a right at the sign that says viewpoints and Round Butte Overlook Park.
   Be sure to stop at all four gravel overlooks. Each has a different view of the mountains, The Peninsula, The Island, the reservoir and the surrounding high desert. The reservoir's glassy surface reflected The Island and the precipitous canyon walls. Far below, I could see some geese and ducks on the water.
   Although I didn't spot any eagles from the overlooks, I saw plenty the next day while fishing in the Metolius Arm of the reservoir. One bald eagle's nest had one adult in it while the other flew across the reservoir hoping to nab some the many kokanee jumping at the surface. Anyone fishing in the Metolius Arm will need a tribal permit, which is available at the Culver store.
   I caught five bull trout but none were 24 inches, which is the minimum length to be able to keep. I caught all of mine while casting Rapalas toward shore.
   March is a good time of year for watching eagles at Lake Billy Chinook. In one day in 1995, 215 eagles were counted at the lake this time of year. There are both bald eagles and golden eagles at the reservoir. Be sure to bring along a lunch, camera, binoculars and spotting scope if you have one. Wait for a clear day so you can see all the mountains.
   Continuing north, go a mile or two past the last overlook, then take a left and follow the sign that says tour route. About a half-mile farther is the turnoff for Round Butte Overlook Park. Unfortunately it's closed until Memorial Day. At the next stop sign, take a right on SW Belmont and follow signs for Lake Simtustus RV Park and Campground.
   In another few miles, turn left onto a long straight road that goes across a small plain before heading down into the canyon on a narrow, steep winding road. I could see Mount Adams in Washington rising above the high desert to the north. An old cabin sets on the left side of the road with views of Mount Jefferson and Mount Hood.
   I got a sense of going back into time as I headed down into the canyon through the many layers of lava flows. I was greeted by four horses at one of the Lake Simtustus overlooks. They didn't seem too wild as they came right up to my vehicle, curious about my presence in their territory.
   Many cormorants sat on some wires crossing a cove of the reservoir. The RV park and campground is just past the bridge over an inlet of the reservoir.
   I stopped at the north end of Pelton Park and stared at the reflections in the water. The park, operated by Portland General Electric and the Warm Springs Tribes, is still closed for the season. The surface of the water was so clear that the reflections had me mesmerized and almost hypnotized. It was a dizzying effect and became hard to tell where water and reflection met. I couldn't even tell how far down the bank the surface was -- the reflections were so perfect.
   Before reaching Highway 26, take a left down to the Pelton Wildlife Overlook, which has a restroom and a picnic table - a perfect place for lunch. I took my lunch down to one of the two observation decks (one 75 yards and the other 150 yards down the trail) overlooking the Reregulating Reservoir.
   Several great blue herons, wigeons, buffleheads, common and Barrow's goldeneyes could be seen on the water and shoreline. The buffleheads and goldeneyes would dive under the surface and I watched as they swam down into the clear water using their feet like little paddlewheels. When they reappeared on the surface, it looked like a missile being shot up from below.
   The buffleheads would stay under for an average of about 40 seconds while the goldeneyes remained submerged for up to a minute. One great blue heron flew to an unscreened section of the fish ladder below the deck looking for a meal.
   There are about a dozen great blue heron nests in the cottonwood trees across the reservoir. It's still a bit early to watch them in their rookery, but they'll soon be nesting. Other wildlife such as mule deer, coyotes, beaver, and river otter frequent the area.
   A stair step of three dams and reservoirs on the Deschutes River begins here. The lowest is a regulating dam and reservoir. Next is Pelton Dam that holds back Lake Simtustus, then Round Butte Dam, which holds back Lake Billy Chinook.
   Once on the highway, it's just a few miles north to Warm Springs. Take a side trip to Kah-nee-ta and soak in the hot pools or take a hike on one of the three hiking trails, or even try your luck in the casino.
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