Deschutes waterfalls worth the trip

May 31, 2012
Deschutes waterfalls worth the trip

Three cascades on Deschutes River make great day trip

By Mac McLean / The Bulletin

May 31. 2012 6:08AM PST

Nathaniel Wyeth was a brave and determined man.

In 1832, Wyeth left his Cambridge, Mass., home for Oregon Country in hopes that he could make a quick buck by catching salmon, harvesting timber, trapping fur and trading with the Native Americans who lived in the area we now call home.

He also traveled farther up the Deschutes River than any other white man had done before while pursuing a group of workers who left his expedition in late 1834 and, according to one historical marker, took a quarter-ton dugout canoe down a series of waterfalls just outside Bend.

You can get to these three waterfalls — Benham, Dillon and Lava Island falls — by taking a Forest Service road that links the Cascade Lakes Highway with Sunriver. A trip to see them can take all day, or a couple of hours. You can learn about the region's natural history and its settlement.

Heading out

Let's be honest here: It's a bit of a stretch to use the word “waterfall” when describing these falls when it's also used to describe world-renowned torrents of water like Niagara and Victoria falls, or my local favorite, Tumalo Falls.

You can get a lot of information about each of these falls from the Northwest Waterfall Survey, a website created by Bryan Swan, a northeast Washington state resident who publishes travel guides featuring waterfalls in the Pacific Northwest and teaches people how to photograph them.

Swan's website details the amount of water going down each of these waterfalls, their size and their length.

He even uses words like “gradual cascade” and “segmented rapids” to describe them — a sign that he shares my opinion about their proper terminology — and recommends skipping one or two of them because it's hard to see what he claims are their most impressive parts.

But regardless of Swan's opinion, I'd still recommend heading out to see the trio of falls. The trip can be an afternoon lark or an all-day endeavor, depending on what you're in the mood for and how much time you have. You can drive down Forest Road 41 from Bend to Sunriver, or you can do an 8½-mile hike along the section of the Deschutes River Wyeth explored 180 years ago.

My wife and I took the first route — driving to each of the waterfalls — last weekend because a flat tire kept us from leaving one car where the trail starts at Meadow Camp Picnic Area and another one where it ends at Benham Falls.

But the hike's a route I'd like to take in the future, especially on a nice summer afternoon when I've got access to two working cars and the trails aren't as crowded as they were during Memorial Day weekend.

Prehistory, settlement

When Lava Butte erupted more than 6,600 years ago, it sent a stream of lava that blocked the Deschutes River, forcing it to cut a new channel through the volcanic rock.

This channel starts with Benham Falls, the largest in the cluster of waterfalls, where it drops about 25 feet.

There's an interpretive sign describing how the waterfalls were created — the lake, the lava flows and the phrase “water always wins” — outside a little shelter at Benham Falls parking lot, which you can get to by turning on Forest Road 400 from Forest Road 41.

This shelter marks the entrance to a path that follows the riverbank and ends at a protected overlook. A series of wide, wooden poles keeps you from falling into the river and also gives you something to lean against while taking pictures.

The view of water rushing down a 23-degree slope, as it cuts through volcanic rock is helped even more by the fact it isn't blocked by the sides of the steep, volcanic gorge that makes it hard to see Dillon and Lava Island falls.

The trail continues to Dillon Falls, where there's no protected overlook like at Benham. You'll have to climb down a rock outcropping to see water rushing past the start of the 15-foot descent. This is not only the most dramatic part of the waterfall you can see, but the only part of the waterfall you can see because the trail heads away from the water as it continues downhill toward Lava Island Falls.

“The falls are nice and the gorge is pretty,” Swan wrote in his assessment of Dillon Falls, which falls short of telling people to skip Dillon Falls all together. “But because the views are restricted to one side of the river the falls are a lot less of an attraction than they could be.”

My wife, Meryl Ibis, and I share Swan's opinion of Dillon Falls; you can't get a good picture of any drops in water without leaning toward the falls from the side from a large boulder at the end of the path. It doesn't help that bends in the river and bends in the trail, which move in opposite directions, keep you from seeing more of what Swan called a “long series of violent rapids.”

This is also a problem with Lava Island Falls, where we couldn't get a decent view because the river turned away whenever we got close to it. Swan had the same problem: “Unless you're really itching to see what little there is to see here,” he wrote, “I'd advise skipping this one.”

But there's still a lot you can see out there, namely a large rock outcropping that had been used as a hunting camp as early as 7,000 years ago and the site where a 1981 survey found a series of arrowheads and spear points that are on display at the Des Chutes Historical Museum.

Lava Island, the namesake of the waterfall and the Lava Island Rockshelter, is also quite impressive because this feature marks what I'd like to call a tie in the battle between the lava flow and the water.

Rather than let the river cut a single, wide channel through the rock as it did at Dillon and Benham falls, the lava flow forced it to split into two separate smaller channels that could be crossed by big game animals that have been known to winter on what is now a juniper- and pine-covered island. These animals were most likely behind the decision to locate a hunting camp just off part of the trail linking the parking lot to a spot where you can see part of the waterfall before it continues down a 15-foot descent to be reunited with the other fork farther downstream.

Also impressive is a series of irrigation flumes you can see from the top part of the trail. Built in 1905 and rebuilt in 1947, they link the Deschutes River to many farms that were settled at the turn of the century.

While the waterfalls are nice, personally I think it's these stories — the early humans who hunted while volcanoes exploded around them, Wyeth and the homesteaders the falls are named after and the farmers who built the flumes — that make this trip worthwhile.

It kind of makes you feel like a wimp for not hiking a measly 8½ miles on a beautiful day.

— Reporter: 541-617-7816,

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