Lake Simtustus Trail affords solitude, High Desert views

April 28, 2023
Lake Simtustus Trail affords solitude, High Desert views

By David Jasper

MADRAS — A couple of Saturdays back, my wife, Catherine, and I made our first-ever visit to Lake Simtustus, located west of Madras on the Deschutes River. Though smaller and lesser-known than larger, upstream neighbor Lake Billy Chinook, Simtustus, too, is a popular spot for camping, swimming, boating and fishing.

We didn’t set foot in the water or ride in one of the handful of boats we saw and heard motoring when we visited in mid-April, but we were blown away by the sights and sounds our visit afforded us. We were there to hike the nearly 2-mile Lake Simtustus Trail, a partial loop that parallels, for a stretch, the eastern flank of the lake, located between Round Butte and Pelton dams and is about 7.5 miles in length.I’d long seen signs for the 611-acre Simtustus on trips through the area, but usually, our destination lay farther ahead. Not so on the day we visited. We’d loosely planned our entire day in Jefferson County, as I’d been eager to skate the new Warm Springs Skatepark since it opened in early April, and it had been years since we’d visited the Warm Springs Museum.

We arrived at the skatepark late in the morning, and after I skated for about an hour, we headed directly to the museum, which we had to power through in 45 minutes because it closes for an hour midday. We then headed back toward the town of Warm Springs for a fry bread lunch at Kalama’s Fry Bread. My wife had the open-face chili taco, while I opted for a burger on delicious warm fry bread.

We then beat a path south toward Lake Simtustus for an early afternoon hike to work off some of the calories. Following directions from Google Maps until we lost reception a quarter-mile from the trailhead, we ended up parking by the marina of the Portland General Electric-operated Pelton Park.

We saw nary a soul during our excursion — just boaters in the distance and a solo fisherman who parked next to us and said he was scoping things out for a future mission.

Meanwhile, we scouted for the Lake Simtusus Trail, which loops up and found a sign for the trail on the hillside above the parking lot. The trail begins just across Pelton Dam Road from the park. Though there was little traffic when we visited, it’s sure to pick up with the warming weather, so cross carefully if you park here.

We studied the sign, which told of the potential for rattlesnakes and gave some details about the trail, which hits an elevation of 2,150 feet at its highest point, and is 1.86 miles in length. Alltrails, meanwhile, puts the length at 2.3 miles, accounting for the walk through the park one must do to make it a full loop.

As we ascended the trail, I finally noticed a small dirt parking lot on the trail-side of the road, a little too late to bother moving the car.

The trail is described on the sign as moderate to difficult, and there’s good reason for that, as the first quarter mile at either end of the trail is fairly steep and rocky, gaining about 400 feet of elevation as you make your way to the very cool center portion atop an old railroad bed, with the scattered old railroad ties to show for it. This portion is the definition of moderate, and there are even some boulders set up in places to take in the views.

Though only 2 miles in length, the trail, as foretold by the sign, took us about two hours to complete — Alltrails put it at just over an hour, but maybe it didn’t take in the pauses to gawk and take photos. We stopped frequently to take in the rock formations, views of the lake below, the Cascades in the distance, the early-season wildflowers and birds darting around. OK, and maybe to rest a little. But what’s the hurry? This was the highlight of our weekend. Best to dawdle.

We lucked out with a cloudy day, and we were still grateful we’d brought enough water, as there’s a dearth of shade. You’ll also want sturdy footwear, although Catherine managed in sneakers, but she wouldn’t have opted for them if her husband hadn’t removed the dusty hiking boots she thought were still in the car from a previous hike. (Oops.)

The way back down to lake level from the north end of the trail was not super well-marked. We overshot it at first, continuing along the railroad bed until it became obvious we must have missed it. We backtracked and made our way down past a massive pile of timber, the trail ending at a small pullout off of Pelton Dam Road. Crossing the street, we made our way back through the park’s empty campground to our car at the opposite end of the park.Pelton Park and Lake Simtustus will become hives of activity during the next few months, no doubt, but there’s solitude to be had a little higher up on Lake Simtustus Trail.

Share this post