Walking above the Whychus at Alder Springs

November 27, 2020
Walking above the Whychus at Alder Springs

Central Oregon is full of geologic beauty, from the Cascades to high lava plateaus to river canyons and stunning cliff faces. The hike at Alder Springs features all of this and more in less than 2 miles.

A walk along the high canyon that has been carved by the Lower Whychus Creek as it makes its way to its confluence with the Deschutes River offers sweeping High Desert landscape views of sage, bunch grass, juniper and the occasional ponderosa pine rising out of the hillsides.

The 1.3-mile trek down to the Whychus Creek descends steeply into the canyon within a half-mile section, which boasts anywhere from a 10% grade up to 36% downgrade on the trail. But the views are worth the extra effort.

While the hike down to Whychus Creek is a little over a mile, the trail continues on the other side of the waterway and ends at the confluence about 1.5 miles farther along the creek. However, you’ll have to ford the Whychus in order to get there and, at the end of November, that seems a bit cold.

The trailhead is only accessible by car from April 1 through Nov. 30 as the access road is closed to motor vehicles for the winter deer range. So this weekend is the last chance to drive out, otherwise, you’ll have to wait until spring. However, you can still hike or bike in the five miles to the start of the trail, just leave your bikes in the parking area as the trail is closed to everything except hikers and dogs on leash.

Plateaus and dry falls
From the parking area, the trail makes its way quickly up to a short rocky platform where views to the north and west stretch to the snow-capped Cascades in the distance.

From here the trail gently descends slightly along the High Desert plateau among the sparse juniper trees, many still scorched from the 2011 Alder Springs Fire. Shade is hard to come by here, so it’s recommended that you tackle this path during cooler weather, or come prepared with plenty of water during the summer.

While you can’t see Whychus Creek from this far back along the canyon, you can still hear it gently flowing below and see the scale of the canyon it’s carved along its path.

It’s not long until the trail narrows considerably and begins its steep trek down into the canyon, cut out of a hillside covered in grasses until it hugs around a bend and opens up to Alder Springs below with the cut pale volcanic rock surrounding it.

Taking a moment and scanning the horizon as you make your way farther down into the canyon shows a wide variety of rock formations, from sedimentary bands, uplifted basalts and stunning rimrock.

After a particularly rocky and steep section, a nearly hidden spur in the trail on the right leads to the “dry falls,” where water during wetter months may pour over the rock above, cutting through the canyon walls of mixed sedimentary and volcanic rock.

The rest of the trail is much gentler (compared to earlier on in the trail) on its way to the creek and you can really see the difference in vegetation. The arid grasses and sage from the upper trail have given way to the lush riparian meadows and shrubs as Alder Springs makes its short trek from underneath the hillside to the Whychus. These springs and others farther downstream are formed from glacial runoff in the Cascades, then they make a 40-mile journey underground until they spring from hillsides, babbling and feeding the creek, keeping it flowing even in drought conditions.

Fittingly, given the creek’s name, which means “the place to cross the water,” the trail continues across the Whychus, where there are several campsites for backpackers in the meadow beyond, and slowly descends further to the creek’s confluence with the Deschutes River — if you are willing to ford the chilly creek. Otherwise, turn around and head back up the canyon.

Old Bridge spur trail
If you want a shorter trail from the start or are up for a longer trek, add in the short spur trail not far from the main trailhead called Old Bridge Trail, which descends quickly into the canyon at one of the lower access points.

Not nearly as steep as the full Alder Springs trail, it makes a nice little side trip down to the old road that used to host a bridge crossing over the semi-turbulent creek from atop volcanic rocks.

The environment within the shorter canyon walls here feels very different from the rest of the Alder Springs trail, with red barked dogwood shrubs enveloping sections of the creek’s banks and high, cool gray rock faces scattered with clumps of moss. A stark contrast to the dry plateaus above.

Eagle-eyed hikers on the descent might also spy some faded petroglyphs on the rocks. If you find them, take only pictures and respect the artifact as you found it.

A sign marks the end of the maintained trail at a large relatively flat piece of land that would make a great picnic location.

An unmaintained, social trail continues along the creekside. It is not recommended that you take this trail as it quickly becomes overgrown, rocky and steep and foot traffic can damage the fragile riparian area of the creek.

The journey is half the adventure
The trail is owned and managed by the U.S. Forest Service and is part of the Crooked River National Grassland and sits equidistant from Terrebonne and Sisters off Holmes Road.

The 5-mile section of Forest Road 6360 from the gated turnoff to the Alder Springs Trailhead turn starts off with a well-maintained washboard gravel road through the private properties that flank the road. Soon, the gravel gives way to plain dirt and rock, which gets very washed out as the season progresses and should only be driven with a higher -ground -clearance vehicle and with some expert maneuvering from the driver.

That’s not to say that you absolutely need a truck or 4Runner to attempt to drive out there; I made it fine in my Jeep Compass, and there was a Subaru Outback at the trailhead with less ground clearance than I had.

Just as when walking down the steep trail that awaits hikers: take your time, be cautious and know your limits. Because the rewards at the bottom of the trail are worth every step along the way.

Reporter: 541-383-0304,

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