It still amazes me how incredibly varied conditions can be in Central Oregon. Just last week, I wanted to take advantage of what looked to be the sole sunny day in the forecast to do some outdoor recreating. With significant snowfall in the previous days, I read warnings of high avalanche danger in the higher elevations. Yet within a 60-mile radius, there were plenty of locations that were dry as a bone.
The Badlands and Smith Rock seemingly never get snow. And more often than not, the Trout Creek Trail, along the Deschutes River south of Warm Springs, is dry as well.
According to Oregon hiking guru William Sullivan, the trail was once a railroad route, a remnant from the early 20th century when two railroad tycoons were racing to build competing railways between Bend and the Columbia River. Apparently the Trout Creek line lost. The tycoon's loss, however, is our gain.
The trail now follows the meandering Deschutes for 7.6 miles from Trout Creek Recreation Area campground to Mecca Flat Recreation Area about a mile and a half from Warm Springs.
Getting to the start of the hike is somewhat involved. A side road from U.S. Highway 97 leads to the tiny town of Gateway, complete with a small railroad station proudly proclaiming the town name. “Gateway to what?” I wondered, as I drove across the railroad tracks.
According to the town's website, Gateway is named for the natural depression in the terrain north of Madras, created through erosion from Trout Creek and its tributaries. The effect is a natural gateway for railroad and automobile traffic headed north and south through Central Oregon. The town is now primarily a gateway to fishing, rafting and hiking, although train traffic through the corridor continues.
From Gateway, the route travels down a gravel road that gets progressively worse. It's passable even in a small car as long as you take it slow. The region's railroad ties are on display here as you pass through a short tunnel beneath one set of tracks, then pass below a railroad trestle farther up the line.
Follow signs five miles past the campground to the day-use area. The trail starts on the west end, just beyond a signboard.
The nice thing about rail-to-trail conversions is they're generally wide and flat, and this trail is no exception. It follows along the south side of the Deschutes River as it twists and turns through the rimrock canyon. The area south of the trail is currently closed to protect raptor nesting sites, but the trail itself is not part of the closure.
To the left, the cliffs alongside are a wonder to behold, with tall columns of basalt colored with bright green hues. To the right, the river rushes through its bends, split at one point by a long narrow island.
The trail has several gates that are bypassed through a cattle guard. Small side trails used by anglers branch off toward the river, in case you want an up-close view.
You can hike the entire 7.6 miles to Mecca Flat with a car shuttle or do a 15.6-mile round trip. To reach the far end of the trail by car, take U.S. Highway 26 northwest from Madras, and turn right at the abandoned gas station just short of the bridge at Warm Springs onto an unmarked gravel road. The recreation area is about 1.6 miles down a rough road. (Thanks again to Sullivan for his directions!) Alternatively, a good turnaround spot is the long Frog Spring footbridge at 2.4 miles. There's a wooden bend and primitive restroom there as well. That'll cover the more scenic part of the river and still get you back in time for cross-country skiing in the afternoon.
Ain't life in Central Oregon grand?