Warm spell, cold patch, rainy day: Shoulder season in Central Oregon makes for variable conditions, sometimes within the same 24-hour period.
My knee-jerk reaction during this time of year is to look to the east. But a spot just as ideal for all-weather outings lies to the north of Bend.
The Whychus Canyon Preserve is a 450-acre parcel along Whychus Creek. The Deschutes Land Trust purchased it at the end of 2010, in the process opening up land that had long been inaccessible to the public.
Since adding the property to its portfolio, the nonprofit land trust has been busy building trails and restoring habitat. The last time I visited there, in June, trail markers were few and parking ad hoc. The route into the canyon was a bit of a scramble.
Now, the land trust has completed a roughly 5-mile loop trail that leads down into the canyon, along the creek and back up to a spot with generous mountain views. A kiosk greets arrivals and parking spots were fine for even my low-clearance Prius.
I got lucky on a recent morning out at the preserve — High Desert junipers and sage were basking in what was probably the last intense warmth of the year.
One of my companions for the hike, Sarah Mowry from the land trust, wore shorts. Brad Chalfant, the land trust's executive director, wished aloud that he had too. We took the trail straight across the road from the kiosk and started weaving our way down into the canyon.
The land trust rates the trail as difficult. I get it, as it is a knee-crunching descent. But otherwise the journey is quite moderate.
Rock lines the trail down. Mowry warned that rattlesnakes are regularly spotted through here, although they will soon disappear to hibernate.
Houses rim the other side of the canyon. They don't, however, mar the beauty of the basalt rock rim, the twisting juniper trunks or the willows and aspen lining the creek.
The land trust has cleared encroaching junipers along the steep hillside. The purpose, of course, wasn't to create grander Cascade views. But the work at times has created that happy result.
On the canyon floor, Whychus Creek rushes and burbles, with perfect sit-with-a-book rocks punctuating the edge. Birds chatter among shrubs that undoubtedly a week or two earlier sported lovely yellow leaves.
Chalfant speaks glowingly about what he believes the preserve will be like in the future.
The land trust plans to bring the creek back to its more natural, meandering state. Parts of it were straightened some decades ago by private property owners.
Steelhead and chinook salmon, reintroduced here in the last five years, are expected to return in greater numbers to spawn. That activity, plus the planned revival of aspens along the canyon floor, will make the preserve a haven for wildlife ranging from deer to birds.
“Steelhead and salmon are the funding, but they're driving opportunities for new recreation and hiking," Chalfant said of the land purchase and habitat improvements.
“The wildlife usage is just going to be off the charts compared to other places in Central Oregon," he added.
After strolling along the canyon floor, we climbed back up to the rim. A permanent post is expected to be installed where the trail leaves what had once been a road in the canyon. But for right now, hikers should not switch into autopilot, for the markers still largely consist of pink tape tied to trees, logs pulled across false trails and cairns.
There's a fine view where the trail emerges, and another vista point a quick jog to the north. On the return, the trail largely follows old roads along through desert terrain. It passes by a segment of the Santiam Trail wagon road.
Down the line, Chalfant said, the land trust is interested in creating a trail that would cross the middle of the rim, offering views without the descent. The organization has been also working with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which owns adjacent land.
For now, however, the preserve remains relatively undiscovered. We were the only visitors on this rare sunny morning.
And depending on where you launch from in Bend, the drive takes about as long as that jaunt east.