Summers spent at a lake are a Central Oregonian tradition.
Swimming, picnicking, roasting marshmallows by a campfire and swatting mosquitoes as twilight approaches define the water-friendly season. Strong pangs of nostalgia emerge with the smell of sunscreen and citronella.
With Memorial Day weekend marking the unofficial start of summer, it’s time to head to the water.
Cradled within the basalt plateau canyons west of Culver, Lake Billy Chinook has been a prime destination since it was created in 1964. That’s right. One of the largest and most spectacular lakes for water skiing and fishing in Central Oregon is man-made. Created when the Round Butte Dam was built at the convergence of the Crooked, Deschutes and Metolius rivers, the lake features 72 miles of shoreline (mostly cliff faces and talus slopes) and nearly 4,000 acres of open water. Each river now gives its name to the arm of the lake it created with the three arms sprawled out like a lightning bolt on the plain.
Lake Billy Chinook is a summer hot spot — temperatures average in the mid-80s in June and the upper 90s in July and August — and a mecca for fishermen, boaters, campers and hikers.
The lake is ripe for outdoor pursuits and continues to invigorate the senses for adventure.
Waking the lake
In early May, the sounds of boats sputtering away from docks and anglers quietly casting from the limited shoreline filled the air along with splashes from a few brave souls taking an early season swim in the chilly green waters of the Crooked River arm.
As the temperatures rise, the Cove Palisades State Park — the gateway to the lake — will see more and more visitors on its winding roads, campgrounds and boat launches.
When daytime temperatures climb, the water will become warmer, reaching around 70 degrees before the summer ends. The warmer water is ideal for water skiing, wakeboarding and tubing through the lake.
Recreation can be found out of the water, too.
Visitors can take a hike on one of Cove Palisades’ gems: the 6-mile Tam-a-lau Trail.
Starting at the base of the peninsula that divides the Crooked and Deschutes rivers’ arms, the trail immediately begins to climb 800 feet. The moderate hike can gain in difficulty depending on the season. Summer days mean direct sunlight and a dry dusty trail; winter can bring soupy, muddy paths. If hikers are tired and dirty when they reach the top, any regret will dissipate when they see the view.
Below are sights of the sprawling Deschutes and Crooked river arms, the Crooked River grasslands and the Cascades to the west. The plateaus surrounding the lake seemingly spread for miles: a scene of sparsely vegetated lands mixed with lush green pastures.
This is also one of the best places in the park to get a look at The Island, a wildlife preserve.
Not an actual island, this 195-acre, oval-shaped separate plateau on the peninsula was closed to public access in 1997 and preserved as a National Natural Landmark in 2011.
The Island is one of the few remaining places in the western U.S. that has not seen the effects of livestock grazing, major wildfires and human overuse.
On the Metolius arm of the park, about 13 miles northwest of The Island, there’s a site few visitors knew about until fire ripped through the area, exposing a cluster of rocks previously hidden among a grove of trees on the side of a hill. Before the fire, you had to know someone who knew where to find the mysterious feature. The location is now marked on maps at Cove Palisades.
Getting there still requires a little research, but this ensures that the numbers of people who visit the site are limited.
In the Metolius arm of the park, a quarter-mile trail leads from a small, unmarked parking area to an overlook of the handful of cylindrically based boulders, topped by flatter rocks, perched on hill at a slope with a perfect view of Mount Jefferson.
The brown rocks were formed by two volcanic ash flows. Over millions of years, the different rocks eroded at different rates, leaving the bottom rocks more eroded than the top. The Balancing Rocks remain exposed on the hillside near the Perry South Campground, one of three camping locations on the lake.
Perry South is maintained by the U.S. Forest Service and isn’t as well-developed as its state park neighbors in the Cove Palisades: the Crooked River and Deschutes campgrounds.
The state park campgrounds offer several accessible sites as well as full hookups for RVs, while Perry South has no electricity and vault toilets.
Visitors also have the option of renting a houseboat through the Cove Palisades Marina and Lake Billy Chinook Houseboats. The marina also offers rentals, including speed boats, bumper boats, personal watercraft, party barges and fishing boats.
The fishing on Lake Billy Chinook is some of the best in the state, three record-sized bull trout have been pulled from its waters. The lake is home to brown and rainbow trout, kokanee salmon, smallmouth bass and crappie.
The Deschutes and Crooked rivers arms are open year-round to anglers. The Metolius arm is limited to March through October and requires a tribal angling permit — regulations on the Metolius are different than on the rest of the lake.
Lake Billy Chinook is filled by Deschutes and Crooked rivers, which have long been vital to the area. The lake was named after a Wasco Native American guide enlisted by John C. Fremont during his exploration of the West from 1843-44.
The earliest people to travel through the canyons along the rivers arrived at least 8,000 years ago, possibly as long as 10,000 years.
When European-American trappers and settlers began to arrive in the High Desert, tensions between the migrants and the Native American tribes mounted.
When hostilities arose, the U.S. government formed a treaty with several bands of middle Columbia River peoples in 1855, and the Warm Springs Reservation was formed. In all, the tribes ceded approximately 10 million acres of land to the U.S.
The tribes would be able to retain the right to leave the reservation in order to fish, hunt and gather food as they had done for generations prior, but just 10 years after the initial treaty, another treaty was enacted that stipulated tribal members could not leave the reservation at all. It wasn’t until early in 2019 the state nullified this second treaty.
The reservation occupies the land directly north of the Metolius arm of the present-day Lake Billy Chinook. Bank access and moorage on this branch are prohibited to nontribal members.
Homesteaders were driven to the area with the promise of free land from the government as part of the Homestead Act. They laid claim to land on the high plateaus and on the banks of the Crooked River.
Working the land here was difficult, and access to irrigation water was limited, leaving many homesteaders to abandon their claims, returning them to the government.
Bit by bit, parcels of land were acquired through the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s and eventually pieced together to form the Cove State Park — named for a cove feature on the Crooked River. The cove and the original park are now submerged by the lake.
Between 1958 and 1964, Portland General Electric arrived on the scene and constructed the Pelton and Round Butte dams, the latter blocking the waters of the Deschutes River at its confluence with the Metolius and Crooked rivers and forming Lake Billy Chinook. Pelton Dam was created 7 miles downstream, forming Lake Simtustus.
Cove State Park was flooded under hundreds of feet of water with the current park built on higher ground.
Geologically, this is not the first time the land has seen floods, though 1.2 million years ago it was a flood of lava.
Basaltic lava flowed down the Crooked River canyon then back up the Deschutes River canyon when it was blocked by a temporary dam.
These basalt flows have since been cut through by the power of the respective rivers and have exposed the striking dark brown columns of basalt that rise from the waters’ edge.
These wide canyons are joined by talus sloped plateaus hundreds of feet tall topped by an edge of rimrock.
Driving around the lake, the road hugs the canyon walls and exposes many geologic layers, including white ash tuffs, gray conglomerates, tan sandstones and dark basalts from other volcanic events.
The lake is waiting
On the rim of the canyon to the east allows visitors to look down into the Crooked River arm. Driving along this road toward the dam offers a sprawling vista of the lake and the Cascades to the west with seven peaks visible on a clear day.
It’s quieter here.
The summer season will draw to a close in what will seem like less than a week. The out-of-town visitors will dwindle, outnumbered by locals taking their boats out for one last day on the water.
That last trip to the lake will be colder and quieter, but the memories will linger.
—Makenzie Whittle is a Bend native. She and her family have taken day trips since she was an infant, exploring the far-reaching corners of Oregon. She continues the tradition today and can be reached at 541-383-0304 or firstname.lastname@example.org