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Deschutes River Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

You get a great view down to the many rapids on the Deschutes River (Jerry Adams)
River bend, Lower Deschutes River (bobcat)
Gold stars (Crocidium multicaule), Lower Deschutes River (bobcat)
At the Free Bridge, Lower Deschutes River (bobcat)
Rusting machinery, Nine miles, Lower Deschutes River (bobcat)
The former farmhouse at Harris Ranch, destroyed in the 2018 fire (bobcat)
The Eye, Gordon Cliffs, Lower Deschutes River (bobcat)
The route along the Deschutes River to the Harris Ranch (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: Caltopo


Hike Description

NOTE: The lower Deschutes Canyon south of the state park day use area was severely burned in the July 2018 Substation Fire. Almost all the trees and shrubs along the length of this hike were killed. The remaining railroad car was consumed by the blaze. The buildings and water tower at the Harris Ranch were destroyed.

The Deschutes River is best known for river rafting and fishing, but in the winter it offers a good opportunity for backpacking or day hikes. Other good seasons to hike the old railroad grade down the river are spring (for wildflowers) and fall. Summer is hot, with the sometimes searing heat reflecting off the rimrock, and the river can become a cacophony of rafters. This is also a great bike ride if you have good tires: you can get off the bike and do short hikes from a number of spots along the trail. The trail begins from the state park and goes along the river on the old railroad grade, now a gravel road, offering typical eastern Oregon scenery: broad spaces, cliffs and rimrock slopes, and clumps of sagebrush on grassy expanses. (Hikers may want to begin the hike by taking the foot trail along the river bank as far as Rattlesnake Rapids.) On the hike, you'll look down on river rapids, and there's a chance to view some of the local wildlife, including migrating steelhead, mergansers, geese, herons, deer, otters, gopher snakes, and rattlesnakes. Most relics of the defunct railroad and the old Harris Homestead were incinerated in the 2018 Substation Fire. Across the Deschutes, trains ply the living railroad at regular intervals.

The story of the railroad line here exemplifies the history of "railroad wars" in the development of the western United States. The Deschutes Railroad Company (Union Pacific) began surveys on the east bank of the river in 1906. Almost immediately after this, employees of the Oregon Trunk Railroad, incorporated in Nevada, surveyed the west bank and began construction. Construction crews snuck into each other's supplies and sabotaged them, and there was more than one incident where one side dynamited the other's equipment. Gradually, however, the competing railroads realized the situation was economically untenable, and the Deschutes Railroad began using sections of the Oregon Trunk line. The Deschutes finally abandoned its entire route along the east bank in 1936.

You may see a farm or Fish and Wildlife truck going down the road, but there's a locked gate preventing unauthorized vehicles. In the winter, there are a few hikers, bikers, and possibly horses each day, with more on the weekend. On the opposite side of the river, there are a several trains each day, during the day or night. In early spring, watch out for ticks, especially where you brush against grass or shrubs. Check yourself for ticks afterward. Fishing season is May 1 to October 31. The river rafting season is in the summer. Hikers may want to avoid the area then to avoid the crowds; also, from May through September, it can be very hot.

You can start the hike at the overnight parking area near the entrance to the state park, but it's better to drive through the state park as far as you can and park there because your car will be more visible to the ranger and thus safer from break-ins. The first two miles of the hike is within the Deschutes State Park and runs along the Deschutes River. There is a lower trail (the Blackberry Trail) and a middle trail (the Riverview Trail) for hikers only below the railroad grade. A map at the trailhead shows you the routes. This description follows the Blackberry Trail along the river bank.

Walk across a field, and follow a sandy track that passes under powerlines with white alders leaning over the Deschutes on the right. Sagebrush bushes dominate the slope to the left and a few almond trees bloom above you in the spring. Pass a pumphouse and a cable pylon at the junction with the Riverview Trail, which leads up to the left. Keep straight along the river, passing a large, shaded rock with a bench to rest. Then hit a short boardwalk and emerge from the trees. Pass below an outhouse, and hike up to a junction with the Riverview Trail. Bear right to reach a viewpoint over Rattlesnake Rapids. Pungent desert parsley blooms here in the spring. On the south side of this outcropping, you'll also discover a natural arch that peers down to the Deschutes River.

Head south along the gravel road that is the former rail bed of the Deschutes Railroad, and pass the trail that leads up to Ferry Springs (see the Ferry Springs Loop Hike). Between here and the former location of the Harris Canyon Water Tower, you will be on land managed by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management as well as a short easement on private property. About a mile from Rattlesnake Bend, the trail arrives at Gordon Canyon. There's a field here that is mowed and used by the Boy Scouts for campouts. The railroad itself used a high trestle, now long gone, but you will descend on a vehicle track to cross Gordon Creek and then head up through a dense and somewhat startling forest of invasive Ailanthus (Chinese tree-of-heaven) trees. Some efforts are being made to curb this species' rabid march up the slope, but it looks like a losing battle. Down below, there's the Colorado Camp outhouse and a grassy expanse. Back on the railroad grade, you'll pass below the Gordon Cliffs, where lichen-stained basalt formations, some in columns and some in radiating circles, are some of the most intriguing you'll encounter.

Continuing above the river, you'll clearly see the Oregon Trunk Railroad (now operated by BNSF) on the steeply-sloped west bank. On both sides of the river, mostly out of sight, are the spacious crop fields of the Columbia Plateau. Pass above another outhouse at Gordon Ridge Camp, and at Mile 5.6, you'll come to the site where a railroad car was parked for decades; it was burned in the 2018 fire. A trail leads down to the river from here. At Mile 6.6 are the remains of the Free Bridge. At a time when there were private toll bridges, this bridge was constructed by Wasco County in 1887 to offer free passage over the river; however, the second iteration of the bridge (it was upgraded in 1905) was apparently dynamited by the opposition in 1914. There's one footing on the east side and another footing in the middle of the river. Before you pass above the bridge supports, you'll see a post that once held an interpretive sign with a photo of the bridge. You can see rough and narrow Free Bridge Road coming down the slope on the west side of the canyon and a road ramp to the left of the pillars on the east side.

Past the Free Bridge are are the wide and swirling Washout Rapids at a bend in the Deschutes, where you'll hike through a rubble-strewn cutting in the basalt. At Mile 7.8, you may notice an old trestle ramp on the right. The trestle actually spanned the shallow creek here until 2015, when it was dismantled. A second railroad car used to stand next to the road here, but it is now also gone. Below is another outhouse at Bedsprings Camp. Across the river, picturesque buttresses fortify the steep slopes above the working railroad. You'll hike around another bend in the river and, about a mile from the trestle site, pass a rusting piece of farm equipment on the left. Soon, cross a cattle grid that marks a corner of private land that overlaps the trail - stay on the road between the grids. At Mile 10.1, a track leads down to Fall Canyon Camp, which is where most overnighters stay if they are doing this as a backpack.

Three quarters of a mile after Fall Canyon Camp, you'll see an alfalfa field down to the right and former location of the Harris Homestead, now just a tidy pile of charred wood. Beyond the house, there were corrals, cattle chutes, sheep shearing stalls, and open sheds with some farm equipment. All of this was destroyed in the Substation Fire. Continuing down the road, you'll pass through an alley of hackberries and reach a grove of ponderosa pines where a refurbished caboose, a more recent residence for seasonal farm workers, once stood. There was also a shed and paddock here as well as an outhouse and small pumphouse. All of these buildings as well as the ponderosas went up in flames in July 2018. Across a channel of the Deschutes is thickly-aldered Harris Island. A little farther on, at the mouth of Harris Canyon, you'll arrive at the site of the Harris Canyon Water Tower (Mile 11.3). The only thing that remains here is a stone pedestal which once had a plaque that commemorated the restoration of the water tower.

See the Deschutes River from Macks Canyon Hike for a description of the next 11.8 miles to a trailhead at Macks Canyon.

The Deschutes River State Recreation Area at the trailhead has a pleasant camping area that is open year-round. A loop has electricity for trailers and is $22 per night. The T loop for tent campers is next to the trailhead and is $10 per night. The T loop is basically a circular grassy area of about a dozen sites with picnic tables and fire pits.

It costs $7 per night for overnight parking if you're backpacking. In order to minimize the risk of vandalism, the ranger recommends parking your car at the end of the road next to the T loop camping area below the camp host or in the parking area a little before below the full time ranger residence. However, the official overnight parking area is to your left as you enter the state park at the very beginning of the rail trail.

For more info call:

    Bureau of Land Management (541) 416-6700 
    State of Oregon Fish and Wildlife (541) 296-4228
    Oregon State Parks (503) 986-0707


Fees, Regulations, etc.

  • Campground, restrooms, picnic area, information kiosk at the state park
  • $7 overnight parking fee; no charge for day-use
  • Outhouses stationed every couple of miles along the route
  • Keep dogs on leash in the state park area (first two miles); leash up when you see horses approaching

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • Rail-Trails: Washington & Oregon by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
  • Best Rail Trails: Pacific Northwest by Natalie Bartley
  • Mountain Biking Oregon: Northwest and Central Oregon by Lizann Dunegan
  • Kissing the Trail by John Zillly
  • Extraordinary Oregon! by Matt Reeder
  • Off the Beaten Trail by Matt Reeder
  • PDX Hiking 365 by Matt Reeder
  • Curious Gorge by Scott Cook (to the Free Bridge)
  • One Night Wilderness: Portland by Douglas Lorain
  • Day Hike! Columbia Gorge by Seabury Blair, Jr.
  • Day Hiking: Columbia River Gorge by Craig Romano
  • 100 Hikes: Eastern Oregon by William L. Sullivan (to Gordon Canyon)
  • Hiking Oregon's History by William L. Sullivan
  • Day Hikes in the Columbia Gorge by Don J. Scarmuzzi
  • Hiking the Columbia River Gorge by Russ Schneider, revised by Jim Yuskavitch
  • Oregon: The Creaky Knees Guide by Seabury Blair, Jr.
  • Columbia Gorge Hikes: 42 Scenic Hikes by Don & Roberta Lowe
  • Oregon Campgrounds Hiking Guide by Rhonda & George Ostertag
  • Oregon's Columbia River Gorge: Camping & Hiking by Tom Stienstra & Sean Patrick Hill
  • Pacific Northwest Hiking by Scott Leonard & Sean Patrick Hill
  • Oregon State Parks: A Complete Recreation Guide by Jan Bannan

More Links


Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

Hiking is a potentially risky activity, and the entire risk for users of this field guide is assumed by the user, and in no event shall Trailkeepers of Oregon be liable for any injury or damages suffered as a result of relying on content in this field guide. All content posted on the field guide becomes the property of Trailkeepers of Oregon, and may not be used without permission.