Pine: Take a drive out to the Cove, Lake Billy and Oregon Hoodoos
Let's just say right off the bat, any drive that includes the Cove Palisades State Park, even without the historical aspects, is going to be great. This all-paved, 76-mile drive from Madras will be a condensation of my Cove Palisades, Grandview, Hoodoo's, Perry South CG, Out and Back Drive from my recently published book, Historic Drives Through Scenic Jefferson County. Older photos in this article are courtesy of the Jefferson County Historical Society.
The roads should be no problem for the average vehicle on our beautiful sunny days. That said, there are a few steep road grades that should not be attempted if the roads are icy. Gas up and prepare for the unmatched scenery that is often found only in our national parks, (though I may be a little biased).
This drive will take you through the Cove Palisades State Park and along Lake Billy Chinook on the park's only road, crossing the Crooked and Deschutes River's arms then out across Lower Desert, past rare Hoodoos, to the Perry South Campground for a relaxing walk-about. Then you drive back on the same route back to Madras. This drive can take you two-hours for a fast exploratory drive or all day depending on your need for serenity and your interest in history, geology and ruminating on all that Mother Nature has to offer but that we rarely take time to see.
As with all of my favorite drives, they are best taken during the time of the year when school is in session and on nonholiday weekends. Otherwise, the busy crowds, large RVs, congestion and roar of ski-boats reverberating down the canyon walls detracts from the driving/strolling-about experience.
To begin the drive and save time, I will have you drive directly out to the Cove Palisades State Park using your car or phone navigation system. The in-between historic farmlands and towns (Metolius and Culver) are beautiful, history-rich drives in their own right. As you drop down the steep grade into the park, the multi-colored cliff walls tell of millions of years of volcanic eruptions, a book's worth in itself. I will simplify and over generalize with apologies to geologists.
Central Oregon was once under an inland sea. As the tectonic plates shifted and the Cascade mountain range's volcanoes grew upward over millions of years. As "Central Oregon" became separated from the ocean, it dried, becoming a warm, lush, humid, tropical landscape. Over millions of years, major volcanic eruptions covered the landscape with massive amounts of lava and ash. Unable to reach the ocean by traveling westward, the Deschutes River flowed northward, cutting into and eroding the layers of lava and ash. Volcanic eruptions again filled in the river valley and the process continued. We are now able to study the layers and examine geologic history. Fossils of many now extinct animals, birds, fish and fauna have been found having lived during these lush times despite volcanic activity. Though this summary would probably get a D- if written by a middle-school student, you get the basic idea.
Fast forward to the 1800s, the dangers of traversing huge river canyons, fears of Native Americans, isolation and lack of towns, water and roads initially kept settlers out of what was to become Central Oregon. As you drive down the steep grade into the park, just past a sharp U-turn in the road, you arrive at the Crooked River Day-use Area where you will find parking, a beach and picnic area and a boat launch area.
Prior to the Round Butte Dam being built, this area was a natural bench roughly half-way up the canyon wall from the Crooked River below. The grade you were on was first an indigenous people's trail, then a horse trail, then a wagon road from the river up to this bench, then continuing up to the top. Across the water is The Island, thought to be a sacred spiritual location of Indigenous people. Early settlers called this feature, rising between the Crooked and Deschutes rivers, The Plains of Abraham. During the Prohibition Era, a moonshiner operated a still on the plateau. From this vantage point, approaching lawmen could easily be seen, giving the "cook" time to skedaddle.
Continue driving on Jordan Road. Keep your eyes on the road and use the many pull-outs as needed. As you approach a bridge, be aware that it is very thin; two large vehicles could not pass each other. Above the bridge, to the left, are signs of an early road grade. It was once used by homesteaders from today's Crooked River Ranch area (The Peninsula) to connect to the Cove and Culver. Prior to the completion of the Round Butte Dam in 1965 and the filling in of this Crooked River Arm of Lake Billy Chinook, an early-day bridge once crossed the Crooked River in the area, well below the current water level of the lake. Also at the bottom of the canyon flowed the Crooked River beside acres of farmable lands. The land was protected from the strong winds and frosts that often-created havoc for the farmers above.
The Cove (as it was called) was first settled by a non-indigenous person in 1879. Logs were cut on Grizzly Mountain, hauled to the cliff's edge and pushed over. Those that didn't break apart were then collected and used to construct dwellings. A large garden and a fruit orchard were established that grew well in the protected bottom land with nearby water for irrigation. This orchard and garden supplied the areas above with much needed fruit and vegetables.
As the roads down into the Cove were improved, parts of the bottom riverside area became a place for picnics and fishing that later became a state park. Later, a small hydro-electric plant was built that would supply electricity to the areas above.
As you crest the hill, you are now passing through the area called The Saddle, with The Island on your right and The Ship formation on your left. At a pull-out on the left, park for a close-up view and information about The Ship formation and of the mysterious rock carving by Indigenous people called the Crooked River Petroglyph.
Farther down the road is a campground and the Upper Deschutes River Day-use Area. With the $5 Day Fee paid, the Day-use Area is fun to explore, dabble your feet in the water and gaze across the water at an old wagon road grade that now disappears into the waters of the lake. This was a scary grade for early wagons being driven from Lower Desert over to Madras/Culver and the rail stations. At that time, the route continued to go down to the former Deschutes River riverbed, a crossing, then another grade up and over The Saddle, up the grade into the Culver area. The stunning geologic formations and canyon views were probably not as appreciated as they are today.
Soon after the Upper Deschutes Day-use Area, you cross another narrow single-lane bridge over the Deschutes River arm of Lake Billy Chinook and climb a steep grade to the top of the canyon. Once at the top, still on Jordan Road, this large plateau area is called Lower Desert. Lower Desert was once an area primed for raising stock as it consisted of thousands of acres of natural grassed rangeland in the mid-to-late 1800s. Then homesteaders moved in and created miles of rock fences from the millions of rocks covering the landscape that needed removal so the land could be farmed. Then the once adequate rainfall diminished. There was little nearby water available from creeks, natural springs or wells. Homesteader life, at first, was hard, but the fields were productive. Water was hoped to be brought in by canal from Suttle Lake. After years of droughts and no hope of Suttle Lake water, people gave up and moved away. All signs of their existence and two communities of Grandview and Geneva are now gone except for the numerous rock walls. Today, there exists only sage, juniper trees and a few modern era homes and a convenience store, the last chance for snacks, cold drinks and gas.
Follow the paved Jordan Road to an intersection with Graham Road. Turn left onto Graham Road. This is the approximate area of the small community center of Grandview. Next comes several miles of straight road. To your right, mostly out of sight, is the 4,000-acre Three Rivers subdivision. This large, gated community operates entirely off the grid, with each home using solar, generators or other means to create light and heat.
SW Graham Road will take a sharp right and begin down a grade now becoming Montgomery Road/Route 64. At the bottom, you cross a bridge over Fly Creek. In 1844, John C. Freemont, coming from the future lands of Warm Springs, crossed the Metolius River near here as he explored the area.
At the top of the grade, watch for a pull-out for viewing the Oregon Hoodoos, often called Balancing Rock. It takes a short walk on a downhill path to stand next to them to fully appreciate these wonders of nature and the unmatched views of the lake and Mount Jefferson.
Driving down a long road grade, you make a sharp turn and find the Perry South Campground. Perry South was the name of a longtime district ranger, Perry A. South. This is a beautiful 50-site campground with mature trees, a picnic area, restrooms, boat launch and dock and shore areas to dip your toes in the waters of the Metolius arm of Lake Billy Chinook. As I frequently say, it is best to make this trip after the boaters and campers are gone for the season. It can be a scenic and serene spot when the ski boats and crowds are absent. Still, it is always beautiful any time of the year.
This ends the "going out" portion of our out and back drive. There is only one way back, the way you came. I hope you will enjoy this scenic and historical drive.
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