Whychus Canyon Hike Pays Off

The Bend Bulletin features Whychus Canyon Preserve in their weekly hike series.
By Mark Morical
The Bend Bulletin

Although I’ve roamed the extensive trails of Central Oregon for 15 years, I still come across areas where I have never set foot.

Somehow I had yet to explore the Whychus Canyon Preserve, nearly 1,000 acres of stunning canyon and stream terrain where the pine trees stubbornly give way to the
unforgiving High Desert just northeast of Sisters.

“It’s that transition zone which makes it so dramatic, and so important for the wildlife,” said Brad Chalfant, executive director of the Deschutes Land Trust.

The conservation and restoration of Whychus Creek has long been a crucial project for the Bend-based Deschutes Land Trust.

Just last week it announced that it had finalized an agreement to purchase 1,120 more acres of land — known as Rimrock Ranch — along Whychus Creek, just downstream of
the preserve.

The land trust has protected 8 miles of Whychus Creek and more than 2,200 acres of adjacent flood plains, wetlands and forests, according to Chalfant. The 930-acre Whychus Canyon Preserve was established in 2010, and it now includes several
miles of hiking-only trails that parallel the creek and the canyon rim.

I made the 30-minute drive northwest from Bend on a cool, sunny morning when the Central Oregon rain shadow was in full effect, clouds in the Cascade Range banking hard against Black Butte and Black Crater to the west.

The 41-mile Whychus Creek flows out of glaciers on Middle Sister then carves through steep, boulder-lined canyons before making its way through the town of Sisters. Past Sisters, the creek continues northeast through pine forests and High Desert rimrock, eventually converging with the Deschutes River just south of Lake Billy Chinook.

“In the span of 40 miles, you go from a glacially fed stream into a desert canyon,” Chalfant said. “You cover about every different ecological zone you can think of in a very short distance.”

After parking at the trailhead of the preserve, I glanced at the map and set out for a loop hike of about 5 miles. The singletrack trail cut along the sides of the canyon through ponderosa pine and juniper trees. About half a mile into the hike, I turned onto a trail that led steeply down to babbling Whychus Creek.

The creek followed the rimrock canyon into a lush, green meadow, which no doubt will become greener in the weeks to come.

“It’s just a really rich spot,” Chalfant said of Whychus Canyon Preserve. “Islands of green …those areas become so important in an arid valley. Those of us in the pine belt (Bend and Sisters), we forget just how arid much of this landscape is.”

Salmon and steelhead once called Whychus Creek home, and a main objective of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s ongoing reintroduction effort is to bring those fish back to Whychus and other streams in the Upper Deschutes watershed.

But the restoration of Whychus will benefit a wide range of wildlife in the area, according to Chalfant, including cougar, bobcats, mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, golden eagles, bats, raptors and songbirds.

I continued trekking along the flat valley bottom before turning back up the canyon on the northeast end of the trail system. Once atop the rim again, I was treated to an awe-inspiring view of Whychus Creek meandering through the trees and the rimrock of the narrow gorge. Snow-covered South Sister popped into view as I gazed to the southwest.

Along the trail, tiny yellow wildflowers (goldfields, according to Chalfant), were just beginning to sprout, giving the desert a refreshing splash of color. The wildflowers will no doubt grow bigger and more beautiful in the weeks ahead.

“Things are just starting to pop,” Chalfant said of the wildflowers along Whychus Canyon. “We’re still a couple weeks away. We’ll have a variety.”

I made my way back toward the trailhead along the edge of the canyon, taking in views of the creek far below and of the Three Sisters on the distant horizon. Near the end of the trail, Black Butte appeared from behind the canyon wall and two large raptors circled the sky, catching thermals as the wind gusts increased.

The 5-mile hike required about three hours and was only moderately difficult. With the addition of the Rimrock Ranch property, more trails eventually could be built along Whychus Canyon, according to Chalfant.

“We currently have a conservation easement at Rimrock Ranch, so there’s already a level of protection,” Chalfant said. “The landowner has long intended that we would eventually own it. We’ve had incredibly good landowners who have long desired to protect and conserve that property. We can preserve what they’ve always envisioned, creating the greatest ecological resource out there that we can.”

That is good not only for the wildlife but also for the hikers, trail runners, birders and other outdoors enthusiasts who want to access the canyon. Chalfant said the addition of Rimrock Ranch will “absolutely” mean more trails, but only after some additional planning.

“It’s likely we’ll extend the trails on Whychus Canyon itself,” he said. “We still have to figure out the appropriate places to go, and where we shouldn’t go.”

Hikers looking for the quintessential Central Oregon terrain, where the pines meet the desert, should go to the Whychus Canyon Preserve.

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