When Oregon’s Cascade Mountains are behind you and central Oregon’s U.S. 97 unwinds onto a desert covered with sage and juniper, set your travel compass for west of Madras, where three east-side rivers--the Deschutes, the Crooked, and the Metolius--merge into a vast watery playground at Lake Billy Chinook.
Many call Lake Billy Chinook at Round Butte Dam an ‘oasis in the desert’ for once you arrive, it is water, water everywhere, framed by towering 400-foot canyon walls at popular destination that is also nicknamed “The Cove.”
Ever since the completion of Round Butte Dam in 1964, this lake has been the drawing card, an oasis in the desert for fishing, skiing, camping and hiking.
This is big water! The reservoir covers 3,997 acres and is as deep as 415 feet. Each arm of the lake is six to twelve miles long, creating more than 72 miles of shoreline at full pool.
Gary Popp, owner of Cove Palisades Resort, said it’s the only place in Oregon where you can “take your home on the water” through a unique partnership with Oregon State Parks.
“Water sports are everything – folks come here for the water skiing because we don’t get cold weather in the summer and there are lots of places to go on these arms that isn’t crowded. We offer more than thirty floating homes for rent, many are based right at the Cove SP Marina, so it’s easy to find us.”
Lake Billy Chinook is more than 7 miles long and you can spend a day aboard a comfortable houseboat – complete with all the comforts of home, exploring some seventy miles of shoreline that includes a stunning, jaw dropping view to Kettle Falls.
Many travelers make Cove Palisades State Park their vacation home. The park begins at the top of the rimrock above Lake Billy Chinook and is situated among towering cliffs that surround the beautiful lake.
The grounds contain approximately 300 campsites amid soft grass and timeless views and boat launches (one on the Crooked River arm and two on the Deschutes arm.)
Oregon State Park’s Manager, David Slaght, said visitors appreciate the full-service campgrounds, the general store, restaurant, a full service marina with rental services:
“You have so much to explore at one destination: the high desert experience with the dramatic geology, the lava flows, the canyons, three distinct rivers that come together and then the Cascade Mountains form a gorgeous backdrop.”
Not interested in camping? Rustic lakeshore log cabins are available. Yes, log cabins. Just the idea of them conjures up atmosphere: hot summer nights. The sound of the door slamming shut: the creak of the floors when you walk across them, the smell of the campfire outside.
That is cabin camping in an Oregon State Park. Most are one-room affairs, thirteen-by-thirteen with a six-foot porch and electricity, beds with mattresses, tables, and chairs. Some contain two rooms and sinks, refrigerators, and microwaves, even bathrooms with showers.
Any of these relaxing abodes is a wonderful base for enjoying views of the towering 400-foot walls layered with alternating bands of ash, gravel, and lava flows.
The most spectacular features of the canyon are the lava flows that erupted out of Newberry Volcano about a million years ago. They form the high, columned cliffs and also The Island, which rises to captivate your attention just across from Cove Palisades State Park.
Water-carved and wind-eroded, the sun-browned canyon vistas are compelling and powerful displays of 7 million years of geologic history.
Less than an hour’s drive away, consider a side trip to a learning center that will teach you much more history at the High Desert Museum near Bend.
Higher education is center stage at the High Desert Museum located 5 miles south of Bend. It is where large and small-scale exhibits give you greater appreciation for life across Oregon’s arid landscapes.
You’ll agree with the staff’s adage that this remarkable complex of displays, demonstrations, and hands-on events make the museum “more like an expedition than an exhibition.”
The museum spreads across 150 acres filled with exhibits and demonstrations. A mile-long trail goes through twenty-five acres of trailside exhibits, including a trout stream, otter ponds, porcupine dens, and historic interpretive displays of frontier life and industry.
You’ll love seeing the many wildlife species on display at the museum too.Hawks, eagles, and turkey vultures are frequently seen soaring over the wide expanse of the desert, but at the museum you can see them all close at hand and learn about their special adaptations for survival.
“When it’s behind a screen or behind glass, you’re so removed,” noted wildlife curator Nolan Harvey. “But when you’re up close you can see the feathers move, you see the bird move and pay attention to you – that captures your heart and hopefully makes you want to know more about the animal and gives you that bond.”
Meanwhile, back at Lake Billy Chinook, Popp added that PGE has made more than $6 million worth of improvements at campgrounds, boat ramps and restrooms to make this destination more enjoyable.
But he noted that it’s the timeless qualities that people enjoy the most: ”it’s a chance to get away and re-connect with friends and family in a setting that takes the breath away:”
You’ll be coming back, too—to seek out some sheltered cove, set an anchor, and enjoy the ageless vistas across dazzling canyons. This lake has always had a special place in my heart. It makes me feel small in relation to life’s bigger natural story, a feeling I don’t get in many other places. Perhaps it’s a serene intimacy and mobility you’ll discover too when you enjoy a houseboating adventure on Lake Billy Chinook.