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Grant's Getaways: Deschutes Canyon bighorns

Grant McOmie takes us down a secret hideaway that may feel like a million miles away but is only two hours from Portland.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon’s backroads are the best! They can lead you down trails to secret hideaways, like the one that is less than two hours from Portland: Deschutes River Back Country Byway! It may feel a million miles away, but it’s where the action is to see the Deschutes River Byway bighorns.

At Lake Billy Chinook near Madras, Oregon, there is an age-old predator-prey game amid the timeless rimrock country this time of year. It’s a place where three rivers, called Metolius, Crooked and Deschutes, merge into a seven-mile-long watery playground.

Paul Patton said the lake has long been a drawing card for eagles, too. 

“You will see bald eagles and golden eagles in their daily routines," Patton said. "You never know what’s going to happen at one of the viewpoints and at Overlook Park.”

Less than an hour away at Maupin, Oregon, you can begin a unique journey along the Deschutes River for an exploration that provides a direct route to solitude on a gentle road that winds for more than forty miles.

The Lower Deschutes River Back Country Byway is surrounded by canyon walls that tower above lonesome boaters who own the river this time of year. Many of the columnar basalt cliffs reach hundreds of feet high and is where wildlife biologist Jeremy Thompson watches for movement among the rocks.

“In the sun, the bighorn sheep horns shine a bit yellow and I have heard them referred to as ‘bananas,’ so I am looking for bananas on the hillsides,” noted Thompson with a smile.

The Deschutes Byway hides bighorns, and it takes a keen eye to pick out the wild sheep that blend with the background so well. The females, called ewesgather in small herds, added Thompson.

“They are pretty gregarious and like to hang out together and you’ll find little groups of 10-12 generally throughout the fall and winter," he said.

On the other hand, Thompson added that the male big horn sheep, called rams, are more solitary.

“All bighorns have horns, but the ewes typically don’t get over 6-7 inches long and once a ram gets to more than a year old, his horns are much bigger," Thompson said. "In fact, as the ram grows older, you will see the horns curling way back and are much bigger at the base.”

Oregon’s bighorn sheep went extinct in the 1940s due to over-hunting and disease but successful re-introduction programs began in the early 1990s. Now, the Deschutes River Canyon big horn population reaches nearly 600.

If you wish to travel to the Deschutes and watch for big horns, dress warm, don’t forget binoculars and most of all, bring patience.

“Many people will travel the byway, stop and look and not see them,” said Thompson. ”If you just sit down and watch and look closely at some of these bigger cliff complexes, eventually they will see them. They are there!”

I feel a child-like wonder when visiting places like this, where the geology has worn so well on the landscape’s sleeve. That is especially true early in the morning or late in the day. In fact, on a clear day, when the sun dances across the cliff’s surfaces and shadows lengthen, there is a certain eeriness to the place. It is a drive that will set your clock back and you will be the better for it too.

Be sure to follow my Oregon adventures via the new Grant’s Getaways Podcast as I relate behind the scenes stories from nearly four decades of television reporting.

You can also learn more about many of our favorite Oregon travels and adventures in the Grant’s Getaways book series, including “Grant’s Getaways: 101 Oregon Adventures,” “Grant’s Getaways: Guide to Wildlife Watching in Oregon,” and Grant’s Getaways: Oregon Adventures with the Kids.” The collection offers hundreds of outdoor activities across Oregon and promise to engage a kid of any age.

My next book, “Grant’s Getaways: Another 101 Oregon Adventures” will be published in 2022.