Alder Springs — a lush oasis in Oregon's high desert

A hike to this garden spot near Sisters offers solitude, lessons in desert ecology
Dramatic buttes and multicolored rock formations are one of the treats of the hike to Alder Springs in Central Oregon's high desert.Steve Dieffenbacher

We're on the cutting edge of summer now, the weather drifting toward the season of heat despite a cool, rainy May and early June. Every spring this transitional phase, with its first hint of dry air, makes me long for the desert.

Like Marcel Proust, who in "Remembrance of Things Past" was flooded with childhood memories by the simple smell and taste of a madeleine cookie, a few breaths of sun-warmed air take me back to expanses of sage, bunchgrass and juniper.

How to get there

Although you can get to the Alder Springs Trail in a regular car as I did, I'd recommend a four-wheel drive vehicle instead. From Sisters take Highway 20 to the edge of town, and fork left on Highway 26 toward Redmond for 4.6 miles. Then turn left on paved Goodrich Road for 8.1 miles. The road zigzags, changing names several times, but just keep going. At a marker for milepost 7, turn left on gravel road 6360 and go through a green gate. Follow the road for 4.1 miles, turn right at an "Alder Springs" pointer and take the rough track for 0.8 mile to the turnaround and primitive parking area. There is no bathroom. There is no water either, so bring lots of your own. For more on the hike, see William L. Sullivan's "100 Hikes in the Central Oregon Cascades."

I couldn't hike in the desert this spring because of blood clots in my lungs (see my May 13 column), but there's solace in remembering one of my best hikes there last year.

Last June at about this time, I was walking toward Alder Springs in Central Oregon, an outing that had everything I go to the desert for — distant horizons, clear calls of dryland birds and solitude — all of it within only 20 miles of Sisters.

The worst part of the experience was the drive to the trailhead (see the accompanying box for directions), but once you get there you are on a rimrock plateau with views of Black Butte, Mount Washington and the North Sister, and that's only a taste of what's to come.

Down the trail are lessons in high-desert ecology before you reach a lush natural garden along Whycus Creek. Past the gravel parking lot on the plateau, the trail begins a slow descent through junipers for a few hundred yards to a junction where you can go steeply left downhill for a 0.4-mile side trip to view several stick-figure pictographs. The red pictographs are about 40 feet downstream at the base of a cliff along Whycus Creek, which means "place to cross the water" in Sahaptin.

You won't want to try crossing the water there, though, but should return to the main trail and continue for another 1.2 miles. This stretch and what lies beyond are what you've come most to see. In June, the desert uplands above the creek brim with wildflowers — blue violets, desert yellow daisies, threadleaf daisies and the ubiquitous goldenweeds scattered among the sagebrush and bunchgrass.

After reaching a high point where lush bunchgrass ascends a slope on your right and flowers spread below on your left, you finally descend toward the creek. You'll soon see striped cliffs on your right, their palette of pale yellows, ambers, rust reds and chocolate browns drawing you down. By now, the sounds of water and appearance of deeper greenery will be calling insistently.

After descending through a series of buttes, you turn a corner into a rich garden spot of wild rosebushes, grass and ponderosa pines beside the creek, flush with spring runoff. Although the stream normally is only about knee-deep this time of year, on the day I took this hike last year, the only way to ford it and reach Alder Springs on the other side was by using a tie-line strung across. With this year's even rainier spring, the crossing could be more challenging. If you decide not to risk it, the near side of the creek is as good a place for lunch as the fields beyond, in my opinion.

But if you do cross, wanting to explore further, the trail goes another 1.6 miles to the unfordable Deschutes River where dramatic multicolored palisades slice into the canyon.

With the pictograph detour and a turnarund at Alder Springs, the hike is just 3.6 miles round trip. If you go all the way to the Deschutes and back, it's almost five miles.

Either way, this is when the desert is at its most inviting — its air still relatively cool, its creeks running green and full, its bluffs carpeted with wildflowers. As I discovered, and Proust did before me, you can store these renewing memories for years to be summoned later as a balm for body and spirit when you most need them.

Steve Dieffenbacher is a Mail Tribune page designer/copy editor. You can reach him at 776-4498 or

Reader Reaction
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Rules. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or fill out this form. New comments are only accepted for two weeks from the date of publication.