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Hike above Oregon reservoir offers memorable rewards

While fishing and boating at Lake Billy Chinook over the past few years, I have often glanced up at the steep, rugged canyon walls that line the reservoir and wondered whether there was a way to reach the tops of those cliffs and explore the terrain there.

Turns out, a well-trodden path offers hikers the opportunity to do just that.

The 7-mile Tam-a-lau Trail loop hike features a mile-long climb to the top of a lava plateau called the Peninsula, which separates the Deschutes River and Crooked River arms of Lake Billy Chinook. Hikers are treated to bird's-eye views of the reservoir and the dramatic cliffs and plateaus that line the water.

About an hour's drive north of Bend, Lake Billy Chinook is mostly known as a year-round fishing destination and a buzzing watersports locale in the summer.

But this time of year, it's so quiet you can hear the birds. And while many other hiking trails in Central Oregon are still covered in snow, the Tam-a-lau offers a dry alternative in late winter and early spring.

The hike starts at the Cove Palisades State Park Upper Deschutes Trailhead. According to an informational kiosk at the trailhead, Tam-a-lau is a Native American phrase meaning "place of big rocks on the ground." Indeed, large, smooth boulders line the trail at the start of the trek.

The trail — restricted to hikers only — climbs about 600 feet in the first mile along several switchbacks to the top of the plateau. The ascent is not terribly strenuous, but I definitely felt it in my calves as I started out on the mild, high-overcast day.

After I climbed maybe just 200 feet, the Deschutes arm of Lake Billy Chinook and snow-covered Mount Jefferson popped into view. I continued up the switchbacks, stopping every so often to take in the sprawling vistas.

Once at the top of the rim, I stayed left to start the 5-mile loop that follows the plateau around the edge of the cliff. The plateau features sagebrush, rabbitbrush and juniper trees.

According to the trailhead kiosk, the rimrock basalt near the tops of the canyon rims was formed when lava erupted from the Cascades and the land around the area was gradually uplifted. The uplift caused the three rivers that form Lake Billy Chinook — the Crooked, Deschutes and Metolius — to flow faster and erode deep channels that formed the canyons.

At the tip of the Peninsula, I had a view of a smaller plateau known as the Island, which further separates the Deschutes and Crooked river arms. According to oregonhikers.org, the Island is now protected and has been off-limits to hikers since 1997.

To continue on the loop, I stayed left along the trail close to the rim, and soon the Crooked River arm came into view far below. I looked down on the bridge I had driven across to reach the trailhead, and I watched as hawks soared along the canyon wall hundreds of feet below.

Soon thereafter the flat trail turned right and took me back across the plateau through a small juniper forest. The sun burned through the high clouds and suddenly, it seemed, the plateau was exploding with bird life.

A woodpecker, heard but not seen, hacked away at a nearby juniper. Two small gray birds fluttered across the trail right in front of me, and a bright blue bird flew by, then perched itself atop a bare tree.

Eventually I completed the loop and made my way back down the canyon the way I had come. I required about 3½ hours to complete the hike, and I was tired but not exhausted by the end.

And the tops of those unique canyon walls were no longer a mystery.

This photo shows the tip of the Peninsula, which separates the Deschutes River arm, left, of Lake Billy Chinook from the Crooked River arm, right. The 7-mile Tam-a-l·u Trail loop features a mile-long climb to the top of a lava plateau. Mark Morical / The Bulletin via AP