Deschutes River

In the early 1800s, the Deschutes River was known by French fur traders as the "Riviere des Chutes" or "Riviere aux Chutes" - the "river of falls." The Deschutes River is now known throughout the United States as a river for fishing, canoeing, rafting, hiking, and beautiful scenery. Along with this natural allure the river also shares a rich history and importance to Central Oregon.

Check the Float Guide for a description of the Deschutes's roller coaster. But don't stop - understanding the history, geology and wildlife along the river will enrich your trip.

Float Guide

The Deschutes River meanders 87.4 miles from Little Lava Lake to Bend, with releases at Crane Prairie, Wickiup and Crescent Lake dams regulating the flow. The reservoirs were built to supply irrigation water for agriculture. River flow has been regulated since 1922, but it is still a river of contrasts, changing in character from Class I to Class IV rapids within a few hundred yards.

The 53 mile stretch from Wickiup Dam to Bend is a fabulous stretch of whitewater for the serious rafter. Over this length, you will float some calm waters, but you will also hit some Class 5 rapids that test the skills of experts and some difficult lava-crossing portages that sap the endurance of even the most fit. There are plenty of intermediate routes, however, which offer less risky thrills. Below are highlights of the float which can help you plan an itinerary appropriate to your time and expertise. If you want professional assistance, three commercial rafting guides run the stretch from aspen Camp to Lava Island.

Upstream from Bend are opportunities for innertubing and canoeing, with some powerboats thrown in.

Remember that although the river has stretches of calm water, it is hazardous. Observing safety guidelines merely reduces the risk, it doesn't eliminate it."If in doubt, scout it out" may sound like a cliche, but it is an excellent rule for water safety. Wear a Coast Guard approved personal flotation device when on the river and wear or carry other equipment appropriate to the segment of the river. Know where the major rapids are located on the river. Expect to portage around several log jams and major (Class lV-VI) rapids.

Class III rapids and snags
About 25 mi./38 km
COMMENTS: Not recommended for rafting

Overall Class I. Pringle Falls is Class Ill for approximately 200yards followed by 200 yards of Class IV and V water. Running these falls is extremely dangerous.
RIVER LENGTH: 8.4 mi./13.4km
Tenino Ramp or Bull Bend
TAKE OUT: Wyeth. You must take out here. No landing between Wyeth and Pringle Falls. Intermediate Take Out: Bull Bend.

Overall Class I. There is a 159 yard portage at Tetherow logjam.
RIVER LENGTH: 3.9 mi./6.2 km.
PUT IN: Pringle Falls.
TAKE OUT: Right bank just above Tetherow Logjam.

Overall Class I. Benham Falls is a series of Class IV rapids and Class VI falls. Running these falls is extremely dangerous.
RIVER LENGTH: 31.1 mi./49.7 km.
PUT IN:  Tetherow Logjam boot-ramp.
TAKE OUT: Benham Falls day use site boatramp. There is a dangerous logjam and rapids downstream. There is a 1 mile portage trail on the west side of the river from Benham Falls foot bridge to below the Falls.
INTERMEDIATE PUT IN/TAKE OUT: Big River, LaPine State Park, Harper's Bridge, Besson Camp.

Class Ill & IV from Benham Falls Viewpoint to Slough Camp. Class I from Slough Camp to Dillon Falls. Dillon Falls consists of a 15-foot Class VI drop followed by Class V rapids. Running these falls is extremely dangerous.
RIVER LENGTH: 2.4 mi./3.8 km.
PUT IN: Benham Falls Viewpoint.
TAKE OUT: Dillon Falls. Dangerous water below Dillon Falls. One mile portage around the Falls on west side of river.

Overall Class II and III. Class II to Big Eddy, Big Eddy Class IV with Class Ill below Big Eddy. Take Out on left bank to scout Big Eddy. Do not continue unless you are an experienced boater and have a whitewater canoe, kayak, or raft. Length of portage at Big Eddy, 300 yards.
RIVER LENGTH: 2.7 mi./4.3 km.
One mile north of Dillon Falls campground.
TAKE OUT: Lava Island Falls.
INTERMEDIATE PUT IN/TAKE OUT: Aspen Camp, Big Eddy. Length of portage at Lava Island is long and not recommended.

LAVA ISLAND-City of Bend
Class VI. Lava Island Falls is a continuous Class lV-Vl rapids for 1/2 mile followed by mostly Class VI interspersed by lesser rapids. Not recommended for floating.
RIVER LENGTH: 4.6 mi./6.9 km.
COMMENTS: The portage over the falls is over one mile of lava, brush and hills. It is likely this portage would result in personal injury. Portages are difficult with lava, brush and few trails.


Life along the Deschutes River can be traced back 9,000 years. The Lava Island Rockshelter provides a rare glimpse of the area's early inhabitants, who apparently made yearly hunting and gathering forays from as far away as the Great Basin valleys to the east. The climate was cooler then and more moist, which produced ample forage for large game animals.

Central Oregon was a dramatically less desirable place 7,000 years ago. The harsh climate was intensely hot and dry, a situation compounded by violent eruptions from Mount Mazama (present day Crater Lake) and Mount Newberry. The eruptions left an 8- to 10-foot blanket of ash and pumice, which led to the temporary abandonment much of the Central Oregon region in favor of areas with more water. Lava Butte, ii miles south of Bend, is the site of more recent volcanic activity that influenced prehistoric inhabitants. Indian groups in time adapted to life on the Central Oregon"high desert" .

About 5,000 years ago the area's climate started to cool and the eruptive activity began to taper off. The Native people returned to gathering and preparing an amazing variety of foods from wild plants and from hunting and fishing. They also developed an elaborate weaving industry, producing beautiful baskets. Lava Island Rock shelter and other campsites along the river attest to the success of their lifestyle and their close relationship with nature.

The hunting-gathering lifestyle remained substantially unchanged until contact with early settlers and trappers in the 1800s.

In 1826, Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson's Bay Company crossed the lower Deschutes River near Warm Springs and later visited Newberry Crater. (See map). After Ogden, a variety of other explorers and trappers arrived, most of them involved in the fur trade. Notable among those who left journals of their visits were John C. Fremont and Kit Carson.

Immigrant wagon trains headed for Oregon Territory soon followed. Traces of their journeys still exist on the Forest. From the mid-1800s on, there was considerable travel by wagon throughout the Deschutes region. Major settlements of the Bend area occurred in the early 1900s, about the time lumber companies were established. The upper Deschutes River provided power and water for early sawmills, and today farmers andranchers depend on water from the river to irrigate and develop land. Much of Central Oregon's grass seed, hay, and other agricultural products depend on water from the river, as do many residents.


Originating at Little Lava Lake, the river flows 87.4 miles through the Deschutes National Forest to the City of Bend. It joins the Columbia River upstream from The Dalles, Oregon. The river stretches for a total length of 252.2 miles. Most of the upper flow of the Deschutes River is through public land, although portions flow past private holdings.

From Wickiup Reservoir to Benham Falls, the Deschutes River flows through sediments left by ancient lakes and streams. The river has been dammed many times by lava flows and lava domes in the Benham Falls/Lava Butte area. The river now cuts through a lava dome at Benham Falls.

The excellent rafting on the upper Deschutes River below Benham Falls is attributed to a lava flow 6.200 years ago. The lava poured out of Lava Butte (the site of the Lava Lands Visitors Center), spilling into the Deschutes River in five places (see map). The flow dammed and narrowed the river channel, creating thunderous. cascading rapids at each point. Behind each lava dam, the water backed up into smoother sections of river. At Dillon Falls the river cascades over an old fault scarp. Lava dams from Lava Butte create alternating sections of smooth water and whitewater rapids.

Erosion in past centuries has reduced the violence of the rapids so that three of the five lava outcrops are now safe for rafting. Whitewater raft trips usually begin above the fourth lava flow dam and end above the fifth dam (Lava Island Falls).


Water in this relatively dry Forest (8 to 25 inches of annual precipitation) attracts a variety of wildlife. Bald eagles and osprey dive from the air to pluck fish from the river. Both are seen often in the summer. Great blue herons stalk the riverbanks hunting frogs. crayfish or small fish.

Waterfowl commonly seen near the river's slack water include the common merganser diving for fish or crayfish; the mallard surfacing from feeding on underwater plants; the belted kingfisher. recognized by its rattling call. diving headlong from the air into the river to forage on small fish.

Beaver. river otter. mule deer. an occasional Roosevelt elk. black bear. garter snakes. and numerous lizards. frogs and toads also inhabit forested areas along the river. The elk often move downstream to sites near Bend in hard years.

Game fish in this segment of the river include rainbow trout, brown trout, and mountain whitefish. Common insects associated with aquatic environment include mayflies, stoneflies, and the caddis fly - all important food sources for fish. Water striders. whirligig beetles, midges, and mosquitoes are abundant along the river all summer. Areas near water are important to all wildlife.

More Recreation

Recreation opportunities the river are a mixture of placid and quiet or tumultuous and energizing. The experience is an individual one. Choices are avail-able. Two distinct zones intermingle on the river's journey from Little Lava Lake to Bend. There is a mixture of"quiet" zones and areas where life is more intense. The more "intense" recreation areas include developed campgrounds and favorite rafting and picnicking sites. Quieter areas have no trails, limited road access or raftable water.

Visitors can canoe, raft, fish or ride mountain bikes for a bit of a workout. They can also go birding, go on a picnic. walk the dog or photograph their favorite flower or friends. Some activities blend a bit of both worlds. There are some places along or near the river that are special all visitors: Benham Falls, Cascade Lakes Highway, Lava Lands, and the High Desert Museum. Most are free. and all of them are fun. Canoe rentals and guided raft trips are available in the Bend and Sunriver areas. Check the Yellow Pages.

Deschutes River recreation opportunities include more than just canoeing, rafting or fishing. although those activities are among the most popular. Nearly anywhere along the river there are quiet camping spots or sites for picnicking. There are 14 National Forest campgrounds. in addition to the LaPine State Recreation Area. Most National Forest sites have no fees. The State Park has nominal fees. There are also private facilities where a nominal fee is charged for overnight use. The National Forest campgrounds are without garbage service or domestic water.

Trails are being developed for hiking, biking and horseback riding. Recreationists can obtain more information at Forest Service offices. Please keep soil undamaged and wildlife undisturbed.

There are many access points along the Des-chutes River. Although 20 percent of the river flows through private land, visitors can float or canoe through those sections but stopping on private land may not be permitted. In general, most campgrounds and day-use areas have launch sites or portage trails that allow public access to the river. When floating the river, please respect the rights of private land owners and others.

Hunting and fishing seasons and bag limits change annually in Oregon. Check at the nearest Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife office, or at any sporting goods store, for current information. Remember that all rivers - not just the Deschutes - are an American heritage to be jealously guarded, just as we guard our Constitution. An individual responsibility is involved. If not you, then who will take care of the Deschutes River?

Special Feature
Deschutes River Trout - Strong fighters in central Oregon.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 23 Oct 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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