Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Tam-a-lau Trail

Last weekend, I left behind the lush green forests of the Columbia River Gorge for the barren high desert of Central Oregon.  I rendezvoused with my brother Dale and his family for our annual Memorial Day camping trip at the Cove Palisades State Park.

Size matters!  Click on any photo to enjoy a larger view.

The trail beckons...

Roger loves the Cove Palisades for its fabulous boating and fishing.   As you well know, I enjoy hiking, and - lucky for me - this park has the most wonderful path - the Tam-a-lau Trail.

Lake Billy Chinook and the Island

The Tam-a-lau trail takes its visitors up the side of a canyon, past unusual geologic formations, to the top of a large flat mesa (nicknamed "the Peninsula"). From this vantage high atop the canyon walls, views of Cascade peaks, from Mt. Hood to the Three Sisters line the horizon. Hikers are also rewarded with a perspective of Lake Billy Chinook from on high, which in itself makes for some jaw-dropping scenery. A 3.6-mile loop on top of the mesa, provides views of this lake from many different angles.  Over the years, my family has visited this park numerous times, and I've made many treks up the Tam-a-lau's dusty trail.

Steep cliffs on the Deschutes arm of the lake

I began this year's hike the sunny morning after our arrival to the park.  On a photography mission, I was hoping to catch some early light over the lake.  The trailhead, a short walk from our campsite, began in a scruffy juniper forest.  The path immediately launched itself uphill, switchbacking along the canyon wall.

Bear silhouetted against the sky

I chugged and puffed, ascending through the sparse juniper and sagebrush forest. Some of the years I've visited, the flowers bloom thick here. However, not this time - floral numbers were way down. The few blooms that remained looked way past their prime. Some scraggly balsamroot and lupine lingered down low, but they were nothing to write home about (or photograph).


The lake in all its glory

The big draw to the Cove Palisades is Lake Billy Chinook, an enormous three-armed body of water created by damming the Metolius, Crooked, and Deschutes Rivers. Over the years, erosion from these swift rivers has cut through soft sedimentary rock deposits, creating beautiful layered canyons. These steep cliffs that now tower above the lake shores form the centerpiece of the park's breathtaking scenery.

Bright little balsamroot

It didn't take much climbing before the shining blue waters of Lake Billy Chinook's Deschutes arm appeared.  The sparse trees and lack of undergrowth made for many lake view opportunities on the way up.


The Three Sisters rise up from the desert

Although it was a steep climb, the numerous viewpoints gave me an excuse to stop and take photos (and maybe catch a breather or two!)


The desert bushes were in bloom

The Tam-a-lau takes visitors through some interesting geologic sights, including an area of huge, truck-sized boulders, just sitting alongside the trail.  How these gigantic rocks got there is a mystery. They look very much out of place.  The trail also passes by a steep cliff, where some small caves have been eroded into the hillside.

Cool clouds over the lake

The Cove Palisades has a fascinating geologic history.  The layered canyons were created by ancient lava flows.  These lava flows formed the Cascade mountains and also caused land to sink in this area.  Rivers sought the lower elevations, and deposited layers of sediment.  These sediment bands were interrupted by deposits of ash and lava from occasional volcanic activities.  A final large volcanic eruption created a thick basalt cap, the canyon's rimrock.


Interesting volcanic rocks

After a mile of distance and 600 feet of elevation gain, I reached the Peninsula's rim.  Views from the mesa's top were glorious indeed.  Mt. Jefferson loomed gleaming white across the canyon.  The Three Sisters and Black Butte appeared in the western horizon.  Even a fuzzy Mt. Hood could be spotted faintly to the north.  Lake Billy Chinook spread out below, lined by its amazing cliff walls.

Lake panorama from on top

I hiked along the canyon rim, stopping frequently to snap image after image of the lake.  Two varieties of small yellow flowers were blooming, and these, along with the brilliant lime-green sagebrush bushes, made a nice contrast to the blue lake and reddish brown canyons below.

These flowers brightened up the trail

I hiked about a half mile or so down this trail when I began to get hungry.  In my haste to get up here early, I neglected to eat much for breakfast and was now paying for it.  Usually I'll at least hike the mile to the tip of the Peninsula (for its super-incredible views) and come back.  But my tummy wielded its power, and managed to persuade me to cut my hike short.

The boats look like small dots

No matter, the day was getting warm, and my memory card was beginning to fill.  I told myself I'd come back up here in the evening to catch the sunset (which sadly didn't happen - too many distractions at camp).  I enjoyed a quick trip back down the trail, seeing the lake from another interesting perspective as I descended.

Heading back down

Now with my annual Tam-a-lau visit complete, there's nothing more to do than to enjoy the photographs.  And I hope you have.  It's easy to see why this picturesque setting makes the Cove Palisades the most popular state park in Oregon.

But I'm not done yet - I've got more photos and stories up my sleeve!  Stay tuned for Part two of my Central Oregon Memorial Day camping adventure.


  1. Kinda sorta like a Grand Canyon before it's all growed up :)

    What gorgeous landscape!

  2. That was really interesting. It's very possible that those huge, out of place rocks, got thrown there from a volcanic eruption. Have you ever hiked any part of the PCT?

  3. Interesting looking place- great picture of Bear

  4. Beautiful place. I love your hiking stories and places you go


Don't be shy! Please leave a comment.