If you’re traveling through Central Oregon, and not actually looking for it, it’s easy to miss Cove Palisades State Park. Located at the confluence of three major rivers—the Deschutes, the Metolius, and the Crooked—within a deep, sheer-walled canyon, this remote park lies hidden between sprawling farmlands and the east slope of Oregon’s central Cascades. The park is approximately 10 miles southwest of Madras, and 40 miles north of Bend, and provides year-round outdoor recreation in an unexpectedly scenic landscape within Oregon’s high desert grassland.
Resembling a scene more akin to the American Southwest, the centerpiece of Cove Palisades is an 500-foot-deep canyon of basalt cliffs and juniper plateaus surrounding the wide, calm waters of Lake Billy Chinoook. Park visitors have access to two campgrounds, three day-use areas, a group camp, and a resort and marina. The main draw is, justifiably, the lake, and all the fishing, boating, paddling and swimming opportunities it has to offer. The cliff views from water level are rather stunning. But there are also 10 miles of hiking trails, numerous viewpoints, and Native American petroglyphs to see, for a variety of outdoor activities to choose from.
6 Tips for Camping at Cove Palisades State Park
Not sure how to start planning your trip to Cove Palisades? Here’s some advice from The Dyrt’s campers on when to go, and what to do.
1. Camping is not on the lake
While Lake Billy Chinook is the focal point of Cove Palisades, the campgrounds are not located right on the lakeshore. This is because most of the canyon’s steep walls extend right to the water, and don’t provide much of a shore—part of what makes the lake so strikingly scenic. The Crooked River Campground (open Feb. to Dec.) is located just inside the park, on the east rim of the Crooked canyon. The Deschutes Campground (open May to Sep.) is located between the Deschutes and Crooked canyons, below the Tam-a-Láu plateau.
The Crooked River Campground has 88 tent and RV sites with electrical hookups; the Deschutes Campground has 91 tent sites and 82 full-hookup RV sites. All campsites have picnic tables, fire pits, and access to water. Both campgrounds have flush toilets, showers, and fenced off-leash areas. A dump station is located near the Crooked River site. To access the lake, trailheads, and day-use areas from the Crooked River site, it’s just a short drive into the canyon on SW Jordan Road. From the Deschutes site, a 0.5-mile trail leads to the Lower Deschutes day-use areas; the other lake access locations are just a few minutes’ drive away.
“The canyon surrounding the campground and Lake Billy Chinook is stunningly beautiful, but the cliffs can’t be seen from the campground. The lake is a only short hike or drive away.” —The Dyrt camper Rhiannon S.
2. Visit during the off-season
During the height of summer, Cove Palisades is often at its busiest—and hottest. It’s not unusual for Central Oregon’s daytime temps to skyrocket into the sweltering triple digits, which makes the cool waters of Lake Billy Chinook even more refreshing. But that’s just what everyone else is thinking, too. This is when it might be more challenging to secure a campsite, the day-use areas are overflowing with summer visitors, and the lake is crowded with boat traffic. Thankfully, summer is not the only time to visit.
Spring and fall are delightful times to visit Cove Palisades. The daytime temps are milder and more comfortable, and summer crowds have not reached their peak, or are waning post-season. This makes getting a campsite a bit easier—even at the last minute—and gives you more room on the lake for fishing and paddling. It also makes hiking the park’s trails much more comfortable, when you don’t have the midsummer sun beating directly down on you. It’s even worth visiting in winter, when the canyon can take on a magical appearance when the cliffs are dusted with snow.
“For early Spring, it was a great option and felt like a vacation from the wetter parts of the state. Despite the warmth during the day, it did still get very chilly at night though, so come prepared.” —The Dyrt camper Raphaela H.
3. Take a guided kayak tour
The best way to see, and fully appreciate, the dramatic landscape of Cove Palisades State Park is from the water. The park offers guided, interpretive kayak tours up the Deschutes River portion of the canyon where the basalt cliffs vault upwards of 800 feet overhead. During your tour, your guide will describe the canyon’s natural history, as well as highlight some of the area’s flora and fauna. Tours are available on Fridays and Saturdays, and launch from the Upper Deschutes day-use area. Cost is $25 for a single kayak and $40 for a double. Trips last from two to three hours; check website for tour schedule.
If you can’t make it on a guided lake tour, you can always rent or put in your own kayak, SUP or canoe and paddle around the lake and rivers on your own. Boat launches are available at all three day-use areas. The 6-mile Crooked River Water Trail starts near the resort and marina and heads south, upstream, into ever-narrower, steeper canyon. Under the water’s surface, you may be able to see an old homestead, a peach orchard, and the park’s original campground. These were all submerged with the construction of the Round Butte Dam, which created Lake Billy Chinook.
“They had ranger programs in the early summer that were quite nice. Make sure to pay the little extra for a guided kayak tour!” —The Dyrt camper Irene L.
4. Hit the trails for great views
Cove Palisades State Park has nearly 10 miles of trails for exploring the canyon and grasslands. Many of these offer spectacular views over the canyons, rivers and lake, even as far as Mount Jefferson. The park’s longest route, the Tam-a-Láu Trail, climbs a switchbacking path up the wall of the canyon to a wide-open plateau of native grasses, wild juniper, and giant boulders. This is appropriate, since tam-a-láu means “place of big rocks.” The flat walk around the plateau offers sweeping views over the canyons, and a birds-eye look at The Island, a 200-acre lava plateau that serves as habitat for local and migratory raptors. The round-trip is 6 miles from the Deschutes Campground, and 7 miles from the Upper Deschutes day-use area.
If it’s too hot, or you don’t feel like making a big climb, the 2-mile Crooked River Rim Trail starts near the Crooked River Campground and follows a portion of the canyon’s east rim. This trail offers views of the river, The Island, and a geologic formation called The Ship. Nearby, the 0.25-mile Wetland Nature Trail explores a restored habitat for deer, rabbits, raptors and butterflies. And don’t miss the short walk from the Deschutes Campground to see the Crooked River Petroglyph. Whether you’re going for a long hike or a short hike, bring plenty of water, wear sunscreen and watch out for rattlesnakes.
“With a 1 mile, 600-foot elevation gain, you find yourself up on the rim with about 3.5 miles of trail overlooking Lake Billy Chinook and The Island. —The Dyrt camper Jill R.
5. Attend the Eagle Watch Festival
Grab your warm jacket and binoculars and head to Cove Palisades in late winter for the annual Eagle Watch Festival. This two-day, family-friendly event celebrates the park’s resident and migratory eagles, and their significance to the area and local culture. The park is known as one of Oregon’s best eagle habitats, so sightings are fairly common—with patience. Learn about eagles from local experts, build your own birdhouse or bird feeder, and watch demonstrations presented by local tribal groups.
If you can’t make it to Eagle Watch, the park hosts several other events through the year. Memorial Day weekend features a campground bike parade to celebrate the spring wildflower bloom. In summer, the nearby town of Culver hosts the annual Crawdad Festival, full of entertainment, food and games. There’s also a variety of nature and interpretive programs throughout the year. These highlight local wildlife, natural and cultural history, water safety and more. Summer programs are held at both campgrounds.
“Group campsite was awesome, on a ridge overlooking the lake. Very good ranger programs, and a nice outdoor amphitheater.” —The Dyrt camper Brian C.
6. Enjoy nearby activities
From your base at one of Cove Palisades’ campgrounds, there is plenty more to do and see in Central Oregon. Check out Peter Skene Ogden State Scenic Viewpoint, about 10 miles south of Culver. Here, two historic bridges (in addition to the current highway bridge) cross a deep and striking gorge on the Crooked River. Take a walk out onto the old highway bridge for a harrowing look down to the river, far below, then enjoy your lunch at the park’s picnic area. If you’re feeling particularly daring, you can even bungee jump off the bridge! You might want to do this before eating lunch.
A little farther south, Smith Rock State Park offers an extensive network of trails, and more than 1,000 climbing routes where you can scale some of Oregon’s world-class basalt walls. For a spectacular 360-degree view, hike the 1-mile Misery Ridge Trail to the top of Smith Rock. From this high perch, you can watch climbers on the park’s high walls—including the towering pillar Monkey Face—peer down on the Crooked River, and look out over Oregon’s Three Sisters mountains and Ochoco National Forest. Turn your hike into a loop by descending the Mesa Verde Trail and finishing with a pleasant romp on the River Trail.
“[T]he campground was very central to a lot of cool adventures. Bungee jumping at Peter Skene, rock climbing at Smith Rock, fishing and cliff jumping into the Deschutes River nearby.” —The Dyrt camper Darin D.
Now that you have the lowdown on Cove Palisades State Park, start planning your trip today. Want more info? The Dyrt has you covered.