Southbound out of The Dalles, Highway 197 turns up from the Columbia River, curving through the gently rolling terrain of the upper Columbia Gorge. Leaving the National Scenic Area at about milepost 3, you’ll see the landscape evolve from manicured fruit orchards to hardscrabble wheat farms. Mt. Hood rises to the west.
You’ll cross Five Mile Creek, then Eight Mile Creek and then Ten Mile—these are the highway markers of the past. Today it’s mileposts, and number 15 marks the entry to Dufur. If you have the time, stop in. If you don’t have the time, stop anyway.
In Dufur, stretch your legs and soak up a genuine country-fied Oregon community. Better yet, plan a stay at the Balch Hotel, where Jeff and Samantha Irwin recreated the feel of life in the old days. The red brick American Colonial eighteen-room inn harkens back to the days when life moved at the pace of the Great Southern Railroad, which ran from The Dalles to Friend, Oregon. “We’ve created a place where visitors can enjoy an intimate feeling,” says Jeff Irwin. “People come here to get a genuine pastoral experience within driving distance from Portland.”
History comes alive in Dufur. From May to September, see antiquity for yourself at the Living History Museum. Locals don the garb of pioneers and tell the tales of how some stopped here in the 1800s to stake their claim. Early settlers raised cattle and crops, but it’s wheat that dominates now. In mid-August, you can get a hands-on experience of what it was like during harvest time at the Dufur Threshing Bee, a wheat harvest done with horses and turn-of-the-century equipment.
About milepost 18, there’s a reminder that you’re traveling the same route as the pioneers on the historic Barlow Road. Pioneers rode this very path to traverse Mt. Hood into the Willamette Valley, paying Sam Barlow and his partners for the privilege of travelling their hand-hewn road. Traveling primarily uphill for eighteen miles, a sense of how difficult the journey was overcomes you. The summit, Tygh Ridge, is four miles up the road at 2,665 feet.
At milepost 34, explore the old Barlow Road Route to the west through Tygh Valley, where the adventurers of yore turned sharply west. Or continue on south through the lush farmland nurtured by the White River.
Wheat country fills the landscape farther south. Hued in vibrant green or amber waves of grain, it is a completely different view than you get on the other side of the mountain. The rural nature of the eastern foothills is much less congested— a provider for the world’s food basket.
At about milepost 44, you’ll arrive in Maupin, the river rafting capital of Central Oregon. In Maupin, it is hard to miss the Imperial River Company, High Desert River Outfitters, Deschutes River Adventures or the Sage Canyon River Company. Rafting the Deschutes from Maupin is a great way to get your adrenalin pumping on a hot summer day. The rapids, the eagles, the deer and a lot more make it a remarkable river experience.
A small town, Maupin looms large not only for Deschutes River rafters in the warmer months, but also for steelhead and redside fishermen when the bite is on. There are lots of rules about fishing the river near Maupin, so remember to check the ODFW regulations. Better yet, check in with one of the guide services that specialize in the Deschutes, including Deschutes Angler Fly Shop and Deschutes Canyon Fly Shop.
Southbound from Maupin, the highway continues its serpentine path to the top of the high plateau of Central Oregon.
A little-known great hike begins at about milepost 57. On the west side of the highway is a parking spot next to radio towers that pierce the sky. That’s about as much of a guidepost as you get. This is the old Criterion Ranch Trail. Mostly it follows power lines along an old ranch trail that turned into a firebreak during a wildfire in 2011. The trail ends at a remarkable overlook of the Deschutes River—the reward for your four-hour, eleven-mile hike.
Highway 197 may be a road less travelled, but that’s where surprise meets interesting experience.
1. Stay at the historic Balch Hotel in Dufur
2. Dufur Threshing Bee – Aug. 11-12, dufurthreshingbee.org
3. River rafting – late spring, summer, early fall
4. Steelhead/salmon/trout fishing – seasonal
5. Hike Criterion Trail – year-round, weather permitting
Heading out the old jeep road from the trailhead, it’s very flat and long. It follows the power lines for probably a mile and a half, and then the power lines turn sharp to the south. Follow out the old jeep road past two opened fences for about three miles and you’ll see where someone has set up two skulls. This fence line runs along the road and past the broken down trailer. You’ll want to take a hard left and head towards the Mutton Mountains. As you come over the crest, you’ll see a large grassy meadow. Just over the meadow is the rock outcropping that takes you to the canyon’s rim.
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