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Glaciated Headwaters of the Little Deschutes River

It’s hard to believe that 18,000 years ago a gigantic ice cap covered the Cascade Range, up to 2,000’ thick and 170 miles long. Glaciers filled nearly every canyon with moving ice, sculpting the landscape. Much evidence of this glaciation is lost to erosion and volcanic activity, but is still well-preserved today in the headwaters of the Little Deschutes River. Here one finds a classic U-shaped canyon, 1,500’ deep with moraines and a meandering stream, easily explored on a 2-mile trail (one way) and cross-country forays.

Glaciation of the Little Deschutes Canyon
The Ice Age saw numerous glacial advances and retreats, but the maximum extent of glaciation in the Cascades is thought to have occurred about 18,000 years ago (see map below). As the climate cooled, winter snows high on the slopes stayed a little longer each spring. Soon the snows did not melt during the summer, but remained
Map of Maximum Extent of Glaciation
buried by the next winter’s snows. In this way, ice and snow accumulated on the high peaks, with the weight of the new snow producing dense, granular glacial ice. This dense ice began to flow imperceptibly down the mountain slopes, carving out deep, U-shaped canyons in the underlying bedrock.

In much of the Cascade Range, the underlying bedrock was soft volcanic rock, which has been easily eroded in the intervening years, erasing or softening the glacial features. However, the Little Deschutes Canyon was carved from hard basalt that has fully preserved its glacial past. Today in the headwaters, one finds a 1500’-deep, U-shaped canyon with steep walls, terminal and lateral moraines, and an uncommonly flat valley floor created by the meandering Little Deschutes River. In fact, this glaciated canyon is known as the deepest and longest on the east flank of the Oregon Cascades.

About 12 miles of the Little Deschutes Canyon is designated as a Wild and Scenic River, with 3 miles within the Oregon Cascades Recreation Area (which includes the access road), and another 4 miles of the canyon protected within the Mt. Thielsen Wilderness Area (which includes the 2-mile hiking trail).

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Hiking the Little Deschutes Canyon
The trailhead is about a 40-minute, 14-mile drive from Hwy 58, with the first 7 miles on a paved/chip-sealed road to a rural subdivision, and the last 7 miles on a narrow, dirt track through the forest (see Road Map download below). The entire route is passable by any passenger car when dry, though the last 2 miles before the trailhead is a bit bumpy and slow going, with care.

On the drive into the canyon, just 2.5 miles past the rural subdivision, where the road makes a sweeping turn to the right (west) and climbs uphill, a point of interest is the terminal moraine of the glacier.
View of Basalt Palisades
In fact, the access road passes right over the top of this terminal moraine, a low mound that marks the maximum limit of the glacial advance down the canyon. This wide ridge of glacial debris (rocks and soil) was pushed forward by the leading edge of the glacier and then deposited here as the ice melted and retreated back up the canyon.

At the signed trailhead, the trail starts west in a mixed forest of fir and lodgepole pine (see Trail Map download below). For the first mile, the easily-followed route wanders across the flat canyon floor, through open mature stands of lodgepole pine, with occasional picturesque views of basalt palisades above the north canyon wall. For the second mile, the trail climbs onto an old lateral moraine of the glacier, then continues west on a level grade, crossing several small gulches. The Little Deschutes River corridor here is never more than a 100-yard cross-country trek south through the trees.

View of North Canyon Rim
At 2.0 miles, the trail descends into a deep gulch and crosses perennial Burn Creek. The open meadows just past this creek, with views south across the canyon, can make a good hike and lunch destination. For even better views (and possible elk sightings, if stealthy), one can backtrack down the trail for several hundred yards and make cross-country explorations south through the trees into the big open meadows toward the river. These meadows offer panoramic views of the surrounding canyon walls, and some feature mossy fens (peat wetlands) with unique wildflowers in summer.

In sum, the trail is a pleasant 2-mile hike through the pines, but many of the best features of this special canyon — the great views, the river, the meadows and the fens — are found just off the trail, in short cross-county explorations down into the riparian corridor.

Download (PDF, 670 KB): Photos of Little Deschutes Canyon Hike
Download (PDF, 681 KB): Road Map for Little Deschutes Canyon Hike
Download (PDF, 361 KB): Trail Map for Little Deschutes Canyon Hike

DISCLAIMER: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this information, but the authors do not guarantee that it is either current or correct. The reader assumes full responsibility for any use of this information, and is encouraged to exercise all due caution while recreating.

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