The straight truth: Crooked River Gorge is awesome

Some trails are difficult, some less so, but all lead to solitude, beauty

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photoMason Morical, 5, checks out the view of the Crooked River Gorge from the Opal Canyon Trail on Jan. 3 in Jefferson, Ore. The Crooked River Gorge is a 300-foot-deep, 4-mile-long gorge that offers some of the most breathtaking desert scenery in Central Oregon.

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CROOKED RIVER RANCH, Ore. — A hike in the Central Oregon desert often requires some patience. It can take some time tromping through the sagebrush to reach the payoff. And sometimes the beauty of the desert is in the eye of the beholder.

But the Crooked River Gorge, I believe, would leave anyone mesmerized. The 300-foot-deep, 4-mile-long gorge offers some of the most breath- taking desert scenery in Central Oregon.

A relatively new trail system offers hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians a chance to explore the gorges carved over the centuries by both the Deschutes and Crooked rivers near Crooked River Ranch.

On a recent Friday, yet another sun-drenched winter day in Central Oregon, I made the drive with my 5-year-old son, Mason, to the western edge of Crooked River Ranch and the Otter Bench Trailhead.

We started out on the Lone Pine Trail to the northeast, which after just a quarter of a mile or so led us to the edge of the Crooked River Gorge. We decided to skip the steep switchback descent and head back to the trailhead.

From there, we took the Otter Bench Trail west. The ground was frozen, and we had to hike for about a mile before we exited the shade of the canyon wall and the sun shined on the trail.

The Otter Bench trail system is along the Crooked River, and the Steelhead Falls and Scout Camp trails on the Deschutes were completed and designated in 2010 by the Bureau of Land Management's Prineville District.

The trails — about 10 miles in all — include new sections and some reconstructed paths that anglers have hiked for decades to travel down the canyon walls and reach the rivers below.

"These are some of the best trails in the Central Oregon desert," Tom Mottl, recreation planner for the BLM Prineville District in 2010, told me that year when I first explored the trails. "Some of the most dramatic stuff you'll see. It's a totally different environment. If you're looking for canyon country in Central Oregon, this is it. It's a mini-Grand Canyon type of experience."

Mason and I needed to hike only about 2 miles to get that experience. After passing through juniper and sagebrush for about an hour, we arrived at the intersection of the Otter Bench, Pink and Opal Canyon trails.

When I hiked in this area in 2010, I took the Pink Trail, which led me along a precipitous path all the way down to the Crooked River.

With Mason along this time, I decided to take the Opal Canyon Trail — which turned out to be a wise decision. After just a short uphill hike, the trail emerged on a cliffside that offered breathtaking views of the deep, rugged canyon and the river far below.

Mason and I marveled at the desert scenery as we continued along the Opal Canyon Trail. We came across a mountain biker who was descending the rocky trail along the steep drop-off. (Mountain bikes are allowed on the Otter Bench and Opal Canyon trails.)

Some hiking paths in the trail system are moderately challenging, and some are difficult. No matter which trail hikers choose, Crooked River Ranch is a gateway to the solitude, and the stark beauty, of Central Oregon canyon country.