Cove Palisades State Park: What to Expect + Hiking Guide

by | Apr 27, 2017 | Adventures, Central Oregon, Hiking, Travel | 0 comments

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It's 2 am and I'm barely awake and trying to get the crust out of my eyes, tripping over my hiking pack and looking for the coffee pot in the dark. Finally, I have found it and I can get that sweet sweet caffeine in me to push me through the process of loading my car with my equipment, my hiking gear, and my dog. I can not forget my dog. I'm up early to head to The Cove Palisades State Park to catch the sunrise over Lake Billy Chinook and the beautiful Ridgeline of the park.

I have only lived in Oregon since September but I know I am trying to explore as much of this state as I can as often as I can. It's 2:44 and I'm finally in my car and it's warming up. Slowly. So very, very slowly. I plug my phone into the charged, connect the auxiliary cord,  place the phone in the windshield mount for hands free GPS viewing and slowly start backing out of my parking lot.

Wait. I'm forgetting something. My dog! I left him upstairs while I loaded the car. How could I forget my best friend?! I pull back in, run upstairs, open the door and there he is. Waiting by the door for me and right beside his leash. He knows I forgot but he understands, or at the very least he calms me and allows me to forget that I made a mistake and that everything is ok. Now that I have him we can head east! We take Highway 20 east and just keep going. At this time of the morning, there are very few cars on the road and even fewer once you get through the initial towns before the pass.

Cove Palisades State Park

We drive through Lebanon, passed Sweet Home, along Santiam River,  up Tombstone Pass, along side Three Fingered Jack and Mt Washington. The dark sky is turning a lighter shade of grey and you see less stars, more light, a slight uptick in cars passing by, and my nerves are wondering if I'll make it to the park in time to catch the sunrise.

This is my first trip there, or even going on this road. I make a few stops along the way for picture opportunities. I know not to take too long as I'm on a fairly strict schedule because the sun just isn't going to wait for me to show up. We had a conversation one time and he just wasn't interested in what I had to say, so at least I know where I stand with him - in his shadow. Ba-dum-tsh. (Because Oregon is always overcast)

Shortly after 6 I make it to Sisters and realize I need gas. The sun is for sure coming up soon as I can see blue starting to appear in the sky, so when I pull into the gas station I ask the attendant where the best place in town to catch the sunrise is. He seemed to ponder the question for a moment and then looked me right in the eyes and said "I don't know man, usually where ever I'm standing." What a useless answer. I thank him for contributing absolutely nothing and take off toward Redmond once he shuts my gas cap. By this time it's about 630 and I'm starting to wonder if I'll make it. I know I need to be present in the moment and enjoy what I'm actively doing but a lot of thought and effort has gone into making this specific event happen and I am not trying to disappoint myself.

Exploring Cove Palisades State Park

Cove Palisades State Park

I finally reach the park just after 7 and I'm not certain where I want to set my vantage point at as I've never been here before, so I just drive through the park looking for where I want to set up at for my pictures as I know I'll be there for at least half an hour getting a variety of pictures of the sun rising above and breaking through the clouds. I didn't realize how short the park is as it took me only about 15 minutes to drive from entrance to exit including driving up windy roads and across 2 bridges. I realized I exited the park and had to turn around, but the good news is I've already seen what's behind me so I can make a judgement call on where I want to be.

I drive back down the hill slightly and park on the side of the road. I'm still at the top of a ridge as I have parked and hiked up on top of the hill away from the road and found a vantage point only a few others have probably ventured to outside of the 2 houses across the road from me that I am completely envious of that live inside the park. Or it was a ranger station, it was early and the coffee was wearing off so I can't be for sure.

RELATED: 37 Jaw Dropping Oregon Trails to Hike

With my dog by my side I have found my place I want to set up and am extending my tripod and placing my camera on top. I snap a few photos of him sniffing around to get my settings right and the colors where I want them and then I wait. The sky is developing itself and here come the pinks and yellows are sprawling across the sky and here comes the sun! I made it! 5 hours after I was tripping over my own feet and bumbling around in the kitchen I made it just in time for the sunrise over the Ridgeline of the Cove Palisades State Park, and what a sight!

I have spent the majority of my 31 years on the east coast and in the south so what I was witnessing is nothing like I have seen before. I am in love and her name is Oregon!

I spend the next 12 hours wandering around the park shooting from different views and trying to capture the beauty that is this The Cove Palisades. This park was founded in 1940 and includes a great expanse of central Oregon with a plateau dissected by the deep cutting river channels of the Crooked River and Metolius River, as they meet up to form the larger Deschutes River. Showcased in the large canyon walls is the geologic history of the region, starting around 10-12 million years ago. There were basaltic lava flows that occurred in the last 50,000 years, which filled canyons in the park. Again, the rivers began to erode these canyons to their present configuration, and large landslides occurred in the steep-walled canyons.

The "Cove" refers to an outcropping half way down the Crooked River Canyon wall which was visible before the dam pool was formed. I really wish I could see the cove itself, but this is a minor point as you can spend all day here and not run out of views. I hiked the Tam-a-láu Loop Trail, which from parking lot to the end is 7 miles each way, making it a nice day hike of 14 miles and with my dog at my side every step of the way.

Cove Palisades State Park

I got to the trail relatively early and beating the crowd that showed up on our way back allowing him to roam freely without a leash. There are a lot of people who will wag their finger saying rules are rules but those people aren't very fun so I don't like to entertain their conversations. The Trail involves a mile-long ascent up to a lava plateau called The Peninsula and then it’s about four flat miles around the rim and across the plateau taking in views of both the Crooked River and Deschutes Arms of Lake Billy Chinook. At the viewpoint is a view across to The Island, a smaller plateau that is now protected and has been off-limits to hikers since 1997.

Cove Palisades State Park

As the sun has begun to set I find myself looking for a place to catch the moon over one of the canyon walls and end my trip with that picture. I drive about a mile up the road and find a turn off spot with a man sitting outside of his pickup truck in a foldout chair that you typically see at tailgating events and he's enjoying the view. I commend him on his leisurely choice and proceed to hike down a little way to an edge to grab the best vantage point, or at least one the typical passerby couldn't easily hang their head out of the window to capture. I don't like to do things the easy way, not with photography anyway.

After I am satisfied with my results I climb back up and get into my car and I'm off to find my camping spot. I like to adventure so I use this website called, and while it offers both free and paid camping sites I like the free ones as 1) it saves me money and 2) I find I run into more interesting characters there. I find one outside of Bend and it's an hour drive from where I am. I could easily set up camp somewhere closer but I decide to accept the adventure and to wake up early and catch the sunrise again but from a location in Bend.

I am already here, so why not? I get to the campsite around 930 after trying to find the trailhead in the dark. There are no roadside markers and no signage, but luckily there are some descriptions on the website left by other campers that help you figure it out. The entrance has one of those grates you drive over that discourse large animals to walk across and the first car pull-in spot on my left after driving over the grate is available. I do a u-turn and back my car in.

Oh, I forgot to mention. I camp in my car. I drive a small car and the back seats completely come out allowing for the back to be exactly 6 foot in length, which is my height, and completely flat. It offers protection from the weather and I can hang my tablet from my rear window and watch movies while using my blue tooth speak for 'surround sound', if I want. Some call it 'glamping', I just call it convenient. My car is a hatchback as well so I pop it open and disconnect the light censor so the inside is completely dark and I can lay back with my dog lying up against me and fall asleep to the thousands of stars that are shining like sparkles in the night sky. For every minute it took me to get here from 2am until now it has been worth it. I am completely exhausted and I am ready for sleep. It's been an amazing day and I am grateful.

How to get to Cove Palisades State Park

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Written By Tony Jones

Hey! I'm Tony Jones and I've spent the majority of my life on the east coast as a musician and then a portrait photographer. In April 2016 I visited Oregon on a road trip to Seattle and fell in love with the views. I told myself after my lease was up I would move here, and suddenly 4 months later I found myself packing up and moving to Oregon. I moved here to become a landscape photographer and to write a book about the most beautiful and unknown locations in the Pacific North West. You can typically find me with my dog along any given trail or in a tent along a river. I hope to see you out there!

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