Western Oregon is not known for its clear skies. Most of the time, mist and rain obscure the horizon, blocking picturesque views of mountain peaks, forested hills, and grasslands. Often at night, our only glimpse of celestial bodies is a faint moon shining through the clouds. When we catch a glimpse of what lies beyond, it’s distorted by thick waves of humidity and light pollution, making it nearly impossible to get a good view.
Prineville Reservoir State Park on the east side of the Cascades is one of the few places in the state where we can escape the clouds and get a glimpse of the sky in all its glory. This is one of the reasons it was chosen to be Oregon’s first Dark Sky Park.
Prineville Reservoir State Park
Prineville Reservoir State Park is located in central Oregon, an hour’s drive east of Bend. The high desert climate might as well be an alien world compared to the forests and grasslands that most of us are used to. The air is noticeably drier, tinged with notes of juniper and pine. Hills of bare rock and yellow grass, dotted with sage and willow shrubs, make up the bulk of the landscape.
The reservoir itself is surrounded by dramatic cliffs and fine meadows. There are no thickets or ferns, just the same grasses and shrubs, with dark patches of stoic evergreens everywhere.
Drier air means greater temperature variation. Summers get hot, but snow is a regular occurrence during the winter, creating the perfect playground for skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and sledding.
The day in the high desert is dramatic, filled with contrasting shades – dark and light, shadows etched into the hills and cliffs. Beauty is not in the foliage; it’s in the lay of the land, its shape, the way it slopes and sags, juts out and forms tiny peaks. Naturally, you’re going to want to explore.
While there aren’t many hiking options around Prineville Reservoir State Park, there are still some amazing sights to see.
Jasper Point Trail
The Jasper Point trail is the most popular trail. It’s a 1.7 mile hike that connects the two campgrounds, the main site at Prineville and the smaller site at Jasper Point. If you start at the main campsite, the trailhead is at the end of Loop B near the cabins.
The hike is easy, although a bit steep at times, and is best on a clear day when the ground has had time to dry out. Mud can be a serious problem, especially given the lack of foliage.
The trail crosses ravines and draws, with slopes leading uphill on either side. There is a viewpoint from where you can watch the water, and if you are lucky enough to come in spring or early summer, you will walk through a field of yellow primroses. Eventually you will be diverted over a red cliff and through a field of stunted sage and then under a pair of power lines towards the end of the trailhead.
Jasper Point trail is mostly abandoned. But you can’t always expect the same experience at the reservoir. If you want to find a quiet getaway, take the dirt road that follows the northeast coast for 6 miles until you reach Combs Flat Road. Here you will find willow shrubs, grasslands and a mudflat shoreline. It’s the perfect place to sit in the car and relax or let the kids run around for a bit.
The Crooked River was dammed in 1961, flooding the 18-mile canyon now known as Prineville Reservoir. What was once dry land has become a popular aquatic area, known for fishing and boating. The jet skis lifted the waves, while the big boats sailed on the water. Even a few swimmers, clad in head-to-toe wetsuits, would brave the cold. But drought and long-term irrigation have reduced water levels to their lowest level in 20 years, leaving the reservoir at just 21% capacity.
The reservoir now looks like a giant that took a straw and sucked out all the moisture, leaving behind fields of dried mud and impossibly steep shorelines. Small streams flow, and they are accessible, but it is obvious that the reservoir is almost gone. The problem became so severe that all boat ramps were closed and local governments were forced to limit water use.
Fishing is still possible all year round, but the population has declined. Hatchery trucks can’t get into the water because of the dry boat ramps, and with water levels still dropping, fish have been forced downstream. If you want to try your luck there is a fair amount of bass and trout among other species. They are particularly active in winter.
For more information on fishing at Prineville Reservoir, see the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Fishing Report.
While you may not be able to take your yacht out to play, the boats you can haul are still perfectly doable at the tank. In fact, kayak tours are one of the park’s main events. You’ll paddle back in time with local guides, who will teach you about the park’s history, geology, and wildlife. The tour usually lasts 3 hours and there is no need to bring your own equipment. Kayaks, paddles and life jackets are provided.
As of this writing, tours are $25 for a single kayak and $40 for a tandem kayak. Check with Oregon State Parks to make a reservation.
Falling water levels have done nothing to change the shape of the hills or the inherent beauty of the high desert. The cliffs are still high, and when dusk has passed, the skies are still open, producing a radiant spectacle that can only be found at Prineville State Park. Camping there is a sublime experience.
Although many boat-accessible campsites are inaccessible, the park still has an impressive number of sites, many with water views, and they offer all the basic amenities. If primitive camping isn’t your thing, there are five luxury cabins waiting to be booked and a sixth at Jasper Point.
Unfortunately, reservations at the year-round main campground must be made six months in advance, so make sure you have everything ready in advance. Also be aware that while Jasper Point sites are only available on a seasonal basis, they are listed in order of arrival, making it a great alternative for visitors who decide to stay the night on a whim. For more information on the campsite or to make a reservation, go to Oregon State Parks.
If you prefer something a little more luxurious, book a stay at this lovely cabin nearby. You can also try the Prineville Reservoir Resort. They have RV space rentals, a convenience store, cafe and a 7 room motel. It’s nice to have a piece of civilization nearby, especially if you need to stop in for a quick meal.
As the sun begins to set at Prineville Reservoir, pull up a chair and take a moment to watch. The sky is adorned with bands of pinkish orange, fading towards azure blue and indigo. Soon the colors will fade, indigo will take over and the first stars of the night will begin to appear. More and more will appear, almost as if they can’t wait for you to see them. Eventually, there will be so many that they will form a hazy backdrop, a small cluttered wave of the great mass that is our galaxy.
You can use a star map to spot the constellations, grab a telescope and explore on your own, or just finish your last cup of tea for the night. But whatever you do, you will be impressed.
Stargazers often want more after spending a night gazing at the high desert sky. They will get excited, buy telescopes and download maps. For many, it becomes a lifelong obsession. If this is you, check out the Prineville State Park schedule events. They often organize stargazing sessions for beginners and plan a trip to one of the local observatories.
Become a starry sky park
Even with its spectacular nighttime views, Prineville Reservoir State Park had to earn its status with the International Dark-Sky Association (IDSA).
The process of creating a Dark Sky Park usually begins with a group of locals who are concerned about the harmful effects of light pollution on the environment. They will rehabilitate outdoor facilities and implement strict policies while conducting community outreach activities.
It can take 1-3 years before a decision is made, and applications are rarely accepted, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that the process helps people understand the damage this type of pollution can cause.
Light pollution affects all forms of life. Migratory birds will wander off and die. Nocturnal animals will stay at home and starve, afraid to come out during what they believe to be daytime. Trees will develop deformities. Even humans suffer from light pollution. This reduces our ability to produce the necessary biochemicals, which leads to an increase in cases of chronic diseases.
The park’s efforts to educate the public was the crown jewel in earning them IDSA status. They deserve as much recognition as the skyline itself, if not for the wildlife lives they saved, then for the hearts they won.