Deschutes River, OR (Benham Falls – Lake Billy Chinook)

The Deschutes River originates from a 130 acre lake called Little Lava Lake which sits at 4,744ft in elevation 40 miles southwest of the town of Bend, OR. The river flows about 252 miles from the lake through irrigation reservoirs, over falls, into man-made lakes, and between ancient basalt lava flows on its way to the Columbia River. During the early spring the Deschutes River from Bend to Lake Billy Chinook runs at a pretty consistent flow while the canals in Bend are still dry and no water is being pulled from the river. Scott Baker, Dan Laham, and I decided to try and paddle from Benham Falls to Lake Billy Chinook, approximately 60 miles, camping two nights and paddling 3 days. We had a good flow averaging around 1,000cfs. The first day we paddled the upper section with Benham, Dillon, & Lava Island Falls through the Meadow camp run into Bend (with a couple bridge portages) and continued through the Riverhouse run.

Scott Baker in Benham Falls

..and happy to be at the bottom.

Dan Laham at Dillon Falls

On day two we took a leisurely morning and enjoyed as much sunshine as we could before jumping back in our boats and continuing out of town. Large homes lined the canyon for miles until we reached Awbrey Falls which turned out to be our first portage of the day. The Falls funneled into a sieve pile on the left and a very dangerous cave on the right.

Baker and Laham trying to find a line at Awbrey Falls

Much of day two was swift moving water that lead up to marginal to un-runnable falls. In this section of the river the banks were lined with thick brush on both sides of the river making scouting, portaging, and even stopping for a break very challenging. Our goal was to reach Steelhead Falls and camp so that on day three we would only have the canyon section into the lake. We reached Big Falls late in the day expecting it to be Steelhead, but instead of setting up camp, we had another portage through thick brush and a long walk to access the river again. After a couple more miles we reached a State Park just above Steelhead Falls and set up camp.

The next morning we put on the river a couple hours earlier than the previous day and made quick work of Steelhead then proceeded into the canyon. This section of the river had some very impressive canyon walls and fun whitewater. The brush on the banks made any scout look terrible so we pushed downriver without scouting in this section.

Dan Laham at Steelhead Falls

After a few fun class IV rapids spaced apart by large pools we hit the slack water of the lake. We were suppose to paddle a few miles to the boat dock, but after running into another group who were taking out at the bridge over the Deschutes River arm of the lake we climbed out there and saved a couple miles of slow going flat water. All in all it was a great multi-day trip with many different settings to keep things interesting. Portaging the Big Falls and Cline took some work in finding a route back to the river as these falls are flowing through cliffed out basalt walls. The canyon below Steelhead Falls was impressive and definitely worth a return trip for a leisurely day run. Huge thanks to Matt and Andria for helping out with the shuttle! For more information on the individual day runs check out the Trip Reports on


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