Camp on the tree-shaded river bank of Oregon’s Metolius Recreation Area

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Metolius River photo by Bob Difley

By Bob Difley

The central Oregon town of Sisters, often called the “Gateway to the Cascades,” is named for the snow-capped Three Sisters peaks of Oregon’s Cascade Range that rise from a flat 3,000-foot high plateau of open meadows and riparian forest create the town’s dramatic backdrop.


Just north of town, the Deschutes National Forest’s 1.6 million acres provide an outdoor playground with several campgrounds, miles of trails, rivers, scattered lakes, wilderness areas, scenic drives and views that will knock your socks off.

Follow US 20 north out of town and just before climbing into the Santiam Pass that crosses the Cascades, the Metolius Recreation Area spreads to the northeast along the Metolius River. Underground springs join to give birth to the river, percolating through porous lava rock and lava tubes beneath Black Butte, a volcanic cinder cone older than the Cascades to the west and rising 3,100 feet above the level plateau.

Then, finding a passageway to the surface, the river gushes dramatically out of the ground at the base of the mountain at 50,000 gallons a minute, as a full-flowing, fully formed river. The unique, glass-clear, short-lived Metolius, officially designated a National Wild and Scenic River, then makes a mad dash across the plateau for a mere 37 miles before it dumps into the Lake Billy Chinook Reservoir where it joins the Deschutes and Crooked Rivers.

The Metolius’ flow-rate changes remarkably little through all four seasons, and as a result the river’s shoreline is one of the cleanest, uncluttered, and pristine riverbanks you will ever see. No high-water debris caught in the branches of riverside bushes and trees, no washed-out muddy riverbanks, and no exposed mudflats or piles of flood rubble.

The several forest service campgrounds scattered along the river offer shady campsites hugging the water’s edge, close enough to fall asleep at night to the soft, soothing sounds of water tumbling over a bed of rocks and boulders.

The constant flow rate and stable, clear, cold temperature offer perfect conditions for rainbow and bull trout and kokanee salmon, and the fishing is world-class – and among the most challenging you will find. Only fly-fishing is permitted, but follow the posted regulations as they change in parts of the river. The Camp Sherman store and fly shop can supply you with all your fishing needs as well as a cool drink or refreshing ice cream cone on a warm day.

To get to the Metolius, drive 9.6 miles northwest of Sisters on US 20. Watch for the sign indicating the turnoff to the Metolius Recreation Area and follow it 4.4 miles (bear to the left after a couple of miles at the “To Campgrounds” sign) to the Metolius Spring and the Head of the Metolius Day Use Area. A paved trail leads to the river’s bubbling origin with some great views of snow-capped Mount Jefferson through the forest of Ponderosa pine, cedar, fir and larch.

Continue on to the campgrounds along the river near Camp Sherman. Even if you do not test the waters with a fly rod, you can enjoy the fish from the viewing deck at the Camp Sherman store, where the trout and kokanee have learned that if they hang out under the bridge, visitors will toss bread and other goodies to them.

Osprey with trout

Trails follow both banks of the river, the west bank lined with summer cabins and the east bank through the campgrounds. Listen for the “cre-e-e” call of an osprey as it hovers above the river before plunging feet first to capture a fish with its powerful talons. These “fish hawks” always carry their prize with the head facing aerodynamically forward and have been known to carry off a fish close to their own body weight.

Continue past the Camp Sherman area campgrounds to the park-like setting of the Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery where you will find trout, kokanee and Atlantic salmon in all stages of growth.

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