Lake Billy Chinook

June 28, 2012 (Updated March 10, 2017)

Many of us enjoy taking our homes on the road in summer – whether in a tent, trailer or recreational vehicle – but this week’s getaway shows us a place where you take your home on the water.

When Oregon’s Cascade Mountains are behind you and Central Oregon’s U.S. Route 97 unwinds onto a desert covered with sage and juniper, set your travel compass for west of Madras, Oregon, where three east-side rivers – the Deschutes, the Crooked, and the Metolius – merge into a vast watery playground at Lake Billy Chinook.


Many call Lake Billy Chinook at Round Butte Dam an “oasis in the desert.” Once you arrive, it is water, water everywhere, framed by towering 400-foot canyon walls at a popular destination nicknamed ‘The Cove.’ This is big water! The reservoir covers 3,997 acres and is as deep as 415 feet. Each arm of the lake is 6 to 12 miles long, creating more than 72 miles of shoreline at full pool.

Lake Billy Chinook is more than 7 miles long and you can spend a day aboard a comfortable houseboat complete with all the comforts of home, exploring some 70 miles of shoreline that includes a stunning jaw-dropping view to Kettle Falls.

Many travelers make Cove Palisades State Park their vacation home. The park begins at the top of the rimrock above Lake Billy Chinook and is situated among towering cliffs that surround the beautiful lake. The grounds contain approximately 300 campsites amid soft grass, boat launches and timeless views. Not interested in camping? Rustic lakeshore log cabins are available. Yes, log cabins. Just the idea of them conjures up atmosphere: hot summer nights; the sound of the door slamming shut; the creak of the floors when you walk across them; the smell of the campfire outside.

The most spectacular features of the canyon are the lava flows that erupted out of Newberry Volcano about a million years ago. They form the high, columned cliffs and The Island, which rises to captivate your attention just across from Cove Palisades State Park. Water-carved and wind-eroded, the sun-browned canyon vistas are compelling and powerful displays of 7 million years of geologic history.

Less than an hour’s drive away, consider a side trip to a learning center that will teach you much more at the High Desert Museum. Located five miles south of Bend, this remarkable 150-acre complex of displays, demonstrations, and hands-on events makes the museum “more like an expedition than an exhibition.” A mile-long trail wanders through 25 acres of exhibits, including a trout stream, otter ponds, porcupine dens and historic interpretive displays of frontier life and industry. Hawks, eagles and turkey vultures are frequently seen soaring over the wide expanse of the desert, but at the museum you can see them all close at hand and learn about their special adaptations for survival.

You’ll be coming back to Lake Billy Chinook, too—to seek out some sheltered cove, drop an anchor and enjoy the ageless vistas across dazzling canyons. This lake has always held a special place in my heart. It makes me feel small in relation to life’s bigger natural story, a feeling I don’t get in many other places. Perhaps it’s a serene intimacy and mobility you’ll discover too when you enjoy a houseboating adventure on Lake Billy Chinook.

About The

Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.