Tumalo Dam Hike

TumaloReservoirHike12 10Apr2017

Bull Flat from Tumalo dam

A brief history

It’s hard to imagine that the big flat area pictured above was once filled with water that all disappeared. Developer William A. Laidlaw was in this area in the early 1900’s and he promised settlers a project that would irrigate nearly 30,000 acres. Local businesses and settlers put up some of their hard earned dollars for the project but then figured out they were being taken advantage of. Laidlaw was burned in effigy in 1907 and 1912. New plans were made by the state for a reservoir.

Construction of the dam ca. 1914

Tumalo Dam construction.  Photographic copy of TID photograph (from original print on file at TID office, Tumalo, Oregon).

In 1914, the huge earthen Tumalo Dam on the edge of 1,100 acre Bull Flat was constructed. It took 18 months to complete. The reservoir was filled with thousands of gallons of water. A couple of school kids were passing by the reservoir one day and heard a roaring noise like a tub draining. A giant whirlpool was sucking down the water at the rate of 220 cfs – as fast as it was being filled. Yikes!

They tried plugging the hole with bales of hay and detonating dynamite on floating barges. Nothing worked. It turned out the engineer that designed the project had not done much work on the soil at the site. It is extremely porous and modern day engineers liken it to a sponge. There are also lava tubes underneath the surface. 

Tumalo Reservoir Earthen Dam 10Apr2017

Tumalo earthen dam

The local settlers had been conned. In 1915, they changed the name of the town nearby from Laidlaw, the name of the original developer, to Tumalo. Eventually they did get water but not until 1922. The current reservoir irrigates around 8,000 acres.

Trail description

Though the dam and canal system don’t hold any water today, they do provide a great area for a hike. You enter the trail near the earthen dam and follow it through the rimrock-lined Red Rock Canyon area.

Tumalo Reservoir hike 10Apr2017

Tumalo Reservoir hike – Sign near entrance

I love the sign the landowner put up near the trail head.

You can walk for several miles along this trail. The trail slopes downward at the trail head but otherwise it’s pretty flat. We walked for a couple of miles then headed north up on top of a ridge. You get panoramic views of the surrounding landscapes. The juniper forest and rimrock cliffs along this trail provide habitat for a variety of wildlife.

Along parts of the trail, the rock formations have a layered form that makes for some nice photos. In other spots, rimrock is splashed with lichens as if Jackson Pollock was there working on his next masterpiece.

Critters along the trail

We found the remains of a deer along the trail. Butterflies were landing on the deerskin so we had some good views of them. This behavior is called “puddling.” Several days after our hike, a member of our group was hiking there and found a much more recently deceased deer. It appeared to have been cached – maybe by a cougar.

Bushy-tailed woodrats, aka packrats, collect trash and debris from their nest and move it out of their nesting area into “middens.” They then go to the bathroom on the middens and they harden into a dark substance known as amberat. We saw some of these globular dark piles on the cliffs on this hike. Gross but interesting. Paleontologists have analyzed amberat that is tens of thousands of years old and it contains valuable information. Click here for a post with more about woodrats and amberat.

TumaloReservoirHike4 10Apr2017

Raven nest

We saw a raven nest on a cliff face and the birds let us know when we got too close. Turkey vultures and other raptors drifted overhead. We didn’t see many songbirds on this cool April morning.

Early spring plant life

A few varieties of wildflowers were starting to come up. The leaves of bitterroot were up but no flowers yet. See my previous post here about them for photos of their stunning flowers. Bright yellow  and white flowers contrasted with the surrounding soil. There are some very old juniper trees scattered throughout the area. Their scraggly growth form adds character to the landscape.

TumaloReservoirHike9 10Apr2017

An old western juniper tree


This was an enjoyable hike in an area with an interesting history. There is a good parking area near the dam at the intersection of Sisemore Road and Snow Creek Road. We got there by driving on several roads northwest of Bend but you can also get there more directly by heading west on Couch Market Road off of Highway 20 just north of Tumalo.

Aerial shot of where the trail head is for Tumalo Dam hike

Aerial shot of where the trail head is for Tumalo Dam hike

5 thoughts on “Tumalo Dam Hike

  1. Hello – am interested in the Tumalo Dam Hike but confused about where the trail begins and in which direction it heads. I am familiar with the intersection of Sisemore and Snow Creek. Can you help with more detail for a directional confused person? Thank you!

    • Sorry about the confusion, Chris. If you park near that intersection, walk east to the dam and go the the trail head on the east side of the dam. The trail heads towards the north through the shallow canyon. I’ll try to post an aerial shot at the end of the blog post.

  2. Pingback: Sand lily - High Desert Star: Friday Flowers - bend branches

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.