There are plenty of things to summon outdoor enthusiasts to Cove Palisades State Park in Central Oregon -- camping, fishing, and water sports are just the beginning. But one of the biggest draws is the Tam-a-Láu trail, an almost seven-mile long hike up to a lava plateau called The Peninsula.
The trail takes its name from a local Native American phrase, and translates roughly to, "place of big rocks on the ground." It’s a name that suits the area, which is rich in geological curiosities, including steep canyons, beautiful medleys of sandstone, ash and conglomerate rock, as well as strange vertical basalt columns. The Tam-a-Láu trail takes hikers through the full mix of this earth-born architecture that was built over millions of years.
The trailhead can be found near the Cove Palisades State Park campground next to a kiosk with a sign-in sheet and some information about the natural history of the area. Switchbacks kick off the hike as you ascend through a vale with western juniper, sagebrush, and large boulders. It’s mostly uphill for a stretch, with railroad tie steps taking turns with switchbacks. Look to the west when you need a break and take in the views of Lake Billy Chinook and the Cascade Range.
The ascent continues for about a mile, and close to the summit slides along under a rock face. From this point it’s just a few more switchbacks before the trail hits a rubbly track and connects with the Tam-a-láu Loop Junction. This means you’ve hit the edge of the plateau, and it’s a short climb up and along the top of the rim.
On the plateau top you’ll be rewarded with amazing views of the Three Sisters, Broken Top, and Mount Jefferson. Come in wildflower season to see the flat landscape painted with bright colors from blooming phlox, yellow bells, death-camas, balsamroot and gold stars. There’s a nice wash of pastel green added to the landscape by more sagebrush and rabbitbrush, as well as the occasional bunch of western juniper. Look around and see if you can spot mule deer, diverse bird species, or desert rodents.
From this point the Tam-a-Láu trail makes a roughly five-mile loop around the plateau. Start by walking south (left) along the foot trail by the rim. The views across the landscape will continue to unfold as you walk, moving along the Cascade Range and showcasing the Crooked River Arm and the sheer walls of its canyon. You’ll also spot farm fields and the lower slopes of the river valley below. And don’t forget to take in the natural beauty on the plateau -- some of the junipers growing here are at least 250 years old.
As this is a lollypop trail, after five miles you’ll reconnect with the trail back where the loop started. Make your way back down to the trailhead via the same route you traveled up.
Some things to keep in mind:
- During winter months snowfall makes the trail inaccessible. Be sure to check in advance with the park about winter trail conditions.
- The Cove Palisades State Park attracts a healthy number of visitors in the warm months, which can generate a fair amount of noise. The sound of jet skis and human activity travels up, and might not be ideal for those who like a serene time in nature, so plan to come slightly off-season to avoid crowds.
- Due to the exposed nature of the plateau, hikers are advised to bring extra sun protection and water in the summertime, since the majority of the trail is directly under the desert sun.
Expect to pay a $5 state parks day pass fee for parking unless you have an annual pass. The trail is open from 7 a.m. to sunset.