Five Memorable Ways to Spend Spring in the Ochoco National Forest
March might have signaled the official start of spring, but even April feels like an in-between time in Central Oregon. The Cascades remain covered in snow, and temperatures still dip below freezing each night—but the occasional 60-degree day signals that, yes: Warmer days are on their way.
But there’s one place in Central Oregon where spring arrives early: The nearly 850,000-acre Ochoco National Forest sits just east of Prineville (itself some 35 miles northeast of Bend), and signs of the changing season abound in a variety of ways. That might mean the season’s first wildflowers along the trail to Steins Pillar or at Big Summit Prairie, melting snow on the way up Lookout Mountain, or in the carefree gallop of wild horses roaming the region.
So if you’re eager for a dose of spring, here are five memorable ways to welcome the season in the Ochoco National Forest.
If you’re seeking solitude—and no shortage of natural wonder—the trail system on Lookout Mountain offers one of the richest, most varied experiences in the Ochoco National Forest.
Two trailheads offer access to the trail system on Lookout Mountain—one at a lower elevation, which affords a longer and more challenging experience, and the other at a higher elevation (which allows quicker access and less of a trek to Lookout Mountain’s many sites).
Whichever trailhead you start from, you’ll find much to enjoy. Wildflowers—such as bigleaf lupine, arrowleaf balsamroot, and sand lilies—bloom as early as May in the trail’s lower elevations (when the trail is mostly snow-free until next winter). Further up the trail, the sagebrush-covered summit offers views of the Ochocos’ highest peaks, as well as the Three Sisters, Mount Bachelor, and other Cascade peaks. (Keep an eye out here for wild horses; the U.S. Forest Service estimates that 135 wild horses call the region home.)
As you return to the trailhead, watch for abandoned mining equipment just off the trail. Several mines opened on Lookout Mountain in the early 1900s, but all ceased operations by the 1950s; some of that equipment remains visible near the trailhead today. (Tempting as it may be, please don’t leave the trail to explore these dilapidated structures.)
With Cascade peaks still covered in snow, springtime hikers in Central Oregon know to head east for clear trails and early-season wildflowers. And within the Ochoco National Forest, Steins Pillar offers one of the region’s best-loved (and most scenic) outings for enjoying that splendor.
The midpoint of the 4.5-mile, round-trip trek is the base of Steins Pillar, a 350-foot column of rhyolite ash and a popular destination for climbers in spring and summer. Along the way, the family-friendly trail gains about 740 feet—mostly at the beginning of the hike, and when ascending away from the pillar on your return trip—and showcases many of the diverse landscapes for which the Ochoco Mountains are so well-known. Old-growth forests, wide-open meadows, and rocky ridgelines are just some of the landscapes through which you’ll pass en route to the pillar; in May and June, hikers also enjoy plenty of red paintbrush, yellow balsamroot, and purple lupine along the trail.
Don’t get us wrong: You’ll find wildflowers all over the Ochoco National Forest. But nowhere are they quite as common—or as vibrant—as at Big Summit Prairie.
Sitting in the heart of the Ochocos, Big Summit Prairie comprises several thousand acres and is largely privately owned—but visitors in search of a road trip will find plenty to love along the way. And while wildflower season might only last a few weeks elsewhere around the Pacific Northwest, it begins in April at Big Summit Prairie—and continues, uninterrupted, through July.
April and May bring grass widow, shooting stars, bitterroot (noted for large pink and white flowers), while June and July show off the likes of larkspur, paintbrush, and arrowleaf balsamroot. Watch for Peck’s mariposa lily, a tulip-like plant with lavender petals; the wildflower is found only in the Ochoco Mountains and nowhere else on Earth. And as spring unfolds, wildlife—including elk, mule deer, antelope, and sandhill cranes—become a steady presence on the prairie, as well.
Wherever you go in the Ochoco National Forest, keep your eyes peeled for the wild horses that call the area home. As of 2018, the U.S. Forest Service reported that 135 wild horses patrolled the hillsides, meadows, and prairies of the Ochocos—making it the only wild horse population in the Pacific Northwest managed entirely by the U.S. Forest Service.
No one knows for sure how the herd arrived in the Ochocos, though one story suggests that local ranchers turned a few horses loose in the 1920s. In any event, the horses were first protected in 1975, when around 60 roamed the area; today, the wild horse population is more than double that. The herd’s home is technically called Big Summit Wild Horse Territory, but the animals can be seen throughout the heart of the Ochocos.
It’s never a sure bet that you’ll see wild horses—they do cover a lot of ground, after all—but sightings might occur while atop Lookout Mountain (which delivers sweeping views of the Ochoco lowlands) and while at Big Summit Prairie (where wide-open spaces are especially attractive to the herd). And if you do see wild horses, be sure to give them plenty of room, and do not attempt to pet or feed the animals.
Prineville Reservoir sits at the western edge of the Ochoco Mountains, where myriad mountain streams and creeks collide with the Crooked River. There, Prineville Reservoir—created for irrigation and flood control—serves as the beating heart of year-round, water-based recreation in the region.
In particular, Prineville Reservoir State Park—sitting along the 15-mile-long reservoir—makes it easy to enjoy all the bucolic setting has to offer.
Anglers, in particular, love fishing for rainbow trout, smallmouth and largemouth bass, catfish, black crappie, and other species—all of which can be caught throughout the year—while others enjoy waterskiing, swimming, and boating in the warm summer months. Rockhounds also use the reservoir as a home base for seeking agates, thunder eggs, petrified wood, and geological oddities in the area.