Rent a party barge for memorable day on the water with family and friends.
Named for a Wasco Indian scout who traveled with explorer John Fremont, Lake Billy Chinook is located in Central Oregon, a well-known vacation wonderland. The man-made reservoir has 72 miles of shoreline, covers 4,000 acres, and is fed by three rivers: the Metolius, Deschutes, and Crooked. The 200-foot canyon walls that surround the lake were formed by layers of stream sediments, volcanic debris, and basaltic lava. While scenic and geologically significant, what's even more important is that Lake Billy Chinook offers pure fun! Gather your extended family or invite other families for day on the water aboard a party barge.
What to do?
Lake Billy Chinook is a popular lake for renting houseboats. (Click here for more on that.) The Cove Palisades Resort and Marina rents them, plus motor boats and jet skis. But if you’re only able to visit the lake for a day and especially if you’re visiting with multiple families, I’d recommending renting a party barge.
What is a party barge? It’s double-decker floating platform equipped with a grill, slide, personal flotation devices, and restroom (think portable toilet without the smell). It has a small motor that allows you to drive the barge, albeit at a painstakingly slow pace. But that’s okay, because party barges aren’t meant for cruising or sightseeing; they’re meant for fun! Cost: $375-525/day.
KidTripster Tip: While a bit pricey, renting a party barge is a lot more affordable when you’re splitting the cost between friends. And it’s a lot cheaper than renting a houseboat.
KidTripster Tip: Bring food, snacks, and beverages, plus a large trash bag, as one is not provided. Also, the sun here is relentless. Be sure to pack sunscreen and plenty of water.
To rent a party barge, you either need a boater’s license or you can simply get a free, temporary one by filling out a one-page form upon check-in. As long as there’s one licensed boater on board, any of the adults can drive. A staff member will then give you a brief orientation. Driving the barge is not difficult, though parking it after your day on the water is a bit more challenging. Once you leave the dock, head to the nearest buoy designated for houseboats and barges. Don’t waste time or gas by driving far from the marina; it’s not worth it. The views are similar and frankly, your kids will just want to get in the water!
We rented the smallest barge, called the Prospector, which accommodates 15 people. Yes, it was pretty tight with four families, but most of the day, we had about half of our group in the water. The younger kids gravitated toward the slide, while the thrill-seeking tweens and teens and their daring parents jumped from the upper deck, over and over again. Watch here. You’ll also want to bring or rent floats, tubes, stand-up paddleboards, and kayaks. Kayak cost: $50; SUP cost: $65. On a hot, high desert day, you’ll find the waters of Lake Billy Chinook cool and refreshing. All and all, we spent about seven hours in and on the water having a blast!
KidTripster Tip: There’s an on-board stereo. Bring your own iPod or cell phone to plug in and crank up the party tunes.
While we didn’t fish, the lake is well-known as a Bull trout fishery. You’ll also find Kokanee and small and largemouth bass. The Crooked River and Deschutes arms of the lake are open to fishing year-round with a Oregon fishing license. The Metolius arm has a limited season, and you’re required to have both a state license and a tribal angling permit, as this area is part of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
Where to stay?
The Cove Palisades State Park has two campgrounds. Crooked River Campground is on the southern end of the Crooked River arm of Lake Billy Chinook; Deschutes Campground is on the Deschutes River arm. Neither park has direct lake access; the campgrounds are perched above the lake, but there are day use areas reachable via car. I’d recommend staying at Crooked River, as it’s closer to Cove Palisades Marine and Resort. However, it’s important to know that you can’t walk or bike from the campground to the marina; the road is very steep with no shoulder. If you’re driving an RV, the road is best suited to rigs under 30 feet. There is a parking lot to accommodate oversized vehicles at the marina.
Crooked River Campground has 88 sites with electricity and water, plus a dump station; sites E37-73 (odd numbers) have views of snow-capped Mount Jefferson. Deschutes Campground has 85 full-hookup sites with sewer, electricity, and water, plus 91 tent sites. The restrooms at both campgrounds are impeccably clean. Cost: $28-30/night.
Lake Billy Chinook and The Cove Palisades State Park are located about 45 minutes north of Bend.
KidTripster Tip: Follow your GPS directions rather than the park signs for a more direct route to The Cove Palisades State Park.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels to state and national parks with her husband and two sons. She’s logged thousands of miles behind the wheel of the family’s RV.
This writer received a complimentary rental for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.