When you’re cruising across Central Oregon, the high desert plateau can feel as vast as the ocean, a sea of sagebrush and pine under an endless dome of blue sky. Yet surprises await around Madras (about 45 minutes north of Bend), where the land seems to crack open like an eggshell, revealing deep desert canyons, river gorges and other unexpected delights.
Rock On: Dig into the region’s remarkable geology at Richardson’s Rock Ranch, 11 miles north of Madras off US-97. Part of a working cattle ranch, the shop offers an impressive array of collectible gems and minerals for sale, including fossils, geodes, polished spheres and the Oregon state rock — a colorful agate known as the thunder egg. Armed with a pick and a bucket, try your luck at unearthing your own treasures in the ranch’s digging beds, which are located several miles down a bumpy dirt road. (Open May through October, weather permitting; call ahead.) Thunder eggs abound, spread by lava flows across the plateaus of Central Oregon.
Canyon Wonderland: Twelve miles northwest of Madras off US-26, Pelton Dam Road descends into the creased canyons of the Deschutes River and the dam that holds back its waters to create Lake Simtustus. Pelton Park and Lake Simtustus RV Park offer waterside campsites and boat ramps. After about 5 miles, the narrow road threads its way back up and out of the canyon, emerging onto a broad plateau with spectacular views of Mt. Jefferson and other volcanic peaks spiking up along the horizon. Continue south and west on Northwest Elk Drive and Southwest Mountain View Drive, respectively, to Round Butte Overlook Park. An observation deck and glass-walled visitor center perch on the Deschutes River canyon rim at raptor level — an ideal place to watch bald eagles, golden eagles, hawks and osprey soar hundreds of feet above Lake Billy Chinook. An Eagle Watch weekend in February coincides with prime viewing.
Water Play: Three iconic Oregon rivers — the Deschutes, the Metolius and the Crooked — come together to form Lake Billy Chinook, a nook-and-cranny waterway hemmed in by ragged canyon cliffs. It’s a popular playground for fishing, water skiing and puttering about in a houseboat. The Cove Palisades State Park surrounds much of the lake, with day-use areas, desert hiking trails, boat ramps, numerous campsites and log cabins along the lakeshore. On the east shore, Cove Palisades Resort & Marina offers a full-service marina and boat rentals. Kick back and enjoy the oddly satisfying combination of wrinkled desert and sparkling water.
Planes and Grains: A Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a North American Aviation P-51 Mustang and a Grumman J2F Duck are among the more than 20 World War II aircraft on display at the Erickson Aircraft Collection near the Madras Municipal Airport. Much of this rare collection has been restored to flying condition. At the nearby New Basin Distilling Company, five Madras partners — a science teacher, a rancher, two farmers and a crop-duster pilot — rely on local grains and nearby Opal Springs water to craft their high-quality spirits. Sample New Basin vodka, gin and whiskey at its tasting room, where you can purchase bottles and take a peek at its Willy Wonka-esque copper still.
X Marks the Spot: Downtown Madras lies at the intersection of US-26 and US-97, your best base for fuel, food, motel-style lodging and other services. Pick up maps and local information at the Madras-Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, also the headquarters for the surrounding Ochoco National Forest and Crooked River National Grassland. The Great Earth Café & Market can hook you up with smoothies, salads and thick, made-to-order deli sandwiches. For sit-down dining, Geno’s Italian Grill earns praise for its homemade soups and breads, along with a variety of pizzas and pasta dishes.