: Sara Jean Photography

Kid-Friendly Ways to Cool Off in Central Oregon

Your guide to awesome swimming spots in the sunny high desert.
May 22, 2019 (Updated June 21, 2023)

Summertime means swimming time in Central Oregon, and lucky for you, the sunny high desert bursts with refreshing lakes, shimmering rivers and public parks where you and the kiddos can cool off with maximum fun. Whether you’re looking to wade into the watery heart of an ancient volcano or take a leisurely float through town, here are some great ways to beat the heat.

A family of 5 floating on inner tubes on a body of water.
Spend a hot sunny day floating on the Deschutes River through Bend's downtown. (Courtesy of Steve Heinrichs/ Visit Central Oregon)

Water Parks and Rivers in Bend

Central Oregon’s largest community, Bend, is a hot spot for splashy fun with numerous options to fit your family. On a hot summer day, tubing the languid Deschutes River is a must.

Most people start their float at Riverbend Park and end at Drake Park, passing through the Old Mill District and exiting downtown. It takes about an hour. Along the way, you can bounce through a thrilling but gentle whitewater park with small, artificial rapids. Many kids (and adults too) just run laps through the whitewater, hiking a short distance upstream to do it again and again, while parents can easily supervise from McKay Park

Sun Country Tours rents high-quality tubes near Riverbend Park. The Ride the River shuttle stops at Drake Park and can bring you back to the put-in. Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe offers kids kayaking and paddling camps throughout the summer.

Want to avoid the crowds? Bring your own tube and avoid weekends as you head to Tumalo State Park, where you can hike upstream as far as you like and float back to the start. Little kids will love the new “sprayground” — Bend’s first — at the 37-acre Alpenglow Park. For a saltwater fix, try the pool at the Campfire Hotel, where it’s just a small fee for adults not staying overnight, and kids under 6 swim for free. 

Young children on a floating tube being pulled by a boat.
Prineville Reservoir State Park is the perfect place for a day of waterskiing. (Courtesy of Oregon State Parks)

A New Splash Pad in Prineville

New for summer 2023, the Kiwanis Splash Pad in Prineville’s Stryker Park is open from June to September and features fountains, a longhorn sprayer and other creative ways to get wet, all for free.

Meanwhile, about 15 miles south of town, Prineville Reservoir State Park is an oasis in the desert with a 15-mile-long lake filled with water flowing from the Ochoco Mountains. If you’ve been meaning to teach the kids a motorized water sport like waterskiing or wakeboarding, this is a great place to do it, with plenty of visibility and room to roam.

Large floating tubes and paddle boards near a dock for rent.
Rent tubes, paddle boards and motorboats for a day on the water at the Cove Palisades Resort & Marina. (Courtesy of Oregon State Parks)

Cool Off in Redmond and Madras

This free, easy-access splash feature at Centennial Spray Park in Redmond is a hit with kids in the warmer months. Jumping in and out of the rhythmic jets makes for easy and quick entertainment and lets kids get the wiggles out (don’t forget a towel and change of clothes). Pro tip: Down the street is the beloved community Fireman’s Pond, which is stocked with fish by the Redmond Fire Department. Kids under 14 and adults with disabilities may fish for free, no license required.

Near Madras, The Cove Palisades State Park on Lake Billy Chinook is a fun place to swim among towering canyon walls. The Cove Palisades Resort & Marina also rents motorboats, paddleboards and floating pet-friendly barges complete with a water slide, barbecue grill and toilet. 

Deep blue waters of East Lake. (Courtesy of US Forest Service)

Beat the Heat on Alpine Lakes

When the heat lands like an anvil, it’s time to head into the mountains. Suttle Lake near Sisters offers a glorious respite with stand-up paddleboard, canoe and kayak rentals at Suttle Lodge, where you’ll also find a dock and a boathouse serving ice cream. Elk Lake offers stunning views of South Sister from sandy beaches while sailboats drift by. Head to the Elk Lake Resort for free live music, burgers and craft beer. 

East Lake and Paulina Lake are the two lakes in the flooded caldera (a collapsed ancient volcano) at the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. Fed by snowmelt and underground springs, crystal-clear East Lake is a hot spot for trout fishing. Its sandy shores and wooded shoreline are perfect for picnics. Even on the hottest days, the temperatures will be much cooler up here at 6,400 feet, offering a lovely escape. Rent a boat from East Lake Resort.

Top Tips for the Best Experience

Here are some simple steps you can take to keep your whole crew safe on the water whether you’re boating or paddling:

  • Wear a properly fitted life jacket — it’s required for ages 12 and under and highly recommended for others regardless of age. It may just save your life if you end up splashing into the water unexpectedly, especially in cold water temperatures. Many lake areas have free life jacket loaner kiosks if you don’t have your own.
  • Once you’re on the water, beware of changing winds or other boats creating large waves or wakes. Know how to maneuver into waves to avoid being swamped.
  • Stay close to shore and avoid fast-moving waters if you’re newer to boating or paddleboarding.

Paddlers with boats 10 feet and longer are required to purchase and have on hand their Waterway Access Permit, which can be purchased online.

About The

Tim Neville
Tim Neville is a writer based in Bend where he writes about the outdoors, travel and the business of both. His work has been included in Best American Travel Writing, Best American Sports Writing and Best Food Writing, and earned various awards from the Society of American Travel Writers and the Society of Professional Journalists. Tim has reported from all seven continents and spends his free time skiing, running and spending time with his family.

Trip Ideas