Editor’s note: Call destinations before you visit to make sure they’re open. Stay posted on what Oregon’s phased reopening means for you, and follow these steps for social distancing outdoors. Also, remember to bring your face covering, required for all of Oregon’s public indoor spaces and outdoors when keeping 6 feet of distance isn’t possible. Here’s what to know about Oregon’s outdoors right now.
It’s Friday night in downtown Redmond, and I’m sitting around a large table on the year-round patio outside at Wild Ride Brew Co. My family and I are tucking into mounds of spicy noodles, flaky fish and fat burritos from the food trucks parked nearby. The air feels crisp and full bodied. We eat like bears before winter. (Check for the latest info on restaurant reopenings in Deschutes County.)
Filling up in Central Oregon is always a treat, especially on a fire-lit patio where the wild, open sky can infuse your food. Truth is we’re here for the new-to-us experience as much as we came for the Shred Town pork. For the past few months, my wife, my daughter and I have skipped the long road trips and vacations and instead have focused on outings much closer to our home in Bend — which is great. The distances we travel may have diminished, but the spirit of travel has not. Tonight, we only need to drive 14 miles to tick off something we’ve always wanted to do but just never have.
It’s these places within plain sight that have attracted us lately, and Central Oregon has been wonderful that way. Redmond makes for a great base camp to explore north to Terrebonne or south to Sunriver, though you could easily stay put. Just down the street in Redmond, Soul Community Planet, a company that specializes in “holistic hospitality,” recently opened the 49-room SCP Hotel Redmond after a two-year, $7 million renovation of the historic Redmond Hotel, built in 1927. The hotel offers a “fair-trade pricing” program, where guests can adjust their rate based on the experience. After a day of exploring, you can wander up to The Rooftop bar for plates of savory charcuterie and warm drinks like their special Dad’s Hot Cocoa, all while soaking up the views of the Three Sisters to the west.
(Know that bars and restaurants are doing their best to serve customers with strict COVID protocols in place and limited capacity. Be kind and flexible when dining out, make a reservation when possible and consider sitting in the fresh air on the patio or ordering takeout. Here’s a roundup of cozy cool-weather patios for outdoor dining.)
To the north of Redmond, everyone knows Smith Rock State Park, and rightly so, with its soaring pinnacles and towering walls of formidable rock. But set your gaze a bit higher up and you’ll see 5,108-foot Gray Butte, with its triangle shoulders and pointed top, looming over the yawing expanses of the 173,629-acre Crooked River National Grassland. Out here you’ll find a fraction of the crowds as you hike through juniper forests and sagebrush to reach a summit with 360-degree views. You can start from the south at Smith Rock for a 13-mile round-trip hike along the Gray Butte Trail — an excellent trail run even in winter — or you can do what we did and pick up the same trail in the north, for a 3-mile round-trip hike to the top. The trail starts near the gnarled fruit trees of a pioneer orchard before rising steeply toward the top. Bikers and horseback riders love it out this way, too. Visit midweek for the fewest crowds.
Gray Butte gets less snow than the high Cascades to the west, making it an awesome place to go on sunny winter days when the wind is calm, but ours is a snow-loving family, so we are drawn to the sno-parks too. We’ve glided on cross-country skis along the trails of Virginia Meissner Sno-Park, 14 miles west of Bend, on moonlit nights and built igloos at Swampy Lakes Sno-Park. You can roar down the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway on a guided snowmobile tour. As backcountry skiers, we’ve tooled around the slopes of Paulina Peak near Sunriver and slipped around the spruce at Tam McArthur Rim near Sisters.
In every instance it’s important to Take Care Out There, as they say, giving others room while still being friendly and saying hi. (Wear or carry your face covering to pull on when you pass people outside of your household, and keep a physical distance of 6 feet even when you’re outside in the fresh air.) To avoid crowds outright, we sometimes head to Black Butte, the conical peak rising over Sisters, where the crowds thin in winter. We ski off the top, although snowshoers come up here too. But be forewarned: This outing can last a full day, and it’s 10 miles round-trip to make it to the top. For an easier option, we drive farther west on Highway 20 to Ray Benson Sno-Park, where the 4-mile North Loop crosses the Pacific Crest Trail to reach a log cabin warming hut, the North Blowout Shelter.
On Stars and Foxes
Some days, though, the weather just won’t cooperate, which makes a mini cultural road trip hold a lot of appeal. We might head south to the High Desert Museum to watch how the otters play in the snow, and then we’ll warm up by the new fire pits outside and sip hot chocolate. As soon as people are allowed back inside, we’ll check out the museum’s “Daredevils” exhibit (through March 7, 2021) and marvel at how Kitty O’Neil, dubbed the fastest woman in the world, hit 512 miles per hour in a rocket-propelled car in the Oregon desert. And what Scrooge wouldn’t delight at watching Gert, the museum’s new gray fox, play with her live-cricket snacks? The museum is airy, surrounded by 135 acres of forest, which makes it easy to spread your wings and find some physical distance.
Farther south, at the Sunriver Nature Center & Observatory (check for reopening info), you can organize private stargazing parties at the country’s largest observatory open to the public, or come during the day to visit Luna, the eagle-owl, and take advantage of reduced winter pricing. In any case, we bring our face coverings and keep our bubble small.
For now, though, on the patio here at Wild Ride, we savor the sweet slanting light as our dessert. On the way home, someone mentions a new food-truck pod called the Patio at 9th Street Village back in Bend that also sits next to a brewery called Bevel. (Check for the latest info on restaurant reopenings in Deschutes County.) Our curiosity is piqued. Within a week we’ve checked off that experience too.