Editor’s note: Call destinations before you visit to make sure they’re open. Follow all COVID-19 guidelines, get vaccinated before you travel and remember to bring your face covering.
Central Oregon’s moon-rock landscapes, high-desert sagebrush, forested mountain trails, and easily accessible rivers and lakes are places ripe for summertime fun. Hop on a bike, book a rafting or fishing trip, or set off on a quiet trail to explore otherworldly geological formations. The crisp air and sunshine-filled days of Central Oregon are calling. Here are 10 top adventures to explore.
Newberry National Volcanic Monument
If you truly want to get off the grid in Central Oregon, take a trip through Newberry Country and prepare to be wowed by awe-inspiring geology and wildlife at every turn. The Lava Lands Visitor Center gives a great overview of how the monument includes more than 54,000 acres of lakes, lava flows and other spectacular geologic features. A trek up to Lava Butte — the cinder cone rising 500 feet above the center — showcases panoramic views of the Cascade Mountains, Newberry Caldera and Paulina Peak. See real black lava rock as you stroll the lakeside trails, or glimpse the impressive twin 80-foot cascades of Paulina Falls plunging from the cliff into the pool below. If you’re wondering, Newberry Caldera sits atop an active volcano — a very big one, about the size of Rhode Island — but as the last eruption was 1,300 years ago, there’s no reason to expect another anytime soon.
County: Deschutes County
Fun fact: This iconic Central Oregon peak was named Mt. Bachelor because it “stands apart” from its neighboring peaks, the Three Sisters. Topping just over 9,000 feet, it’s a stratovolcano (steep, with many layers from its past eruptions — the most recent being 8,000 to 10,000 years ago). Today Mt. Bachelor is the ultimate playground for outdoor adventurers, with its popular summer lift offering access to hiking trails, an 18-hole summer disc golf course, and flowy singletrack at the Mt. Bachelor Bike Park. Get ready for a new zip line scheduled to open in summer 2020 — just another way to experience the grandeur. In the winter, the park transforms into a snowy wonderland, so catch the green while you can.
County: Deschutes County
Cascade Lakes and Peaks
The area at the eastern slope of the Cascade Range is called the Land of Lakes for good reason: A full dozen crystal-clear lakes and reservoirs are a paradise for fly-fishers, hikers and road trippers along the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway, which connects them all. Make it a true-blue summer lakeside experience with a dreamy van trip or family-friendly RV tour of Central Oregon. Soak up the high-desert sunshine and catch yourself a tasty dinner of rainbow or brook trout straight from the quiet and bountiful Little Lava Lake, at the headwaters of the Deschutes River.
If you’re looking to hike in the popular Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington or Three Sisters wilderness regions, know that 17 of the 79 trails require new Central Cascades Wilderness Permits. These must be purchased in advance for each outing between May 28, 2021 and Sept. 24, 2021. The permits are intended to limit the number of visitors to these sensitive areas, with fragile ecosystems that can be harmed by overuse. You can find dozens of equally spectacular hikes in the Central Cascades that do not require permits. Remember to stick to designated trails, pack out all trash and follow other steps to Take Care Out There wherever you go.
County: Deschutes County
Here in Sisters country, jeans and flannel are the perfect attire — or whatever suits your comfort. The charming Old West facades along downtown’s main street are just the gateway to your road-trip adventure. There’s rodeo culture, a handmade quilting culture and other art galleries to explore, a burgeoning craft-beer scene, and even a spa made from rejuvenating beer hops. Just outside of Sisters, find a number of family-friendly resorts that have hosted generations of visitors with everything from horseback riding and swimming to on-site dining, spas, golf, and miles of paved bike and walking trails.
County: Deschutes County
It looks like a fist rising from the high-desert floor, a jaw-dropping geologic feature you can marvel at from up close or afar. Steins Pillar — the misspelled namesake of Central Oregon explorer Major Enoch Steen in the 1860s — is not a mysterious ancient man-made structure; it’s all natural. The 350-foot monolith is the largest remnant of the blast of tuff, or compacted volcanic ash, that filled the nearby Wildcat Caldera after its eruption 40 million years ago. See it up close by following the 2-mile (one-way) Steins Pillar Trail, which winds through dense forest and open meadows. The last 1.5-mile section of the trail is steep and challenging. For more geologic wonder and a longer hike, take the Twin Pillars Trail, 8.3 miles one way. The trail ends at 200-foot double pillars, with plenty of scenic vistas along the way, so pack a picnic and your Ten Essentials. Find more spots nearby to visit on your Prineville road trip.
County: Crook County
Lake Billy Chinook
You could spend days or even weeks having fun at Lake Billy Chinook, named for the Wasco Indian who joined the John C. Fremont expedition in 1843. Whether you want to swim, boat (try a party barge), paddle, hike, camp or fish — the most popular activity here — you’ll find 72 miles of shoreline with deep waters chock-full of smallmouth and largemouth bass, trout, kokanee, and more. At The Cove Palisades State Park, don’t miss the Tam-a-lau Trail (6.9 miles round-trip from the Deschutes Campground), which climbs to the top of a lava plateau with spectacular views of nearby peaks and canyons. Don’t miss the thousands-of-years-old petroglyph rock on display at the park between the Deschutes and Crooked river arms of the lake. About 13 miles west of the park entrance is another one-of-a-kind sight known as the Oregon Hoodoos — a bizarre landscape of stone spires that appear to be human-made but are actually the result of volcanic tuff that has eroded away to this crazy configuration.
County: Jefferson County
Drive 80 miles northeast of Bend and you’ll find the remnants of a historic wedding chapel, schoolhouse, hotel, City Hall and jail, and a host of vintage cars that look like they’ve been frozen in time. There’s also a former wool warehouse, as Shaniko — once touted as the “Wool Capital of the World” — is one of Oregon’s most beloved ghost towns. This former inland shipping town went bust after a rail line to Bend opened and two fires destroyed most of the business district. Today the Shaniko Historic District is not all lost — visitors can tour the sites (being respectful of the property) and visit the operating museum. Visit Shaniko, just off Highway 97, along a road trip back in time to the John Day Fossil Beds for even more of a Twilight Zone experience.
County: Wasco County
The Deschutes River is the lifeblood of much of Central Oregon, winding through Bend, Warm Springs and Maupin for 174 miles on its way north to the Columbia River. Anglers love it for the world-class steelhead- and trout-fishing opportunities (pro tip: Book a guide to help you cast your first fly). And thrill-seekers of all ages love it for the easy-access rapids for rafting. Many trips originate in Maupin, a little town full of outdoor outfitters ready to get you geared up and on the water for a daylong or multiday trip. (If you go without outfitters, be sure to obtain a boater pass before floating.) Bend is also a busy jumping-off point for the Deschutes, with plenty of gear outfitters at your disposal. You can take a lazy float downriver by tube, challenge your balance with a stand-up paddleboard, take on the human-made rapids at Bend Whitewater Park via kayak or on a surfboard, or let out screams of delight aboard an easy rafting trip from Bend or Sunriver. You can even book your own private raft, and treat yourself afterward to a meal and a pint at one of Oregon’s top craft brewpubs.
Counties: Wasco County, Jefferson County, Deschutes County
White River Falls
As if it could get any more dramatic, you can, on a clear day, see the peak of Mt. Hood in the distance behind the two-tiered cascade of White River Falls, in the quiet rolling hills of the Tygh Valley — a quick shot south of The Dalles. Take in the beauty at White River Falls State Park, where you can set out on a rugged trek to the bottom of the canyon (.7-mile round-trip). Amidst the thunderous roar, breathe deep and pause to experience the full power of the plunge at the historic hydroelectric power plant, now abandoned. Fourteen miles north of Maupin, the waterfall is a worthy detour — the perfect place to enjoy a picnic lunch after a morning rafting or fishing trip on the Deschutes River.
County: Wasco County
Oregon Scenic Bikeways
There isn’t a single reason cyclists love Central Oregon — there are six! A half-dozen Scenic Bikeways encompass the region — easy road maps for two-wheeled warriors to experience the full grandeur of these awe-inspiring landscapes. In Wasco County, Sherar’s Falls Scenic Bikeway (33 miles) starts in Maupin and includes a climb onto the high plateau between the Deschutes and White rivers. Jefferson County’s Madras Mountain Views Scenic Bikeway (29 miles) winds through rolling farmland and along a canyon rim filled with the ultimate panorama of peaks, including Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood, Three-Fingered Jack, Mt. Washington, the Three Sisters, Broken Top and Mt. Bachelor. The chance to hike or climb at the big rock at the end, Smith Rock, is a sweet reward at the end of the Sisters to Smith Rock Scenic Bikeway (37 miles) in Deschutes County, with its rolling terrain suited for a broad range of riders. Twin Bridges Scenic Bikeway (36 miles) starts in Bend and features some of the best urban and farmland stops along the middle section of the Deschutes River. Experienced cyclists may set out on the McKenzie Pass Scenic Bikeway (38 miles), an extreme adventure that ends in Deschutes County, offers the stark contrasts of a lava-rock landscape and the forests both on the dry and wet sides of the Cascade mountain range. In Crook County, the Crooked River Canyon Scenic Bikeway (37 miles) meanders through vistas and deep forest with views of the Ochoco Mountains; cool off along the way with a waterfall, a lake and a river.
Counties: Deschutes, Jefferson, Crook, Wasco