Alpine lakes scatter across the high country of Central Oregon, where striking volcanic strata and the snowcapped Cascade Range provide the perfect backdrop for this 66-mile/106-kilometer scenic drive.
It would be easy to get sidetracked in Bend, a fun-loving, high-desert city bathed in sunshine and bisected by the serene Deschutes River. But it would be a shame to miss the nearby Cascade Lakes along this drive, where glaciers and volcanoes created a landscape of tremendous beauty, diversity and geologic significance.
Bend as a Base
Oregon’s largest city east of the Cascades, Bend is the sunny face of Central Oregon and one of the state’s most popular hubs for year-round recreation. Its vibrant downtown — filled with shops, hotels, restaurants and Bend’s renowned array of craft breweries — nudges up alongside the Deschutes River, bordered by historic Drake Park. A bit farther south, a shuttered paper mill has been reborn as the Old Mill District, another riverfront commercial core with shopping, entertainment and a network of walking/ cycling paths.
The High Desert Museum is an excellent introduction to the area, with cultural and natural history exhibits, and a large outdoor area of live-animal habitats. Bend is also the gateway to the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, which encompasses a 500-foot/152-meter-high cinder cone, lava tubes and other features. The Lava Lands Visitor Center on US-97 has maps, information and interpretive exhibits.
Century Drive and Mt. Bachelor
The byway begins on Bend’s west side, where OR-372 quickly begins its climb toward Mt. Bachelor. Signs and maps also call this road the Cascade Lakes Highway or Century Drive — the latter because the route was once a 100-mile/ 161-kilometer red cinder loop road.
Just within the Deschutes National Forest boundary, FR-41 leads to the Deschutes River, with access to fishing, canoeing and two notable waterfalls, Benham and Dillon. A few miles west on the byway, you’ll see a vast lava flow that altered the river’s course. It’s one of the many landforms shaped by volcanic activity along this route. The ponderosa pine forests along the byway are characteristic of the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains. The peaks trap much of the moist air from the Pacific on the western slope, a rain shadow that gives this region its dry, sunny climate.
As you continue climbing westward, the forest transitions into a mix of pine, fir and hemlock. Around a curve, the enormous cone of Mt. Bachelor suddenly dominates the horizon. A turnoff leads to Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort. With nearly 3,700 acres of lift-served terrain and a 3,365-foot/1,025-meter vertical drop, it’s the largest ski area in Oregon, with deep, dry snows that often last into June. In summer, ride the lift to the Pine Marten Lodge for a sunset dinner of internationally inspired cuisine and gorgeous views of the Cascade Mountains.
Land of Lakes
As the byway descends from Mt. Bachelor to Dutchman Flat, you’ll get an impressive look at Broken Top Mountain, which provides a rare opportunity to see inside a stratovolcano — a tall, canonical volcano. Volcanoes and glaciers together formed the dozens of lakes in this area, many created in basins scoured by ice and blocked by lava dams.
The route skirts an expansive wet meadow at the north end of Sparks Lake, an exceptionally picturesque waterway covering about 250 acres, much of its shore jagged lava. The lake was a favorite subject of longtime Oregon photographer laureate Ray Atkeson, and a short loop hike near the boat ramp is named in his honor.
Near emerald-green Devils Lake, a jumble of lava boulders tumbles down from Devils Hill. Archaeologists have found evidence of Native American encampments here, along with pictographs on Devils Hill dating back thousands of years. As NASA readied for its moonlanding missions in the 1960s, astronauts trained in these lunar-esque lava fields. Astronaut James Irwin carried a sliver of rock from Devils Hill on his Apollo 15 mission and left it on the moon.
Dozens of lakes beckon as the byway swings south on FR-46. To the west, trails lead to lakes hidden in the Three Sisters Wilderness. On the east side of the byway, the Elk Lake Recreation Area offers easy water access, along with cabins, dining, a campground, a marina, boat rentals and other services. Both Elk Lake and nearby Hosmer Lake have superb views of Mt. Bachelor and great fishing.
The lifeblood of Central Oregon, the Deschutes River begins 5 miles/8 kilometers south as a small creek flowing from Little Lava Lake. In its 250-mile/402.3-kilometer run north to the Columbia, it irrigates countless farms and ranches, and it is one of the West’s great fly-fishing and rafting rivers. The byway follows the Deschutes for a few miles as it flows through a meadow and Crane Prairie Reservoir, famous for its 5- to 10-pound lunker rainbow trout, known as “Cranebows.” The eastern shore of the reservoir is an osprey management area; the fisheating birds of prey are frequently seen here, along with other raptors and shorebirds, including sandhill cranes.
You’ll pass several more lakes with good access for boats and fishing. The route ends at OR-58 near Crescent Lake and Odell Lake, two more spots to cast a line, launch a kayak and enjoy the Cascade Lakes.