Our recent exploration confirmed central Oregon's reputation as an outdoor recreation Mecca. In addition to world-class climbing and world-class winter sports, we found miles of hiking, biking and riding trails, 25 golf courses, white-water rivers, trout streams, mountain lakes, and geologic wonders. And we found more: a fine museum, scenic drives, a lively downtown, compelling art, great food and drink, friendly and energetic people.
The volcanic peaks of the Cascade Range -- Three Sisters, Broken Top, Mount Bachelor, Three Fingered Jack, Mount Washington, Mount Jefferson -- provide a dramatic backdrop for this high desert landscape. Capturing most moisture blown to Oregon by prevailing winds, they create a rain shadow, and sunnier climate, on this side of the range. Elevations ranging from 2,500 to 4,500 feet moderate summer temperatures.
The High Desert Museum south of Bend provides a great orientation to the area with exhibits on natural and human history, desert wildlife, and living history. During our visit we got up-close and personal with a Western Screech Owl named William, as in Shakespeare--he's from Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The museum's Brooks Gallery depicts the exploration and settlement of the region with historic maps. Another gallery tells that story through a series of dioramas, while a third recounts the story of the Columbia Plateau Indians, the original inhabitants.
A group of school children in Newberry's lava tube and the lookout station
About eight miles further south, Lava Lands Visitor Center explains the geology and vulcanology of 55,000-acre Newberry National Volcanic Monument. The monument encompasses a mile-long lava tube, a lava-cast forest, the largest obsidian flow in the country, and monumental Newberry Crater, 18 miles across and containing two lakes and 20 waterfalls.
Bend, a growing city of 75,000, offers a break from the great outdoors with its historic, compact downtown and inviting shops, galleries and restaurants. Our search here for food and drink led us to Deschutes Brewery where we enjoyed pub fare with India Pale Ale, and to historic Pine Tavern where we ate steak and prime rib beside a Ponderosa Pine growing through the dining room roof. Another afternoon, we tasted award-winning Oregon reds at a downtown tasting room. Just south of downtown, the redeveloped Old Mill District offers more shopping, including a large REI store housed in the mill's former power plant.
Downtown Bend in the evening and the Old Mill District
Crossing the Deschutes River at the double meander for which the town of Bend is named, the road to Mount Bachelor heads west into the heart of the Cascades on the Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway. The road passes numerous lakes, known for their beauty and excellent fishing, including Little Lava Lake, headwaters of the Deschutes.
Twenty-one miles northwest of Bend, the village of Sisters rests peacefully beneath its namesake peaks. Western-style, false-fronted buildings house an eclectic collection of shops, restaurants and art galleries. Barely 20 miles east of Sisters, Redmond sits smack in the middle of the area. Home to the region's commercial airport and the Deschutes County Fairground and Expo Center, this full-service community of about 20,000 will host The Rally this July 19-22, and makes a convenient base for exploring central Oregon.
Prineville attracts rockhounds from afar. The surrounding area is peppered with agates, thunder eggs, fossils and the like. Prineville's Chamber of Commerce helpfully provides maps of digging sites. A back country byway leads south from Prineville on Oregon Route 27, following the Crooked River for 17 miles to Bowman Dam. Dotted with public campgrounds, the popular fly-fishing stream flows between towering basalt cliffs.
A little farther afield, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument makes a great side-trip. Just over 100 miles east of Redmond, via Oregon Route 126 and U.S. 26, the monument's Visitor Center is located in the Sheep Rock Unit, one of three scattered pieces of the monument. The modern building houses exhibits, a theater regularly screening films, and a laboratory with a window to view paleontologists at work. The Painted Hills Unit is reached along the same route, with a turn-off at about 65 miles, followed by about three-miles of gravel road. Striations of vivid rust, ochre and cream running across the hills make this place a photographer's delight, especially late in the day. At the third unit, Clarno, about 75 miles northeast of Redmond, a sign-posted trail reveals in-situ fossils including a tree limb that appears to have grown through rock.
Two colorful Views of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
Finally, if you're arriving in central Oregon from the south, or departing in that direction, a visit to Crater Lake is mandatory. One of the most spectacular natural wonders in the country, Crater Lake is worth a detour and an extra day, especially for anyone who hasn't yet seen this steep-sided caldera set with its sapphire lake.
We found an almost endless array of outdoor pursuits in central Oregon. We also found a surprising collection of less strenuous diversions. This combination, set in a place of jaw-dropping beauty, continues to bring us back.
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For More Information
Oregon Tourism Commission: (800) 547-7842; www.traveloregon.com.
Central Oregon Visitors Association: (541) 389-8799; www.VisitCentralOregon.com.
This story originally appeared in Highways magazine.