Bend, Oregon. Pop: 93,917. Elev. 3,623’
Bend is where everything Oregon converges. It rests at the base of the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains. The Deschutes River babbles through town along its course north to the Columbia. And everywhere you look, massive forests of hemlock and ponderosa pine loom. Bend has a little slice of everything readily available. Year-round skiing? Check. Water sports? Check. Rock climbing? Everything from bouldering to multi-pitch trad, check. Trail running? Check. Endless mountain bike trails? Big check. Twenty-some odd craft breweries to wet your whistle when you’re done with all that outdoor adventure? Check, check, check. For lovers of drier climes, you can drive an hour east and be in an arid Great Basin-type desert. If the ocean is your thing, it’s just a couple hours over the hills and through the lush greenery to the beach. The summer days are long and warm, the winters are snowy. In Central Oregon, life’s a buffet. So grab a plate and let’s dig in.
Local Adventure Vibe
Even before the pandemic, Bend was the work-from-home capital of the United States. So as you can imagine, the general attitude of people is pretty lax and fun loving. Bend is full of people in their 20s and 30s living up the outdoor lifestyle (and keeping the local beer industry alive). For a city of just under 100,000 people, there is a ton to do here. Particularly in the summer, there are events happening constantly in Bend. From live music to multisport races like the Pole Pedal Paddle and the Deschutes Dash, there seems to be something happening every weekend. There are more conventional foot races like the Cascade Lakes Relay and slightly less traditional ones like the Bend Beer Run. Also never to be left out is the Gambler 500, a scrappy, unofficial rally/offroad race across 500 miles of public land. Entrants are required to use vehicles with a total cost of no more than 500 dollars, resulting in a Mad Max-esque parade of insane junker cars break-necking it through the woods. In true Bend fashion, there’s never a dull moment, and there’s something to suit all kinds of adventure lovers.
So what specifically is it about the eastern slope of the Cascades that’s so special? In a word, diversity. From Bend you can take a short drive to Mount Bachelor Ski Resort at 6,000 feet elevation. Or you can also drive northeast to Smith Rock, a jagged mountain of tuff where sport climbing got its start. The Cascades Range to the west offers superb opportunities for hiking and biking. Further south is Newberry National Volcanic Monument, a broad, deep caldera. And on all sides, Bend is surrounded by Forest Service and BLM land that is chock full of trails, rivers, lakes, and waterfalls. The amount of access Bend provides to incredibly different landscapes and adventures is overwhelming.
Food & Drink
For those in the know, Bend means Beer. The current count of breweries in Bend sits at 22, all of which are arranged along the “Bend Ale Trail”. A few standouts are Deschutes Brewery & Public House, 10 Barrel, Boneyard, Crux, Monkless, Cascade Lakes, and Bend Brewing Co., but you really can’t go wrong. Particularly if you like IPA and other hop-forward beer. This is hop country, after all.
But the food in Bend is also fantastic. One of the best ways to grab a quick bite and a pint (without even going inside) in Bend is to head to a food truck lot. There are several around town, most notably The Lot, The Podski, and On Tap. For sit-down dining, Wild Rose Thai is an unbeatable choice for authentic Northern Thai cuisine. And the honorable mention has to go to Bangers and Brews, a gourmet sausage shop that earned Yelp’s number one highest rated restaurant in 2019.
Places to Stay
But there’s also something to be said for waking up in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. We put together a short list of charming places to camp around Bend from thedyrt.com.
An obvious first choice, Smith Rock State Park allows overnight camping so you can wake up and get after it right away. The park features some bivouac camping sites that are accessible by foot. This is a prime option for climbers looking to cut their commute down to zero before a big ascent. Another big plus is the cost – sites go for just $8 per night.
Little Lava Lake is more than just the headwaters of the Deschutes River. It’s a lovely mountain lake, tucked high in the Cascades and surrounded by imposing conifers. You’ll get excellent views of Mount Bachelor as you roll out of your tent for your morning coffee here. The campground is managed by the Forest Service and allows tent and RV camping. Sites go for around $20, depending on the site and dates you choose.
Paulina Lake is also a picturesque lake, but with a twist. It sits in the caldera of Newberry National Volcanic Monument, in the depression left when Newberry Volcano last erupted. Paddling a kayak around the placid waters, you almost forget you’re floating on top of an active volcano! Be sure to visit the hot springs located on the shore while there. The campground is managed by the Forest Service, and has all the usual amenities you would expect. Tent and RV sites go for just $18, a steal of a deal.
Guided Adventures on 57Hours.com
Finding a new place with a million outdoor adventures can be overwhelming, especially if you’re just getting into a new adventure sport. Of all the amazing destinations around Bend, Smith Rock probably is the most well-renowned. Its sharp towers loom over the surrounding desert landscape, begging to be climbed. Seeing it firsthand, you’ll see why so many people take on big wall climbs here to see the panoramic beauty of Oregon from hundreds of feet up.
But what if you don’t know the first thing about climbing? That’s where 57hours.com comes in. 57hours is a service that connects everyday Joes and Janes with certified guides to help you learn the skills you need to accomplish incredible things. 57hours offers an adventure climbing Smith Rock for everyone from beginners to expert climbers. With over 1500 routes, you’ll find something to suit your appetite. You can go for a family rock climbing adventure, a half day of climbing with a guide, a full day climbing multi-pitch routes, or a customized full day of climbing with a private guide. Rates range from $85 to $350, depending on the option you choose. We highly recommend taking on a new challenge with the help of a guide. It maximizes your chances of success, and will help you reach new heights (quite literally).
Hiking, Backpacking, and Mountaineering
As we’ve mentioned already, Bend is surrounded by a seemingly endless network of trails. For some, you don’t even need to leave town! Trails like Pilot Butte and the Deschutes River Trail are awesome half-day outings within city limits. Other nearby favorites include Tumalo Creek, a forested climb into the Cascades, passing waterfalls on both sides, and Misery Ridge, a precipitous circuit of Smith Rock, promise bigger rewards for more sweat.
For those constantly seeking out high points, the Bend area provides. From shorter trails like Tumalo Mountain to more committing routes like South Sister, you’ll see everything from glaciers to clear lakes to deafeningly quiet forests. If you’re after something more technically challenging, peaks like Mount Jefferson and, of course, Mount Hood are a few hours away. These routes can be done with fairly little gear (depending on the time of year you decide to go) and include some exhilarating exposure. Expect at least class IV scrambling, and in the case of Mt. Hood, steep snow climbing with an ice axe and crampons.
There are also enough long distance routes around Bend to keep you satisfied forever. For an overnight or weekend backpack, the Crater Rim Trail is a scenic loop traversing the Newberry Caldera. The Metolius-Windigo Trail is a worthy commitment, totaling 142.5 miles. It can be done in pieces as well, giving you lots of options. And finally, Bend is a big stopover for the Pacific Crest Trail. The section to the west of Bend crosses through the heart of the Oregon Cascades, crossing lava flows, peaks, and shady forests. Doing even a section of it will be well worth the effort.
As we’ve mentioned several times already, climbing is one of the main things that draws adventure enthusiasts to Central Oregon. Smith Rock draws big wall enthusiasts from all over to take on its many multi-pitch sport and trad routes. Even beginners will have options for multi-pitch climbs here, like the classic First Kiss. Others like Morning Glory Wall offer more technical trad climbs. But the main event is, without doubt, the Monkey Face. This free-standing tower, reminiscent of the desert towers you’d see in Moab, Utah, stands 350 feet tall and has sport, trad, and even aid routes. The difficulty ranges a lot as well, with routes that can accommodate beginners such as Pioneer Route, as well as challenging, even risky ones like Path of Totality.
But Smith Rock isn’t the only climbing you can do around Bend. There are plenty of first class boulder fields either in town or just outside. Areas like The Depot and Meadow Camp provide all-day fun, walking distance from the town center. These boulder problems range widely from caved out traverses to exposed slabs to tall hand cracks. If spending a day by the river, chipping away at a project boulder in the shade sounds like a perfect Sunday to you, you’ll be right at home in Bend.
The main draw for skiing in Bend is Mount Bachelor, a volcanic butte that offers 360 degrees of skiable terrain off the summit. It’s a massive mountain with unlimited potential for tree runs, open faces of powder, and even some halfway decent chutes. Of course, three hours north, you can also ski Mount Hood, with three resorts to explore. Maybe the most noteworthy of these is Timberline Lodge, which operates year-round on one of the peak’s prominent glaciers.
As for ski touring, there are plenty of objectives around that tread the line between touring and ski mountaineering. Bend is a late-season gem for skiing lengthy corn lines down some of the large peaks in the area. Mostly what we’re talking about here are the Three Sisters. Just be prepared for a long trek in, sometimes straight up the face.
Bendites are crazy about mountain biking. There are tons of trails in literally any direction you look. North of town around Smith Rock, east of town in the Oregon Badlands, and both west and south of town on Deschutes National Forest. The list is simply too long to get into too much detail, but a few quick areas to get you started just outside town are Phil’s Trails, Shevlin Park, and the Swampy Lakes/Tumalo Trail System. All of the above are close enough that you won’t even need to drive your bike to the trailhead.
And if downhill is more of your thing, you’re in luck. Mount Bachelor operates in the summer as a bike park, spinning two of its chair lifts and servicing the whole front side of the mountain. There are 13 trails ranging from green to double black in difficulty. If you want to maximize the flowy downhill without having to do much work for it, this is the way to go.
If you haven’t noticed yet, long distance routes around Bend are very common, and this includes bike routes. We pulled a few favorites from bikepacking.com to give you an idea of the potential for bike touring in Central Oregon. The first and foremost of these is the Three Sisters Three Rivers tour. This 325-mile journey leads you up, across, and back down the Cascades from east to west. It’s 90% unpaved, 60% single track and ascends a total of almost 27,000 feet! It’s normally done in nine amazing days and is rated 7/10 for difficulty.
Similar, but more intense is the Oregon Timber Trail, a 668-mile trek across the entire state from south to north, roughly following the Cascades from the California border to the Columbia River. This is a huge undertaking, normally done in almost a month of riding. It ascends 66,000 feet and is 91% unpaved. For long distance bike touring, this is about as good as it gets in Oregon.
Another south to north cycling voyage through the state is The Oregon Outback route. This trail parallels the Cascades on the east side, sticking mostly to the drier lowlands. It’s a similar distance to the Three Sisters Three Rivers trail, at 364 miles over six days, but climbs only 14,376 feet. So for a similar distance, at a slightly reduced difficulty, The Oregon Outback is the best choice.
Last is the Central Oregon Backcountry Explorer, a 152-mile loop through the arid country east of Bend. This area, including a good cross section of the Ochoco Mountains, is starkly different from what you might picture when you think of Oregon. It’s also much less strenuous than the others. Taking 3-5 days, this may be a preferable choice for those with less time on their hands.
As mentioned already, there are several trail running events that happen annually around Bend. The Cascades are replete with multi-use trails, and there really are no wrong answers for trail running. So for simplicity’s sake, suffice it to say that anything you can hike would make a fantastic run too. You can see a map of over 640 miles of trail running trails around Bend here. After the snow melts in mid and late summer, almost all of the high points near Bend become outstanding rapid climbs that hardy runners could take on in a half-day or so. The more lush areas near town like Tumalo Creek are steadier, with photogenic scenery and plenty of shade. And the lowlands east of town are outstanding for long distances, winding over and around low hills.
Rafting, Kayaking, and Paddleboarding
One of the most classic things to do in Bend is to float the section of the Deschutes that runs through town. People take everything from inflatable tubes to paddleboards to kayaks and canoes down this stretch, which is comprised of mostly flat water with a few small rapids. But a short drive from the city center can put you in the midst of the mountains, which are full of pristine lakes ideal for SUP-ing, or seriously intense whitewater.
Spots like Devils Lake, Lava and Little Lava Lakes, Elk Lake, and Cultus Lake are all still and clear, a dream for stand-up paddleboarding. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Rogue, Mackenzie, Deschutes, North Umpqua, and John Day Rivers all have outstanding opportunities for rafting. These rivers run the gamut from mellow flat water to class five rapids, and all are within a short drive of Bend. We recommend looking into a local outfitter like Ouzel Outfitters for details on trips.
Where West Meets East
The variety of Central Oregon is what makes it such a stand-out adventure destination. Sure, you may be able to hike dense temperate rainforests elsewhere, or climb big multi-pitch routes in different parts of the country, but here you can do it all in the same day. In one early summer’s day, you could go from skiing Tumalo Mountain to paddleboarding in shorts or surfing on the coast or even climbing the Monkey Face, and be back in Bend in time for happy hour. It’s the ultimate outdoor choose-your-own adventure. So the only question, really, is: what do you want to do today?
Written by Conrad Lucas.
Conrad is a biologist, naturalist, adventurer and writer from Salt Lake City, UT. He specializes in bat ecology, and loves skiing, caving, canyoneering, and climbing. You can follow him on IG @canyonconrad and find his creative work at www.jconradlucas.com.