Leave Oregon’s fog-shrouded coast and come smell the sunbaked sage. With twinkling lakes, roaring cascades, alpine scenery, and lava moonscapes, you’ll get a sampling of Oregon’s natural beauty.
The idea at the High Desert Museum near Bend, Oregon, is to put you right in the middle of the area’s evolving history—a sort of low-tech time travel. Go around a corner and there is a primitive high desert camp just vacated by people who lived 11,000 years ago. Around the next bend is a tent set up by fur traders in the sagebrush; stroll a few steps and you’re deep in a gold mine.
There’s a surveyor’s camp, covered wagon, frontier town, and buckaroo corral. It’s all very slick, with realistic sound and lighting effects, but one exhibit is clearly missing from the "Hall of Exploration and Settlement." The final showcase should feature a shiny new sport utility vehicle packed with skis, snowshoes, snowboards, mountain bikes, fishing tackle, golf clubs, a kayak, rock-climbing ropes, camping gear, and mounds and mounds of neon-colored sportswear.
The reason that anyone has come to Bend over the past few thousand years is always the same: the natural setting. Located smack in the middle of the rough rectangle that is present-day Oregon, Bend is perched on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Range. Those mountains not only provide fabulous snow-covered scenery visible from virtually every parking lot, highway, and side street in Central Oregon—they also block the rain clouds from the Pacific Ocean. When the western part of the state is enjoying its famous rainy weather, Bend is bright and sunny.
The area gets only about 12 inches of precipitation a year, but that’s apparent in the high, lonesome desert of sagebrush and juniper trees that stretches east. In the other direction, up the mountain slopes, are forests of ponderosa pines. And right through the middle of Bend is the Deschutes River.
In a walk through Bend, you can almost feel the town growing. Construction workers rove about putting up more houses, motels, and restaurants. Early retirees with great muscle tone head for the vitamin store. College-age kids in aerodynamic sunglasses are off for a day of mountain biking or running the lifts on Mt. Bachelor.
The town sprang up in one of the few places where the Deschutes is not down in a canyon. This is where the wagon trains could cross; pioneers called the place "Farewell Bend," because it was their last look at the water before forging on over the Cascade Range. Those romantics at the post office later chopped the name to its monosyllabic, prosaic state. The Deschutes, called Rivière des Chutes—River of the Falls—by French fur trappers, also was shortened by practical types with no ear at all.
The High Desert Museum is best enjoyed at the end of a drive along the spectacular Cascade Lakes Highway in summer, when the high roads reopen. Start the 87-mile loop by buying a picnic lunch in Bend, then head west toward Mt. Bachelor. The drive winds past meadows, forests, and dozens of twinkling blue alpine lakes. There are marinas, some services, and beaches at Elk, Cultus, and Lava lakes. Todd Lake is a popular spot for picnics and camping. The area is webbed with trails and Forest Service roads, many of which seem custom-made for hiking and biking.
If you want a long hike but don’t want to shoulder a burden, consider hiring a llama. Central Oregon has close to 2,000 llamas. You see them in pastures, and some are hired out as hiking companions who carry heavy loads without complaint.
Near the end of the Cascade Lakes drive lies the Lava Lands Visitor Center, just off Highway 97, in one of the many lava fields scattered around the area. Lava fields, easy to spot, look like the surface of an uninhabitable planet, with scratchy, gray pumice rocks strewn about. From the visitor center you can hike or take a shuttle in summer to the top of the 500-foot-high Lava Butte at the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. You’ll get views of the Deschutes River, Cascade peaks, and Newberry Crater.
The lava fields are hard and disquieting reminders that the surrounding mountains, which provide the slopes, trees, and vistas, are volcanoes, and young volcanoes at that. The most prominent are the Three Sisters (nicknamed Faith, Hope, and Charity), all just over 10,000 feet. These are flanked by Mt. Washington (7,794 feet) and Broken Top (9,175 feet) and surrounded by smaller mountains, three of which are called, charmingly, the Husband, Wife, and Little Brother.
It’s these mountains that, in effect, have set off Bend’s latest and biggest population boom, which seems fueled mostly by hyperactive baby boomers. This time the attraction is not fur or precious metals or lumber or even just an easy place to cross the river, but the hot pursuit of recreation.
Late spring is a good time to visit Bend and challenge your muscles or watch others challenge theirs in the quirky, multisport Pole Paddle Pedal (this year’s 23rd edition is May 15). It’s the competition for anyone who is energetic, who owns the right sports equipment, and who can get help during the many transitions.
Participants begin on Mt. Bachelor with a brief uphill run to their downhill skis. They schuss down and change to cross-country skis. After 5 miles of Nordic skiing, there’s a 22-mile bike ride down Century Drive into Bend, then a 5-mile run, then a brief kayak or canoe portage to the put-in area for a 1.5-mile paddle down the Deschutes. You can watch the skiing transitions at Mt. Bachelor. Or, in Bend’s Drake Park, watch participants sprint 250 yards to the finish.
You can also watch (or participate in) another equipment -intensive sport at Smith Rock State Park, 27 miles north of Bend. The soaring, vertical rocks—compressed, eroded volcanic ash called tuff—provide world-class rock climbing. Bring binoculars to watch the brightly clad climbers play Spider- Man, or to spot the golden eagles in a protected nesting area.
The more genteel outdoor activities are also well served around Bend. Streams and lakes, such as the Lower Deschutes and Hosmer Lake, invite fly-fishing. The area also sports a whopping 24 golf courses, including River’s Edge, Meadow Lakes, and Aubrey Glen, which offers views of the Cascades from the entire course.
During the winter, Bend’s bent is toward skiing, mostly on Mt. Bachelor. But as the snow retreats, outlying areas, such as Redmond, which holds the area’s airport, attract visitors. Sisters, 20 miles into the mountains, is a town with faux Old West architecture, full of shops and galleries. And Sunriver, 20 miles south of Bend, is built around the Sunriver Resort. Here, strict regulations require that the homes match the natural setting with earth tones. The resort offers plenty of seasonal recreation—from horseback riding and nature walks to snowshoe excursions and ice skating.
As you walk, paddle, putt, pedal, or ski around the area, keep an eye on the peaks. Those volcanoes are merely dormant, not extinct. Their last eruption was an estimated 1,300 years ago, a heartbeat geologically speaking. There’s no telling when one or more will erupt again. Keep in mind a sentence from Fire Mountains of the Westby Stephen L. Harris: "The Three Sisters region is as likely as any in the whole range to stage a spectacular volcanic renaissance." Which means we’d best enjoy it while we can.
This article was first published in May 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
For information on the area: Central Oregon Visitors Association, (800) 800-8334. Ask the Bend Visitors Bureau, (541) 382-3221, for Off the Beaten Freeway,a booklet on Oregon’s scenic byways. For information on camping and hiking, contact Deschutes National Forest, (541) 388-2715. Its Web site , describes hikes and gives map information. To reach Lava Lands Visitor Center (for Newberry National Volcanic Monument) call: (541) 593-2421. For llama trekking outfits, contact the Bend Visitors Bureau or Aloha Llamas, (541) 383-3030.