Beer, bicycles, and Mount Bachelor—fun comes in many forms in a central Oregon town.
Back in the early 1900s when Bend, Ore., was but a hope of a town hemmed in by miles of trees, mountains, and rocky flats, George P. Putnam (Amelia Earhart’s future husband) ran the local newspaper. The job was an excuse to work where he could do what he loved most: play outside. He fished trout from translucent lakes, slept under the stars, and ambled along the rowdy Deschutes River before being pulled to New York for good to lead his family’s publishing dynasty. The only thing he did wrong was to come to Bend about 100 years too soon.
These days nearly 77,000 people live in this town 120 miles or so east of Eugene on the dry side of the Cascades, and most can understand why Putnam loved Bend so much. But things are even better now. Mountain bikers and hikers cruise trails through the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests, stand-up paddleboarders bob down the river, and modern adventurers roister over sweaty pints from 12 local breweries (two more are on the way), dine on sidewalk patios in a thrumming downtown, and savor open-air concerts at the Les Schwab Amphitheater.
“It’s the kind of town where you aren’t defined by the one thing you do,” says Greg Bridges, a Bend teacher and woodworker who founded Old Growth Boards, which makes custom paddleboard kits. “You can be a multisport athlete on a daily basis.” That’s true even if your only sports are eating, drinking, and walking.
Many visitors roll into town on U.S. 97, central Oregon’s main north-south corridor. (It’s called Third Street in the city.) Nearby lies the heart of downtown Bend, a five-block hub with restaurants, galleries, and cafés lining brick-paved sidewalks.
If you’re not first distracted by Bend’s newly expanded flagship watering hole, Deschutes Brewery, with its 16 beers on tap and juicy burgers, sign up for the hour-long Early Days tour at the Des Chutes Historical Museum. You’ll walk past Putnam’s old home and hear the tale (possibly tall) of a local who hauled 3,000 trout from nearby lakes and held a fish fry for the entire town. New this year, historians offer summertime walking tours of Bend’s Old Mill District, once the economic engine of the town. Today there’s an REI in the old three-smokestack power plant that drove the mills—a fitting image for Bend’s transmutation from timber town to outdoorsy gem. The boards sold there these days are snowboards, paddleboards, and board shorts tucked beside rows of mountain bikes and tents.
Although there’s golf to play and art to see (particularly during the monthly First Friday gallery walk and Art in the High Desert, August 24–26), the true heart of Bend beats behind the sweat-wicking shirts of outdoor enthusiasts. Among the spruce and hemlock in the millions of acres of national forest and public land that surround the city, canoeists dip their blades into dozens of lakes, including Sparks Lake, with its views of Mount Bachelor and other peaks, and Hosmer Lake, where you can ply the star-spangled sky reflected in the water during a moonlight paddle. Hikers stroll past the Big Eddy rapids on the Deschutes River Trail. Even a winter playground has summer appeal: On Mount Bachelor, one of the country’s largest ski areas, visitors can often ski into July. Already packed away your ski gear? Ride the chairlift halfway to the summit, then hike up for views of the 10,000-foot Three Sisters volcanoes, or take a swift ride in a wheeled cart pulled by huskies.
But the most visible sport in Bend has to be biking. And why not, with 300 miles of singletrack accessible from the edge of town? Before you ride, fuel up on “the Med”—poached eggs with roasted pepper and hollandaise—at Chow, then head out to the Phil’s Trail complex off Skyliners Road. There you’ll find easy and intermediate mountain bike trails among the pines. On a daylong trip with Cog Wild Bicycle Tours, guides take you on a 2,600-foot descent for at least 18 miles, all the way from Mount Bachelor back to town.
You needn’t even leave the city limits to find summer thrills. On scorching weekends, join the swarm of locals who use inner tubes or air mattresses to float right through Bend on the brisk Deschutes River from Riverbend Park to Drake Park, where a shuttle bus ($2.50 per day) whisks you back upstream. Alternatively, take a stand-up paddleboard lesson at Riverbend Park and then cast off for some exploring on your own.
Come evening, when the town twinkles in the summer dusk, grab a rooftop table for Cajun redfish at Zydeco or kick back by the outdoor fire at 10 Barrel Brewing and savor the town’s timeless allure.
“I would rather live in Bend than in any place I know,” Putnam wrote a century ago. “Those who go there, provided they are properly equipped, will find success and happiness.”
Properly equipped, eh? Nothing that a trip to REI can’t fix.
Photography courtesy of VisitBend CCOP: John Melton (Drakes Park); James Jaggard (Deschutes Brewerey); Craig Zagurski (paddle boarders); Ben Roman (fly fishing)
This article was first published in July 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.