Central Oregon is the fastest growing region of Oregon and the perfect year round travel destination. Featuring four unique seasons and the best outdoor adventure opportunities in the state, Central Oregon has something for everyone! Bend is the most populated and popular city in Central Oregon with amazing shops, restaurants, craft breweries and a large variety of family friendly attractions. From there, you can travel in literally every direction and discover all the outdoor adventure that Central Oregon has to offer. Plus, the cities of Redmond, Sisters, Sun River, La Pine and Prineville are all within a short drive. Here are 15 things that you just have to experience in Central Oregon.
#1 Explore Lava Lands Visitor Center
Most people who want to visit the Newberry National Volcanic Monument start their trip with a stop at the Lava Lands Visitor Center. In reality, this visitor center should be the first stop for all Central Oregon visitors who are trying to get the lay of the land. The Lava Lands Visitor Center is a wealth of information about the area’s geology, culture, and ecology. Exhibits at the center describe how lava flows from nearby volcanoes formed the area’s terrain. The center updates its hands-on activities to engage young visitors who learn about the weight and composition of lava rocks and explore the self-guided interpretive trails that surround the center. Besides being able to see various types of regional flora and fauna at the Lava Lands Visitor Center, families get tips about the best places in the area to hike, bike, and kayak.
# 2 Explore Smith Rock State Park
Smith Rock State Park is located in the heart of Central Oregon’s high desert. The area was formed years ago from volcanic activity and features jaw-dropping cliffs that overlook the Crooked River. The park offers plenty of opportunities to view local wildlife up close. Depending on the season, you’ll see golden eagles, beavers, and deer. An Oregon favorite for photographers, the beauty of Smith Rock cannot be beat!
Over the years, Smith Rock State Park has earned the top spot as the world’s sport climbing capital. People come from all over the world to climb different routes within the park that vary in difficulty levels. The park has over 1,800 traditional and sport climbing routes.
Besides rock climbing, Smith Rock State Park is known for its foot races. Runners take to its rugged trails to participate in races that can cover up to 50 miles of extreme terrain.
There are plenty of hotels near Smith Rock State Park in the city of Redmond. Tent camping is also allowed in the park.
#3 Redmond Caves Recreation Site
After scaling rugged cliffs at Smith Rock State Park, you’ll be glad to come down to earth at the Redmond Caves Recreation Site. This natural attraction was formed from the lava of nearby volcanoes. The temperature in the caves remains cool and comfortable even when topside temperatures rise.
Besides being an escape from the summer heat, the Redmond caves are a gold mine for geology and archaeology enthusiasts. According to Native American folklore, native tribes used the caves thousands of years ago in hunter-gatherer communities. Archaeologists have found evidence that somewhat corroborates the lore such as pieces of animal bones, arrowheads, and bits of an ancient sandal.
The Redmond Caves Recreation Site is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and is located within the city limits of Redmond. BLM requests that visitors don’t try to collect artifacts, leave trash, or tag the caves with graffiti when visiting the site. Instead, they ask that you take a number of items with you. Some of them include three dependable light sources, a helmet for low ceilings, and gloves and knee pads for some of the more rugged caves. For a complete list of things to do, bring, wear, and avoid, check out the BLM website for exploring the Redmond caves.
#4 Golf at Sunriver Resort
Visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to lodging in Central Oregon. However, there’s only one real option if you’re a golf enthusiast or are traveling with one. Sunriver Resort has all of the amenities of a first-class home away from home as well as some of the best golf courses in the Pacific Northwest. Besides its 245 curated suites, Sunriver Resort also has a number of condominiums, vacation homes, and other rentals on site.
Golf at Sunriver Resort is superb. There are four award-winning public and private courses on the resort property. Each course offers something special in the way of design, difficulty, and natural scenery. While some of the courses offer tee time preferences to hotel guests, other Sunriver golf courses are only open to club members and resort guests.
#5 Tour Crooked River Canyon Scenic Bikeway
Scenic bikeways are unique to Oregon, and it’s no surprise given the state’s wealth of natural beauty and temperate weather. One of the most popular bike paths in Central Oregon is the Crooked River Canyon Scenic Bikeway. This bikeway stretches for 37 miles and is the pride of Prineville. The paved trail follows the twists and turns of the Crooked River through breathtaking canyons and tranquil countrysides.
You’ll want to stop along the bikeway to take in the vistas and explore the area, and there are several campgrounds and picnic areas that are situated along this bikeway for just that purpose. Before taking off on your adventure, you’ll want to pay a visit to the folks at Good Bike Company. This local bike shop is a great resource for bike accessories and information about the Crooked River Canyon Bikeway.
#6 Discover Tumalo Falls
Tumalo Falls is a must-visit natural attraction in Central Oregon. At 97 feet high, it’s the tallest waterfall in the area. The great news is that you don’t need to be an avid rock climber or hiking enthusiast to get an up-close view of this natural wonder. Arrive by car at the attraction’s day-use area, and the falls are just a .25 mile walk on a well-maintained trail. If you are an avid hiker, you can go several miles beyond Tumalo Falls to explore seven other waterfalls that are within the Deschutes National Forest.
Tumalo Falls is created from snow melt in the Cascade Mountains and feeds Tumalo Creek at its base. If you follow the trail along the Creek, you’ll be treated to views of the lush, green meadows of Happy Valley.
#7 Hike Black Crater Trail
If you’re ready to see some of the best views of the Cascade Mountains that Central Oregon has to offer, make plans to hike Black Crater Trail. Black Crater Trail is part of the Deschutes National Forest and turns into a stunning wilderness wonderland almost immediately after you leave the trailhead. The trail’s length is just over seven miles round trip, and you’ll be hiking at an elevation of 2,300 feet.
The moderate hiking trail can be reached via the Old McKenzie Scenic Highway 242. The best time to visit the Black Crater Trail is during summer and early fall. The roads to the trailhead are often closed during winter. You’ll need a special permit to hike and camp along designated areas near the Black Crater Trail. Hiking this trail is truly a unique experience as you can still see snow on the trail as late as July because of the elevation.
#8 Visit the Last Blockbuster
Pre-Millennials can relive the good old days with a visit to Blockbuster. Before streaming video services became available, parents would take their children to Blockbuster to rent family-friendly movies on VHS cassette tapes on any given Saturday evening. While Netflix and other streaming video subscription services have made VHS tapes and video rental stores obsolete, one Blockbuster video rental store remains open as a tourist attraction in Bend, Oregon. The last-standing Blockbuster still has a collection of VHS movies and a number of souvenirs for sale. Don’t worry if your old VCR doesn’t work anymore. This Blockbuster also carries DVDs. Bring your camera. This is one photo op that belongs in your digital scrapbook.
#9 Indulge at Belknap Hot Springs
When total relaxation is your goal, you’ll want to consider Belknap Springs Lodge & Gardens for your stay in Central Oregon. After a day filled with hiking, biking, and horseback riding, the benefits of the offerings at Belknap Springs Lodge become very obvious. The resort features two pools that are fed by nearby mineral hot springs. The soothing water reaches temperatures of 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The upper pool is held exclusively for overnight guests, but the lower pool is open to the public via an hourly day pass. Guests can also explore the gardens that make the lodge a popular venue for weddings, anniversary parties, and other similar events. The boutique property has 18 guest rooms, seven cabins, and seven vacation rental homes on site. It also contains 42 RV spaces and several tent camping sites.
#10 Kayak the Lakes
Central Oregon’s volcanic origins make it home to some of the most stunning lakes in the country. If you love water sports, you can’t go wrong with a trip to Paulina Lake. Paulina Lake sits within the collapsed Newberry Volcano caldera, and its waters are fed by underground hot springs, snowmelt, and rain. The outlet for the lake is Paulina Creek.
Paulina Lake is an indescribable hue of iridescent blue and contains a variety of distinct vegetation and wildlife. Paulina Lake is 250 feet deep at its deepest point and covers an area of over 1,500 acres.
Lava Lake is another must-visit destination for boating enthusiasts. This lake, which sits along the Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway, was formed from cooled lava that created a dam around the lake’s edge. Lava Lake features majestic views of Mount Bachelor in the distance.
#11 Ski Mount Bachelor
While summer offers some wonderful opportunities to explore scenic Central Oregon, the fun doesn’t stop after the leaves fall. In certain cases, the excitement is just getting started. Mount Bachelor is a regional favorite for skiing and snowboarding in Central Oregon. Besides having numerous runs that accommodate all types of skill levels, Mount Bachelor also offers specialty activities such as snowshoe tours with naturalist guides and dog sledding. The Mount Bachelor ski resort also offers ski and snowboarding lessons that are designed to make everyone comfortable playing on the slopes.
#12 Drink a Craft Beer at a Local Brewery
Central Oregon is undoubtedly known for its amazing craft beer. For years Portland has been known as the “Craft Beer Capital of the World” but in recent years Bend has started to claim that title. In 1988 Deschutes Brewery opened the first small brew pup in the city, and since then the beer scene has exploded!
Data shows that Bend has the highest micro-breweries per capita in the entire United States with approximately one brewery for every 9,000 people as of 2015. This makes Bend an attractive vacation destination for beer lovers. Plus, surrounding cities like Redmond and Sisters are also quickly developing their own beer culture.
#13 Take an ATV Tour of the Badlands
Adventure travel is the reason that many people visit Central Oregon, and nothing gets the adrenaline pumping like an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) tour of the Central Oregon badlands. Let the professional guides at Outriders lead you on a fast-paced, open-air trek through lava fields, magnificent forests, and up to Fuzztail Butte. You’ll see panoramic views of the Cascade Mountains and scenic high desert areas. There are stops along the way as guides impart knowledge about the geology, ecology, and history of the area. This is a unique and exciting way to explore the Deschutes National Forest.
Outriders ATV tours are available by reservation only, and travelers consistently rate them as one of the best activities to do near Bend, Oregon. You’ll need to dress appropriately since you could experience various amounts of sun, rain, and snow on your tour, but Outriders cancels tours when severe weather strikes. Whether you’re traveling with your 70-year-old aunt or your 8-year-old nephew, your group is sure to have a blast on this memorable excursion.
#14 Go On a Photo Tour
If you’re like many people, social media platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest have inspired you to take up photography as a hobby. If your interest in the subject has progressed beyond snapping a few pictures of your cat with your phone, you’ll want to book a private photography tour of Central Oregon. Tours are led by professional photographers who not only know about the most scenic spots in the region, but they can also give you tips about the best techniques to use to capture those stunning vistas. Photo tours of Central Oregon are highly flexible in general; you choose your start time, group size, and tour duration.
#15 Camp Out in a Snow Cave
When you’ve checked off traditional travel bucket list items, it’s time to create some unconventional adventure travel memories. Snow camping at Mount Bachelor is a great way to test your survival skills while enjoying an unforgettable winter wonderland experience. Sign up with professional wilderness guides who will take you out to a scenic camp location and show you how to build your own snow cave for an overnight shelter. Most outfitters provide all of the gear that you’ll need for a safe, overnight adventure in the snow. You simply bring warm layers and your sense of wonder.
When you visit the Pacific Northwest, you’ll be amazed by the region’s wealth of natural beauty, cultural offerings, and fresh food. Central Oregon is no exception. You’ll need to make more than one trip to the area to really appreciate all that it has to offer.