A Bend in the Road: A Three Day Road Trip Itinerary in Central Oregon

Exploring the high and the dry.  
Oregon landscape, U.S.A.
The Painted Hills of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument illuminate the central Oregon landscape. Photo by Marc Adamus.

Oregon in northwest U.S.A. has more than its fair share of craggy coastline and dense, mossy forest. So it’s easy to forget that once you get east of the snow-capped Cascades Range, a good chunk of the state is high, dry, and sparsely populated. This three-day itinerary out of the city of Bend explores Oregon’s sublime high desert country, where the vistas are broad and the skies tell stories all their own.

Rock climbers know Smith Rock State Park, 42 kilometres north of Bend, as one of the birthplaces of modern sport climbing in the United States. Even if you’re a climbing novice, it’s hard not to be impressed with the cliffs of volcanic tuff and basalt soaring above the aptly named Crooked River. There’s a walk-in campsite and an extensive trail network, the 12.3-kilometre Summit Trail Loop, open to hikers and bikers, that winds along the river before climbing almost a thousand feet. For a closer look at climbers in action, take the 1.6- kilometre-long trail up and over Misery Ridge. Keep an eye out for river otters at the bottom and golden eagles up high.

In the piny forest 13 kilometres south of Bend, the High Desert Museum offers a concise but in-depth overview of central Oregon’s natural and human history. Resident critters include porcupines, a bobcat, a Gila monster, and two river otters. Check the daily schedule for raptor flight demonstrations and activities at the Miller Family Ranch, where re-enactors explain life on the frontier at a model of a 1904 homestead and an authentic sawmill.

10 Barrel Brewing Company, Bend, Oregon

10 Barrel Brewing Company in Bend, Oregon, serves six kinds of microbrews on tap.
Photo by: Thomas Patterson/The New York Times/Redux

Oregon’s fiery origins are etched in its jagged Cascades skyline—and also in an active Newberry shield volcano that’s a little smaller than Delhi. Start your visit to Newberry National Volcanic Monument at the Lava Lands Visitor Center, 13 kilometres south of Bend, where you can drive to the top of the perfect cinder cone of Lava Butte for views of a 7,000-year-old lava flow. From there it’s a five-minute drive to Lava River Cave, where a 1.6 kilometre-long trail leads down into the darkness. (Bring warm clothes for the underground chill; you can rent lamps at the trailhead.) Another 45 minutes’ drive south is the 44-square-kilometre caldera itself, now filled with two large lakes instead of molten lava. Here you’ll find trailheads to 7,984-foot Paulina Peak and the Big Obsidian Flow, an under two-kilometres-long hike sprinkled with black volcanic glass.

It’s a longer drive to the Painted Hills, 137 kilometres northeast of Bend, but the sight of late-afternoon light on the kaleidoscopically coloured slopes is something you’ll never forget. They’re one of three scattered units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, where 40 million years of plant and animal evolution have been preserved in stone and soil. The nearby Thomas Condon Paleontology Center houses exhibits and a working lab where researchers pore over one of the most complete fossil records on Earth.

A cold brew may seem like a mirage after the desert, but luckily Bend has more craft breweries per capita than anywhere else in this beer-crazy state—which is about one for every 4,500 residents at last count, and that’s not including distilleries or cideries. The Bend Ale Trail connects ten breweries within about a kilometre of downtown, including two by Deschutes Brewery, the granddaddy of them all. Most offer food on site, like the Crux Fermentation Project, with a wide lawn, picnic tables, and a taco stand out back. (Their Doublecross Strong Dark Belgian Ale packs a tasty punch.) If you would rather not drive, take a guided tour by bus or “cycle pub,” a 14-passenger, pedal-powered rolling bar.


The route.

With a full day of volcano hiking and an evening of sipping local suds, you’ll need to unwind in the hot tub at the Oxford Hotel, a boutique eco-hotel in the heart of historic downtown Bend. All 59 rooms face south for maximum sunlight, with French press coffeemakers and cruiser bikes available to guests—they even have loaner guitars, if you’re feeling so inclined. Some suites have kitchenettes, steam showers, and balconies with views of the Cascades.

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