Last Updated on April 6, 2023
Daily sunshine, crisp mountain air, the Cascade Mountain Range, raptors in the sky, high desert climate, volcanic buttes, tall forests, and raging rivers–this is Bend and Central Oregon. What started as a logging town is now recognized for its many outdoor sports, history, and natural habitat. Whether you are into hiking, fishing, paddle boating, mountain biking, rock climbing, river rafting, skiing, history, or museums, the Bend area has an attraction for all tastes.
Situated along the Deschutes River, Bend was first inhabited by Native American tribes including the Warm Springs, Wasco, and Pacate peoples. Then came the fur traders and early colonizers. The colonizers were heading west and looking for an alternative mountain crossing to the Barlow Trail further south.
A new trail was opened called the Free Immigrant Road, part of the Oregon National Historic Trail. These settlers forded the Deschutes River at the spot called Farewell Bend. Incorporated in 1905, the name was changed to Bend.
Expansion of the railway opened new avenues to the area and the lumber industry put Bend on the map. Now the fifth-largest metropolitan area in Oregon, Bend is home to over 100,000 with a similar population in the surrounding areas.
Here are 12 of the best things to do in Bend and Central Oregon.
High Desert Museum
Start your visit with a half-day trip to the High Desert Museum to learn about the wildlife, history, and natural habitat of the area. The 135-acre campus offers both inside and outside exhibits. In 2019, the museum was honored for Exhibition Excellence by the Western Museums Association.
Get up close and personal to creatures of the high desert in the Desertarium. Visit the hundred rescued animals thriving in their new homes. Learn how to help injured wildlife. You can even “adopt” a rescued animal.
Marvel at the Birds of Prey exhibit then wander outside to gaze up at the Raptors of the High Desert Sky Program. Take time also to learn about the Oregon Trail, early Native American tribes, and life in the Old West.
Visit the Silver Stage Trading Center for unique gifts including jewelry by Native Americans and local artists. Enjoy a break and refreshments at the Rimrock Cafe.
Newberry National Volcanic Monument (Lava Land)
When you first set your eyes on the lava fields, you will think you are on a different planet. Plan to spend several hours here. Start with the Lava Land Visitor Center with activities such as ranger-led talks and educational films to learn about the geography and how the mountains were formed when lava was flowing. Wander the 5.5 miles of paths with interpretive signs along the lava fields.
Step down, way down, 55 steps to be exact, and enter the lava tube. Explore the 2.2 miles of underground terrain on a self-guided tour. Tip: Be prepared for uneven surfaces. Wear sturdy, closed-toed shoes and dress warmly. The average temperature underground is 42-degrees Fahrenheit.
Then walk up, drive up, or take the shuttle to the top of Lava Butte. Here gaze out over the terrain and marvel at the beauty.
Parking requires a recreation pass that can be purchased at the Visitor Center or from local vendors in Bend.
Mt. Bachelor Ski and Sports
Located 22 miles from Bend, Mt. Bachelor is one of the six biggest ski areas in the nation. With over 4000 acres of lift-accessible trails, Mt. Bachelor stands as the highest skiable elevation of all of Oregon and Washington.
Activities vary with the season. In winter there are seven high-speed lifts, lots of snow, and sunshine. In summer, enjoy ziplining and mountain biking.
The area prides itself on the natural condition of the mountain. There is no lodging there or other commercialization.
Rafting on the Deschutes River
Picture yourself on a hot summer day, enjoying the water spray on your raft trip. An event not to be missed, rafting on the Deschutes River varies from two hours to half a day, all day, and overnight trips.
There are rafting adventures suitable for different areas of the river, from flatwater rafting to class 111 rapids. Choose what fits your comfort level.
Deschutes National Forest
Visit the Deschutes National Forest for 1.6 million acres of year-round recreation. There are five wilderness areas to explore. In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act and proscribed development or habitation of the land.
Summer activities include fishing, boating, horseback riding, mountain biking, camping, hiking, and backpacking. Winter activities include skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling.
Meet and greet the wilderness rangers working throughout the forest. They work to preserve the area and educate the public. Maps and the recreation pass are available online. Some trails require a wilderness permit. A reminder of outdoor ethics–leave nothing behind and take only photos.
Smith Rock State Park
Smith Rock State Park lays claim to the title “birthplace of modern American rock climbing.” Located 26 miles northeast of Bend, the state park encompasses 650-square-acres at an elevation of 3000 feet.
There are miles of hiking and biking trails and thousands of rock climbs, at least 1000 of which are bolted routes. There are climbs for all levels of expertise.
Enjoy the beautiful views of deep river canyons and sheer cliffs. At times some of the paths and climbs may be closed to protect nesting birds.
You will find the latest information at the park kiosks and the Welcome Center. There is both a day-use area and a tent camping area.
Cascades Gravel Grinder
Acclaimed as one of the most scenic gravel events in the nation, the Cascade Gravel Grinder draws both cyclists and spectators to the backroads of Central Oregon. The ride takes you through the High Desert and Cascade Mountains. Riders can partake in the race one, two, or all three days. Dress in layers as the temperature decreases the higher into the mountains you ride.
Usually held each April, the event runs for three days beginning on a Friday with the final party and awards held on Sunday.
Looking for evening entertainment? Check out the Tower Theatre, built in 1940, in downtown Bend.
Called Central Oregon’s “premiere stage”, you can enjoy a variety of concerts, live theater, films, and musicals. Take time to admire the Art Deco Modern architecture.
Tower Theatre is also called “Bend’s Living Room” as many nonprofits and community agencies share the stage. Check the website for the latest entertainment.
Spend a morning, afternoon, or evening, enjoying the beauty and tranquility of the 13-acre Drake Park downtown. Activities along the half-mile of riverfront include hiking, fishing, picnicking, paddle boarding, marveling at the views of the surrounding mountains and forests, and biking.
Bikes are available for rent. The outdoor stage hosts performances and parties such as the annual 4th of July Celebration.
Deschutes Historical Museum
Located in the historic Reid Schoolhouse, the Deschutes Historical Museum is a treasure trove for the history buff. There are a number of exhibits and educational talks. Mrs. Reid’s Classroom will take you back to school in the early 20th century. Be sure to try the diploma questionnaire to see if you can pass the test.
Learn about Pilot Butte Inn, once named “the finest little hotel in America” during its heyday in the early 20th century. Visited by presidents and movie stars, the 150-room hotel was a popular tourist destination. Unfortunately, after falling into hard times the hotel was demolished in 1973.
Photography exhibits also depict the early days of logging operations and life of the pioneers. Learn also about the Deschutes Rail War between the two entrepreneurs Hill and Harriman. Artifacts used by early pioneers are featured in the Pioneer Life exhibit.
The bookstore has unique gifts including commemorative coins and history books.
Climb or drive up an extinct volcano, Pilot Butte, in the middle of the city. Bend is one of only four cities in the U.S. to boast such a sight.
An extinct volcano is one that is considered unlikely to erupt again because it no longer has a magna supply. The cinder cone butte rises nearly 500 feet and allows you to gaze down at the city, the surrounding plains, and the Cascade Mountains.
Bend Ale Trail
All these activities are bound to create a thirst. Spend a fun afternoon trekking the Bend Ale Trail, the largest beer trail in the west. 18 breweries offer guided tours and tastings. Pick up a passport at the Visitor Center.
Every August join in three days of festivities at the Bend Brewfest.
Enjoy the Ale Trail responsibly. Choose from a variety of transportation options including shuttles, open-air electric cars, tours, taxis, or your own designated driver. Prizes are awarded to designated drivers.