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Destination Smith Rock State Park

Philip Kuntz
Philip Kuntz

I was a visitor to Central Oregon many times before I ever gave serious thought to becoming a resident. Sure, I had casually tossed around the, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could actually live here?” idea during my early visits, but it wasn’t until I realized the full breadth of what Central Oregon has to offer—thanks to some tips and insights from a few locals who were willing to share their secrets—that I began to give serious thought to moving. Even then it took several more years of fence straddling before I finally made the move, which almost immediately left me asking the question, “Why didn’t I move here sooner?”

Now, as a 15-year Bend resident, I often find myself playing the role of de facto tour guide for family, friends, and even complete strangers who ask the question, “What should we do while we’re visiting Central Oregon?”

The answer, it turns out, isn’t quite as simple as it seems. It might sound cliché, but there truly is something for everyone to do—in every season—here in Central Oregon.

Monkey Face at Smith Rock State Park near Bend, Oregon
Monkey Face climbing rock sits in the foreground at Smith Rock State Park

The majesty of Smith Rock State Park draws thousands of visitors each year, whether to attempt some of the more than 1,000 named rock climbing routes, to hike along the Crooked River as it winds its way through the park, or to simply photograph the geologic beauty of this ancient monolith of rock.

My wife—who is a Central Oregon native and who spent eight years away from home pursuing degrees from Oregon State University and the University of Houston—still finds Smith Rock as enchanting today as the first time she visited the park as a child. One of our favorite hikes not just in the park but in all of Central Oregon is the trek up and over “Misery Ridge,” which although challenging is certainly not misery-inducing, and the views from the top of the ridge reward hikers for their efforts. A panoramic vista that includes nearly a dozen volcanic peaks, and the chance to spot climbers scaling the internationally renowned Monkey Face rock formation, make the two-hour loop a must-do for visitors during any month of the year. And no visit to Smith Rock is complete without a pre- or post-hike stop at Terrebonne Depot, which serves great food in a charming, renovated 100-year-old train station only a mile from the park.

Viewpoint at Smith Rock on the Sisters to Smith Rock Scenic Bikeway near Bend, Oregon

If Smith Rock is your primary destination in Central Oregon, there’s probably no better base camp from which to explore than one of Central Oregon’s many destination resorts. But beyond Smith Rock State Park, there is enough to see and do in Central Oregon to literally fill a lifetime of visits. Which is exactly why my wife and I often enjoy being tourists in our own backyard, taking in the sights, sounds, activities, and events that others travel great distances to experience.

mountain biking at Phil's Trail

If you’re like me, you like your vacations to be a mixture of activity and relaxation. On one hand, I could spend hours—if not days—mountain biking the singletrack of the Phil’s Trail network, skiing at Mt. Bachelor, snowshoeing in the Deschutes National Forest, or plying the waters of the area’s many blue-ribbon trout streams.

On the other hand, I like to kick back and recount the day’s adventures with a cold beer poured from one of the region’s 20-plus craft breweries, listen to music at one of countless outdoor festivals or concerts, or do some casual window shopping in Bend’s Old Mill District or down the western-themed boardwalks of Sisters.

With that in mind, here is a highlight reel of sorts featuring some of my favorite Central Oregon pastimes, and the things I’m quick to recommend when prompted for information.

Metolius River & Camp Sherman:

Camp Sherman was named after the residents of Sherman County in north-central Oregon, who would travel en masse to the headwaters of the Metolius River and surrounding area for a few weeks of recovery after their laborious annual wheat harvest. Today, Camp Sherman remains a haven for visitors and consists of a small general store, clusters of private cabins, and rental properties along the banks of the Metolius River. If I’m not headed there to fly fish for Rainbow or Bull Trout, you can usually find me hiking along the Metolius River Trail as it winds its way along both banks of the river for miles, hiking to the top of Black Butte for lunch beneath an active US Forest Service fire lookout, or exploring the expansive grounds and rearing ponds of the Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery.

Meadows Golf Course, Sunriver Resort

Golf, golf, golf:

Even though I’m a pretty high handicapper when it comes to golf, the sport has long been a passion of mine and Central Oregon’s 30 golf courses provide plenty of challenge and variety for me and my golfing buddies. From mountain golf to classic desert courses to traditional links-style routings, the Central Oregon golf product is challenging enough to provide a stiff test to the single digit handicap player, yet forgiving enough to show mercy to a triple-digit scorer like me. Popular resort courses such as Tetherow, Crosswater, Pronghorn, Black Butte Ranch, and Eagle Crest Resort are complemented by lesser-known but also impressive courses such as Lost Tracks, Aspen Lakes, Juniper Golf Course, and Meadow Lakes. Golf is also one-third of the “Central Oregon Trifecta,” which is something I have yet to complete in my time living here but am eager to cross off of my list. After all, there aren’t many places in the country—or the world, for that matter—where you can go skiing in the morning, play a round of golf in the afternoon, and fly fish for trout in the evening. Sign me up!

Sunriver:

Less than 15 minutes south of Bend lies the community of Sunriver, a master-planned resort and residential community that debuted in 1968 and is a destination in and of itself. Anchored by Sunriver Resort, the community of Sunriver features 63 holes of golf, full-service marina and stables, the Sage Springs Spa, the SHARC aquatic and recreation center, 35 miles of paved bike paths, more than 30 tennis courts, a pedestrian-friendly retail village, a private airport, and more within the family-friendly confines of its 3,300 forested acres. The list of activities goes on and on, and is a big reason why Sunriver is just as popular with locals on “staycation” as it is with visitors on vacation.

High Desert Museum:

Whether my sister and her kids are visiting and want to get up close and personal with some indigenous critters, or I’m just looking to learn more about the region’s history on a rare sunless Central Oregon day, the High Desert Museum’s  combination of indoor and outdoor exhibits, wildlife, and living history is unmatched. Set on 135 acres just south of Bend and open 363 days a year, the Museum has been educating visitors about their connection to the past, their role in the present, and their responsibility to the future since 1982. In addition to its rotating schedule of historical and cultural exhibits, two of my favorite permanent exhibits at the Museum are the Birds of Prey Center with its twice daily outdoor Birds of Prey Encounters, and the Lazinka Sawmill—a fully functioning turn-of-the-century operation that mills lumber today much as it would have in 1904.

There is so much to see and do here in Central Oregon and this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There’s more than can fit in a single blog post, and certainly more than one can experience in a single visit.

Taken individually, almost every Central Oregon experience—including some of my favorites listed above—could easily be the highlight of any visit to the region. But like trying to decide which of your children you love most, it’s not as easy as it seems. Collectively, the overall Central Oregon experience is greater than the sum of its parts, and it’s the main reason I moved here. It’s also why I plan to continue calling Bend home for as long as I can imagine, and why I am eager to share my favorite experiences, activities, and adventures with visitors. Central Oregon is everyone’s to enjoy.

Justin Yax
Justin Yax
An avid fly fisherman, mountain biker, golfer, and skier, Justin Yax was raised in Seattle and has called Central Oregon home on two different occasions settling permanently in Bend in 2001. When he’s not busy promoting the region as a leisure travel destination, he and his wife Kristen, a Central Oregon native, can be found exploring the region’s trails, lakes, rivers, and all things outdoors.
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