Central Oregon’s Five Must-Do Waterfall Hikes

A shortlist of the area’s most scenic and accessible waterfalls

Paulina Falls/Ted Taylor

Paulina Falls

If you’re on a waterfall tour, this is a good place to start. Located inside the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, southeast of Sunriver, this is the only waterfall east of Hwy. 97. The area is epicenter of the cataclysmic eruption that formed many of the Bend area’s notable geologic features. Today, the Newberry Caldera remains a hotbed of geothermal activity as evidenced by the multiple hot springs found around the area. You could spend days exploring the interior of this scenic shield volcano, and its twin lakes, but it takes just a few minutes to hike from the visitors center down to Paulina Falls on Paulina Creek. If you happen visit in the offseason, you may just catch a glimpse of local ice climbers ascending the frozen plume, ice axes in hand and crampons strapped to their feet.

Benham Falls/Dillon Falls

Accessed via the Deschutes River Trail, these falls are formed by the lava channels created during a series of eruptions of Mt. Newberry that concluded roughly 7,000  years ago. While Benham is the main attraction, it’s worth dedicating a few hours to a river trail exploration. Those who venture beyond the Benham Falls overlook are rewarded with views of dramatic landscape shaped by boiling lava and churning water that is perhaps more readily associated with a Hawaiian coastline than an Oregon forest. Massive lava beds of angular obsidian  stubbornly resist the push of the powerful river, hemming it into a narrow channel filled with drops and pools that includes Dillon, Benham and Lava Island Falls.

Tumalo State Park in Central Oregon

Tumalo Falls

This may be the most photographed waterfall in all of Central Oregon, and for good reason. The falls pour dramatically off a rock ledge, dropping nearly 100 feet crashing noisily  into a small pool below. There the frenzied water molecules pause briefly to gather themselves, before continuing their journey northward toward the confluence with the Middle Deschutes River. But for a few short second they hang in majestic splendor, seemingly created solely for the camera’s eye. If you’ve got the time and the lungs, don’t stop here. Follow the hiking and biking trail west toward the Bridge Creek Watershed where you’ll find a handful of smaller falls just waiting to be explored.

Steelhead Falls on the Deschutes River in Central Oregon

Steelhead Falls

Another destination off the beaten path, Steelhead Falls rewards those willing to explore.  The somewhat remote falls are located on a lightly trafficked section of the Middle Deschutes that is accessed through Crooked River Ranch. The area is designated as a Wilderness Study Area and is managed for its wild and scenic values, including a ban on motorized travel and development. While signage to the area has improved over the years, it helps to familiarize yourself with the directions in advance, as there is no direct route to the parking area. Once there however, you’ve got miles of trails through the pristine canyon to explore. Head north, downriver, along the hiking trail roughly ¾ mile to find the falls. The picturesque plunge falls drop dramatically into a cauldron like pool. If you’re visiting in the summer months, bring plenty of water and sunscreen, as the canyon can be as inhospitable as it is breathtaking.

Fall River Falls

You won’t find any highway signs leading to this oft overlooked spot on the Fall River. But it’s worth a short detour, if you’re on your way to or from Mt. Bachelor or spending time in the Sunriver area. To reach the falls, take South Century Drive out of Sunriver to the W. Deschutes River Road, a gravel road that’s found west of the Robert Maxwell Bridge on the Deschutes River and east of the Fall River fish hatchery.

When you find the gravel road, follow it to the parking area near the bridge. Make sure to have your Deschutes Forest Pass, as it’s required in this neck of the woods. Look for the trailhead on the near side of the bridge and follow the path roughly half a mile to falls. Here the gin clear waters tumble dramatically into a broad basalt-lined pool before the river resumes its journey westward to the nearby Deschutes. It’s a perfect spot for a picnic on a summer day or just a stroll and photo op.

Eric Flowers
Eric Flowers
Eric Flowers is a Bend-based freelance journalist and the former editor of the the Source Weekly. His work has appeared in 1859 Magazine, Oregon Business and the Drake. He spends his free time with his wife and two daughters, chasing trout, fresh snow, firm trails and an even-par round of golf.
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