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Explore the History of the Cascade Mountain Range Near Bend, Oregon

It’s no exaggeration to say that Central Oregon would not exist as we know it today without the Cascade Range.

The Cascades, after all, act as a rain shield that gives us sunny skies in all four seasons. Volcanic activity formed the myriad peaks that we hike, ski, and camp on all year long—and left behind the lava flows that have dazzled generations of visitors. The Deschutes River, in many ways the backbone of our region, has been moved and rerouted numerous times by volcanic activity that began high in the Cascades and far underground.

If you’re interested in learning about the mountains near Bend, Oregon, and how exactly the Cascades have shaped (and reshaped) the Central Oregon landscape, we’ve put together a guide to the iconic mountain range.

In this article, we’ll break down:

Read on to learn more about the Cascade mountain range near Bend, Oregon.

Geological Formation

South Sister and Sparks Lake in the Cascade Range near Bend, Oregon

The origins of the Cascade Range start far underground and date back nearly 40 million years. That’s when the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate, which sits under the Earth’s crust beneath the Pacific Ocean, started sliding east and under another tectonic plate—the North American Plate. (As the name implies, that tectonic plate sits under North America.) As the Juan de Fuca Plate slid further and further under the North American Plate, it inched closer to the Earth’s core—where the heat eventually melted the rock, turned it into magma, and sent it toward the surface.

That magma arrived on the Earth’s surface and eventually formed volcanoes in the area where the Juan de Fuca Plate slid under the North American Plate. These volcanoes comprise what we call the Western Cascades or Old Cascades today—and that smaller (extinct) chain of volcanoes sits west of the modern-day Cascade Range. (View a map of the Cascade Mountain Range.)

It was about 9 million years ago when the “current” Cascade Range in Oregon began to take shape, doing so in an era of high volcanic activity. Even so, most of the Cascade peaks we see across Central Oregon today are remarkably young in the grand scheme of things; Mount Bachelor formed just 8,000 to 18,000 years ago, South Sister (one of the Three Sisters mountains) formed by eruptions stretching back 18,000 to 25,000 years, and the top third of Mount Jefferson is less than 100,000 years old. Today, many of the mountains in Central Oregon remain active volcanoes—but technologically advanced warning systems mean the risk to modern-day travelers is practically non-existent. 

If volcanic activity created some of Central Oregon’s most popular peaks, glacial activity later shaped them into the distinctive summits we all recognize today. Broken Top, for instance, is most famous for its craggy peak—which is actually the inside of a volcanic cone carved away by glacial retreat. Glaciers also carved the jagged summit of Three Fingered Jack, as well.

Native American Heritage

Indigenous people have lived, fished, foraged, hunted, and traveled in the Central Oregon Cascades since time immemorial.

Some 15,000 years ago, some of the first Native Americans tribes from across modern-day Oregon—including the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla peoples—would harvest and shape arrowheads from obsidian deposits found on Newberry Volcano; they would trade those arrowheads with other tribes, and the sought-after tools have since been found as far east as Montana.

Arrowheads were far from the only resource that sustained, fed, or otherwise nourished tribes in the Cascade Range. Kalapuyans and Molallans would head into the Cascade Range to hunt elk and deer, trade with other tribes, pick huckleberries in summer, and collect hazelnuts every fall. The six tribes of the Klamath, meanwhile, fished in salmon-rich rivers just east of the Cascades. Tribes from across modern-day Oregon developed routes crisscrossing the Cascade Range to access spiritual and ceremonial sites, trade with other tribes, and draw from a variety of food sources.

Cascade mountain views.

Today, Warm Springs is the heart of Native American culture in Central Oregon. The warm, dry area just north of Madras and immediately east of the Cascade Range wasn’t the ancestral lands of the Wasco, Warm Springs, and Paiute peoples but, in 1855, the three tribes were forced to surrender much of their land and move onto the present-day Warm Springs reservation. In 1938, the tribes established themselves as the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. Today, The Museum at Warm Springs shares the tribe’s history through photographs, artwork, exhibits, and educational displays—and is among the top museums in Central Oregon.

Early Exploration and Settlement

Cascade Range views from Santiam Pass in Central Oregon

Some of the first European-American settlers in Oregon first crossed the Cascade Range in the mid-1800s by going around Mount Hood on what was called the Barlow Road—a treacherous stretch of Oregon Trail that followed steep ridges and cut through old-growth forest before leveling out near the present-day city of Sandy. (The Barlow Road no longer exists—but modern-day Highway 26 follows its general route across Mount Hood.)

As more European-American settlers arrived in Oregon, they created several stagecoach and wagon roads across the Cascades throughout the mid-1800s, largely to facilitate trade and improve travel to the Willamette Valley in western Oregon. According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, the first European-American to cross the Cascade mountains in Central Oregon did so in the fall of 1853 using a route near the present-day Willamette Pass. In 1861, the Santiam Wagon Road connected settlers in Central Oregon and the Willamette Valley; today, Highway 20 broadly follows the onetime trade route and is known popularly as Santiam Pass.

Development of Recreational Activities

In recent decades, Central Oregon has boomed as an outdoor recreation destination—with vacation-worthy activities available throughout the year. A big part of that growth is due to the region’s close proximity to the Cascade mountain range, where you’ll find scores of picturesque parks, scenic sites, and accessible adventures that have been protected for public use dating back more than a century.

One of the earliest protected sites is Crater Lake National Park, whose northern entrance sits just 90 minutes south of Bend; there, visitors can hike, fish, camp, dine, and take boating tours inside the caldera of an active volcano—one that erupted 7,700 years ago. Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the United States, was established as a national park in 1902 (marking one of the region’s first lands to be protected from development) and is today one of several national and state parks in Central Oregon.

Dee Wright Observatory near Sisters, Oregon

Another popular outing is a drive along the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway, which follows a route once traveled by trappers and explorers—and which was first paved with red volcanic cinders in the 1950s. Black asphalt replaced the red road in the 1980s, and the highway today (typically fully open between late May and November) provides a dramatic introduction to the area’s alpine lakes and Cascade peaks. Heading southwest from Bend and toward the heart of the Cascades, you’ll find numerous day-use areas, trailheads, campgrounds, crystal-clear ponds, and other fascinating sites; check out our guide to the Cascade Scenic Byway for the insider scoop on where to go and how to enjoy a drive along the spectacular highway.

Further north, along McKenzie Pass, sits Dee Wright Observatory. The observatory was constructed in 1935 from lava rock and today looks out upon more than a dozen Cascade peaks and a miles-long lava flow—all from within the heart of the range.


Looking for more outdoor opportunities around the Central Oregon mountain range? Start making plans to visit Bend, Oregon, today.

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