No two forests are exactly alike, and that’s never truer than in Central Oregon.
Our region’s largest forest—the 1.5-million-acre Deschutes National Forest—is home to the sixth-largest ski resort in North America, hundreds of miles of hiking trails, countless mountain lakes, and some of Central Oregon’s most recognizable peaks. To the north, the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness boasts a bevy of glaciers alongside pristine, untouched forests that look much as they did decades ago.
Further east, you won’t find any Douglas fir or ponderosa pine in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness; rather, the dusty forest trades towering trees for squat stands of ancient juniper, many of which are several centuries old. And the Ochoco National Forest blends the best of both worlds, with rolling hillsides, dazzling wildflower displays, and awe-inspiring rock formations.
No matter where you wind up, here’s a guide to Central Oregon forests.
Deschutes National Forest
Running along the Cascade Range in Central Oregon, the Deschutes National Forest is a crown jewel of the region. The forest, largely a mix of Douglas fir, pine, and mountain hemlock, measures nearly 1.6 million acres and is home to many of Central Oregon’s best-loved outdoor activities all year long.
In winter and early spring, skiers and snowboarders shred the slopes at Mt. Bachelor, whose snow-covered summit showcases the sheer breadth of the forest on the region’s famously sunny days. Elsewhere in the forest, myriad sno-parks host cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails, along with tube parks for little ones and the less adventurous. And if motorized travel is more your speed, the forest hosts snowmobile trails to the likes of Crescent Lake or Dutchman Flat.
As the snow melts and the weather warms up, trails for hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders lead to some of the most beautiful lakes in Central Oregon, sweeping viewpoints, and impressive peak views—to say nothing of the peaks themselves. Paddlers, meanwhile, can tackle whitewater challenges or quiet stretches of the Deschutes River—one of the most popular rivers in Central Oregon with outdoor enthusiasts—or relax with an afternoon on some of the many lakes along the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway. And anglers love fishing the forest’s rivers and reservoirs for rainbow trout, brown trout, and other species.
As if that weren’t enough, the Deschutes National Forest also hosts the 54,000-acre Newberry National Volcanic Monument. Within the massive monument, visitors can spend the night at one of six campgrounds, head underground through an ancient lava tube, hike through a 1,300-year-old obsidian flow, paddle within the Newberry caldera, and learn about Central Oregon’s volcanic past and present.
Note that if you’re hiking or backpacking certain trails within the Deschutes National Forest between late May and September, you may need a permit through the Central Cascades Wilderness Permit System before heading out.
Ochoco National Forest
Roughly an hour east of Prineville, near the geographic heart of Oregon, sits the 845,500-acre Ochoco National Forest. Within the forest are a variety of landscapes—including the rolling Ochoco Mountains, stands of juniper, fields of sagebrush, and hillsides covered with Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, and western larch. And while the forest might lack the dramatic peaks and sheer size of the Deschutes National Forest, it nevertheless delivers a subtler, quieter charm that rewards repeat visits.
In winter, cross-country skiers and snowshoers enjoy empty trails at Bandit Springs Sno-Park—home to a variety of trails suited to all skill and fitness levels; elsewhere, Walton Sno-Park hosts the greatest concentration of groomed snowmobile trails anywhere in the Ochoco National Forest (as well as small hilly area for sledding and tubing).
Spring and summer, meanwhile, bring colorful wildflower displays to Big Summit Prairie in the heart of the Ochocos. Grass widow, shooting stars, bitterroot, larkspur, and arrowleaf balsamroot are just some of the many species that bloom between April and July; in fact, the tulip-like Peck’s mariposa (noted for lavender petals) blooms only in the Ochoco Mountains—and nowhere else on Earth. Another seasonal attraction is the 4.5-mile round-trip hiking trail to the base of Stein’s Pillar, a 350-foot column of rhyolite ash that’s popular with rock climbers; in spring, wildflowers line the path.
Wherever you go in the region, keep an eye out for wildlife; roughly 135 wild horses call the forest home, along with deer, elk, antelope, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and numerous species of reptile and amphibian.
Mt. Jefferson Wilderness
The Mt. Jefferson Wilderness is one of three wilderness areas in the Central Oregon Cascades (alongside the Mt. Washington and Three Sisters wilderness areas)—and is home to some of the region’s most popular forests.
First and foremost: What’s a wilderness area, and how does it differ from a national forest? In so many words, a wilderness area is designated as such to minimize human impacts and preserve its “wild” characteristics. That means that activities with potentially severe impacts on the environment—such as motorized travel or mountain bike riding on trails—aren’t allowed. Furthermore, a wilderness area can exist within a larger national forest; in this case, the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness straddles the crest of the Cascades and sits within the Willamette and Deschutes national forests.
Spend even a few hours within the 104,500-acre Mt. Jefferson Wilderness, and it’s easy to see why the powers that be wanted to protect its grandeur for future generations. Naturally, Mt. Jefferson is the centerpiece—and its slopes are ringed by five massive glaciers. Other attractions within the wilderness include the jagged peak of Three Fingered Jack (one of the most recognizable mountains in Central Oregon), talus slopes, rocky outcrops, alpine meadows covered in summertime wildflowers, more than 150 mountain lakes (many stocked with trout when conditions allow), and more than 160 miles of hiking and equestrian trails (including a 40-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs more than 2,000 miles between the United States borders with Canada and Mexico).
The Mt. Jefferson Wilderness is home to vast tracts of fir—Douglas fir, sub-alpine fire, and silver fir are most common—with cedar, vine maple, and lodgepole pine also present. In June and July, keep an eye out for vibrant pink, purple, and white rhododendron blooms.
Three Sisters Wilderness
Curious about our region’s other wilderness areas? We don’t blame you. At nearly 287,000 acres, the Three Sisters Wilderness is the largest of Central Oregon’s wilderness areas and, as the name implies, centers around the Three Sisters and Broken Top—all among the region’s most stunning mountains. Highlights along trails throughout the Three Sisters Wilderness include alpine lakes, lava flows, massive glaciers, colorful meadows, and the occasional waterfall.
Some of the most popular hikes in the Three Sisters Wilderness are, unsurprisingly, some of the most popular in all of Central Oregon—including Broken Top, Green Lakes, Todd lake, Scott Pass, and Tam McArthur Rim.
Mt. Washington Wilderness
The 54,000-acre Mt. Washington Wilderness, meanwhile, offers a more rugged look at Central Oregon forests; miles-long lava flows, old-growth forests, cinder cones, and more than 25 lakes dot the wilderness area.
The Pacific Crest Trail runs nearly 17 miles through the wilderness and is the primary path through the area—connecting to (or passing near) Big Lake, the Dee Wright Observatory, Little Belknap Crater, and Belknap Crater.
If a summertime hike or backpacking trip in the Three Sisters, Mt. Jefferson, or Mt. Washington Wilderness areas is on your bucket list, you may need a permit; learn more about the Central Cascades Wilderness Permit System and how it might impact your next outing.
The Oregon Badlands Wilderness
Truth is, the Oregon Badlands Wilderness doesn’t look much like the other forests on this list. Rather than lush stands of Douglas fir or ponderosa pine, the wilderness area—just 20 minutes east of Bend in the Central Oregon high desert—is home to countless groves of gnarled juniper trees. Few trees within the Oregon Badlands measure more than 15 or 20 feet tall, but cinnamon-hued juniper can reach 1,500 years old—making them some of the oldest trees anywhere in Oregon.
Yet the juniper forest is just one of the breathtaking natural features throughout the 29,000-acre Oregon Badlands Wilderness (itself a shield volcano covered in volcanic ash and eroded lava). More than 50 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails show off rugged lava flows, cracked volcanic pressure ridges, and rocky outcrops. Along the way, you’ll pass through fields of aromatic sagebrush plants and (of course) scores of juniper trees. Keep an eye out for wildlife, including lizards, bobcats, deer, elk, antelope, prairie falcons, and golden eagles.
Still need your outdoor fix, even after exploring the region’s wide-ranging forests? Learn more about nature attractions in Central Oregon, and plan your next trip to national and state parks in Central Oregon.
Explore Nature’s Beauty
From the sagebrush-covered plains of the high desert to the towering pines and majestic mountain peaks, discover the diverse landscape Central Oregon has to offer.