There are so many great hikes in Central Oregon, it can be tough to choose where to start. For beginner hikers or families here’s a couple of easy to get to – and more importantly – easy to conquer starter-hikes.
Flanking the Deschutes River near Bend’s Old Mill District, the Deschutes River Trail is a 3-mile loop that starts near Farewell Bend Park. The path is well-maintained and perfect for whatever pace you’re up for, you can even tackle the trail with strollers. Dogs are allowed and there’s plenty of places to relax and take in the sights that seems to get better around every corner.
About 25 miles up the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway, Sparks Lake offers unparalleled mountain views. The Ray Atkeson hiking loop starts off as a paved pathway but quickly turns into a trek through the forest. This hike is considered easy just don’t forget your water bottle as the hike can get hot in a hurry. If you’re not up for the full hike — follow the paved pathway for a half mile to the viewpoint. It’s impossible to not be awestruck by South Sister and Broken Top and it’s easy to see why this area was named for Atkeson, a famed landscape photographer. No matter what time of year it is, this spot is a photographer’s dream.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get better than that, there’s the hike nearby at Todd Lake. After a short walk from the parking area, you’re hit larger than life views of Broken Top. It’d be easy to stay right there all day, but there’s so much more to experience. The 1.8 mile trail around the lake is heavily used but there’s plenty of room to spread out and find your own little piece of paradise for the day.
Todd Lake is extremely family friendly because of it’s easy to navigate paths and lots of places to have a picnic. You might wonder why the far side of the lake seems to be the most popular, but it doesn’t take long to find out.
From the looks of it, Todd Lake should probably be called Frog Lake! Kids can spend hours chasing the quick little guys around but be aware, this is strictly a catch and release area. No matter what hike you decide on, you’re guaranteed a great day when you’re outside in Central Oregon.
In all the years I’ve lived in Central Oregon (14) I still find myself saying more often than I’d like, “I’ve never been there.”
That was the case recently when my wife asked a friend about some nice little “baby friendly” hikes. No, she wasn’t referring to me (although I much prefer riding my mountain bike than walking in the woods.) By “baby friendly” she meant hikes that we could easily do with our 7-month-old daughter in tow realizing that she holds us to a pretty tight feeding and nap time schedule.
First off our friend’s tongue, Todd Lake, just 24 miles up the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway from Bend and only a couple miles past Mt. Bachelor. She called it a “totally easy” hike, which sounded good to us for a trial run with a borrowed baby backpack.
The parking area is just a half mile off the highway, and by the time we got there at 9 a.m. on a clear early September Sunday morning, all but one of the spots was taken. (The parking area also serves as the trailhead for several other, longer hikes deeper into the Cascades, including the trails to Broken Top, Green Lakes and Soda Creek.)
Out of the car, it’s just a short walk up a wide gravel road before you can already see the lake through the trees. The trailhead features a vault toilet near a sign explaining some of the history of what was once called “Lost Lake.” I’ll let you learn about it on your own.
From there, we veered right on the “Todd Trail” which is about as gentle of a hike as you’ll find. In fact “hike” is probably only accurate in that there are some rocks and tree roots to navigate on what would otherwise be considered a “nature walk.”
The trail simply follows along the edge of the 45 acre lake – some of it is right along the bank while at some points the trail jets away into the forest a little more and across a wide meadow. We saw several other people along the way, including kids of all ages, a couple of elderly couples and a handful of dogs – on their leashes, which is required.
The views of Mt. Bachelor popping over the trees to the south are pretty amazing – probably even cooler in the spring or early winter when the ski area still has a white cap of snow.
In all, the hike was about 2 miles and took us an hour or so because we stopped and fiddled with the pack, took several photos and generally took our sweet ole time getting around.
The next weekend my wife went out and bought our own baby backpack and she was eager to give it a try. I had seen images of Sparks Lake fill my Facebook feed all summer long, so we decided to give it a go – this time with our 11-year-old as well.
Sparks Lake is just southwest of Todd Lake on the south side of the highway about 28 miles from Bend.
Known more for being the ideal spot to kayak, canoe and stand-up paddleboard, Sparks Lake also has a short, scenic little trail that’s perfect for hauling around a baby in a backpack before lunch.
The Roy Atkeson Memorial Trail is a 2.3 mile loop that take you through and around a pretty spectacular lava field with interesting and deep chasms and rock walls several feet high.
This is another very easy hike for our son, who has lengthier hikes (and an overnight backpacking trip when he was 4) under his belt. The first part of the trail is even paved and wheel-chair accessible to give everyone a chance to soak in the breathtaking scenery. At the trailhead, I’d recommend veering to the left so that you can save the views of the lake, South Sister and Broken Top until the end. And when you get to the sign that says “Short Cut” to the right – don’t take it. Just stay to the left.
It’s a perfect family hike, and like the Todd Lake Trail, isn’t so much a hike as it is nature walk – although this trail had a few more rocky sections to navigate.
We saw elderly folks and some small children on the hike, which made us smile thinking about how our little one would be getting her own feet dirty up here in no time.
Closer to town, there are several baby and kid friendly hikes including the River Trail near Farewell Bend Park, and the trail at Shevlin Park. But for a quick little getaway from town and into the “mountains” these two hikes are pretty perfect.
Have a favorite “baby friendly” hike of your own? Share it in the comments below so I can do some more exploring!
Family Visits Chock Full of Adventure and Relaxation
Recently, we found ourselves with back-to-back families visiting us for some Central Oregon summer fun. With three kids of our own (all under the age of 12-years-old) my husband and I were full of ideas on entertaining all the cousins and friends who occupied our much-used guest room. After all, Bend is one of the best spots for warm weather vacationing. Between downtown shopping, floating the river and the many activities along the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway, there was no way our guests would have a chance for boredom.
On the first day, the temperature was pushing 90 degrees and we were looking to keep cool. What better way to introduce our friends to Bend and Central Oregon than to head to Riverbend Park and float the Deschutes River? Located next to the Old Mill District, Riverbend Park is the one with a giant kayak art structure in the parking lot. This is the best place to not only put in, but rent sturdy float tubes from Sun Country Tours. For a couple of free floating hours, you can rent tubes for adults and kids (life jackets included) and meander along the river for either a quick 30 minute float that lets off near the park, or a longer float that lets off at downtown’s Drake Park.
A handy shuttle comes every 20 minutes to drive you and your tubes back to the beginning. Instant fun. (Side note: I don’t recommend sending any child younger than seven by themselves on a tube because halfway down the river is a spillway that calls for avoidance. My son shared my tube so I could ensure he wouldn’t have difficulty getting to shore at the right time).
For lunch, we cleaned up and drove a short distance to a favorite local joint, Jackson’s Corner. You can sit inside or out, at large picnic style tables and order everything from pizza to hot sandwiches, accompanied with lemonade and great brews on tap. The kids love it because they can play checkers or run around in the mini-playground area while they wait for food.
The rest of the afternoon consisted of a lazy stroll around downtown for ice cream cones from Goody’s and window-shopping the boutiques located between the streets of Wall and Bond. The second day with visitors included picking up pastries and coffee from Newport Market and making the twenty-minute drive to scenic Sunriver for the day. The kids spent hours at SHARC(Sunriver’s aquatic and recreation center) taking endless turns on the water slides and floating the lazy river. At the end of the afternoon, they headed across the parking lot to the tubing hill for one last thrill of the day.
Back in Bend, we made reservations at 900 Wall where the adults enjoyed refreshing cocktails and the kids ordered everything from Draper Valley rotisserie chicken with mashed potatoes to gooey cheese pizza. There’s a great gluten-free menu there as well! On the last day, we drove the families to Todd Lake for a picnic and afternoon of frog catching and mini hikes.
This stunning setting, with a full view of the Cascade range, always makes for happy visitors. Upon their departure, our guests vowed to return next summer and do it all over again. We’re looking forward to it!
Distance from Bend: 36 Miles (about 1.5 miles off Cascade Lakes Highway)
Activities: Fishing, floating, paddling, swimming
I discovered the meandering channels and wild colored flowers along the shores of Hosmer Lake last June after a turning around from a hike on South Sister because of too much snow. As many do in Central Oregon, my boyfriend and I had thrown boats in the car. What they say about Central Oregon really is true: you can ski in the morning, boat in the afternoon, and bike in the evening (or substitute golf, climb, hike, and fish for any of those activities!)
Devils Lake, near the parking area for the South Sister hike, was crowded, so we drove 9 miles down the road to check out Hosmer Lake and parked at the boat launch. Kids were splashing at the edge and I could see several fishermen casting into the deeper pools almost out of sight.
Don’t let the darker and deeper waters near the boat launch fool you, after paddling out past the first 100 yards most of Hosmer is fairly shallow, which is where we could see why this was such a special place: the shallow waters and sandy bottom created the perfect combination to spot all kinds of fish swimming just a few feet below the boat.
The early summer day was warm, and the sky was the kind of endless blue that makes Central Oregon such a magical destination. Once I glimpsed the snow covered peaks of Mt. Bachelor and South Sister presiding over the riotous color of wild flowers, and I fell in love with Hosmer Lake.
The lake proved to be like one giant treasure hunt. Hosmer Lake is made of many channels, and on the first one we paddled down, we discovered a spring at its edge near a rough lava field that had tumbled out of the nearby forest. Turning around and paddling up another channel, we wound our way in and around the floating islands of wildflowers in awe of the fish swimming below us, almost close enough to touch.
If you brought your fly rod with you, get ready for an amazing day on the water. Check Fly and Field Outfitters’ Hosmer Lake report for what the fish are biting on or just try your luck! The big Atlantic salmon, brook trout and rainbows can be skittish, as easily as we can see them, they can see us. But if you are up for the hunt, you couldn’t ask for a more picturesque setting.
The real treasure on this lake adventure is making your way to the far back side of the lake, paddling up the inlet until you can’t go any farther, and leaving the boats for a short walk upstream to a small waterfall.
If the bugs aren’t out in force, this makes a great lunch spot. For those wishing to stretch their legs a bit, the Quinn Creek trail leads up the drainage, connecting to a series of other trails that will take you all over the Cascade Mountains.
After lunch and a short hike I found myself a little sleepy so decided on a snooze in my boat.
All and all, an afternoon spent on Hosmer Lake is the perfect way to take in the wonders of Central Oregon. Whatever paddle craft you choose, canoe, kayak, paddle board, or pack raft, be sure to remember the sunscreen, bug spray and a camera.
If you need to rent a boat, several spots in Bend can set you up with just the right craft for your needs. Stand Up Paddle Bend offers day-rentals and Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe offers a full range of kayak, canoe, stand up paddle boards or even inner tubes.
“Roughing It” in Central Oregon isn’t the same as “Roughing It” the way, say, Teddy Roosevelt thought about it. Here, the very idea of “getting away from it all” is kind of ridiculous.
I’m already mostly “away from it all” doing the most ordinary things. For instance, while driving to the store, a casual glance beyond the road usually means I’m looking at 10-thousand foot peaks or, in the least, a pristine city park. So “Roughing It” to me really just means getting outside more, and no trip to Central Oregon would be complete without living the Bend idea of “Roughing It” – having a good time without breaking the bank.
One of the places I always recommend to friends and family is the Riverhouse Hotel. Along with reasonable rates and a centrally-located location, the hotel is also glad to have Fido or Lassie or Scout stay as well, and best of all, there’s no extra charge for pets! Another inexpensive option is Bend Inn & Suites.
The Riverhouse is in a phenomenal location, close to walking and running trails as well as part of one of Bend’s most forgiving and inexpensive golf courses- and by this I mean I still shoot 120 on good days.
Unlike many towns that only come alive on the weekends, Bend seemingly has something every day of the week that’s a big hit with visitors and locals alike. For six weeks on Thursdays starting in mid-July, Munch and Music is the place to be.
Starting the Bend vacation on a Thursday is always a nice idea anyway, and might as well start it off right in Drake Park. Munch and Music is exactly what it sounds like- a free concert in the park at 5:30, with plenty of food and drink vendors. It’s been around almost 25 years and is still going strong.
If you want a good seat you need to get there early. And sure, you could bring your own food, but part of the experience is wandering around and trying something new. My new favorite place is Dump City Dumplings, but I always know that Parilla Satellite (get the fish tacos) and Pilot Butte won’t let me down. There’s really not a bad choice.
And should your time in Bend make it to Tuesday, a Bend Elks baseball game at Vince Genna Stadium at 5th and Roosevelt on Two-Dollar Tuesday is an absolute must. The stadium, built in 1946 is in a terrific location where you can see the sun set over the Three Sisters as the game goes on.
While a trip to a major-league baseball stadium can run you into the hundreds, not so in Bend. And Two-Dollar Tuesday is exactly what it sounds like it would be. Two-dollar general admission (there’s not a bad seat in the house), and two dollars for select concessions- like hot dogs and beer! As for the “home nine,” The Elks are a collegiate summer league team, meaning the players are college guys keeping their skills up while school is out, and part of the West Coast League, one of the top summer leagues in the country. (Baseball aficionados will be happy to know that it’s a wooden bat league, so the “crack” of the bat is pure.)
While those are evening and nighttime activities, any day during the summer is a good time to drive the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway, and especially to stop in at Elk Lake Resort for a boat ride. Canoes, kayaks, row boats and even pontoons are available for as little as $20 and for as short as a two-hours. Make sure there’s plenty of sunscreen and hats for everybody- the sun is a little more intense in the higher elevations (life jackets are included in the rental). And don’t just hang out close to shore, get out in the middle of the lake and stop paddling for a real Central Oregon experience- the water lapping up against the boat, the smell of the trees- and most of all, the magnificent sights around. Mount Bachelor is right there, as are many smaller peaks and the Three Sisters Wilderness.
If the lake isn’t your thing, then perhaps a round of golf course is more to your liking. The Riverhouse, as I already mentioned, has a course right there, but for a much different golf experience, Widgi Creek is the place. What I love about Widgi (aside from the course and the location, obviously,) is that the rates drop significantly the later in the day it gets. So you could, conceivably, spend a full day on Elk Lake and stop at Widgi on the way back for 18 (it’s on the Cascade Lakes Highway as well.) Their latest tee time is, believe it or not, 7:09pm – and after 5 it’s just $25 per duffer- and it’s $25 for those 17 and under all year long.
After such a relaxing day on the lake or a frustrating round of golf, there are lots of options, but one of the best is McMenamin’s Old St Francis School Hotel and Restaurant. Originally built as a Catholic school in the mid-1930’s, the always-searching-for-quirky McMenamin’s folks turned it into their Bend spot in 2004.
It also has a movie theatre and whiskey bar- which I’m reasonably certain wasn’t there when it was a Catholic school- and one of the best relaxation spots in town, a soaking pool. Even if you’re not a guest at the hotel, you can still soak for $5 per person, with kids allowed until 7pm.
The McMenamin’s soaking pool was inspired by the ancient Roman baths. The magnificent stained glass window and mural of St. Francis himself picking grapes were handcrafted especially for the Bend pool, and the open ceiling allows views of the night sky. Open ’till ten for non-hotel guests, a good soak is the perfect way to end a perfect day in Bend- whether it was spent at the lake, an Elks game, at Drake Park enjoying dumplings and music, or just walking the river with the dog.
Teddy Roosevelt would approve this version of “Roughing It.”
Dillon Falls – 11 Miles
Wanoga Sno-Park- 15 Miles
Mt. Bachelor – 22 Miles
Sparks Lake – 25 Miles
Elk Lake Resort – 32 Miles
Lava Lake – 39 Miles
Crane Prairie Reservoir – 42 Miles
The Cascade Lakes Scenic byway is one of the prettiest drives in the U.S. (hence the “scenic” designation.) But it might be the most recreationally rich road you’ll ever drive too. From Bend southwest to the Highway 58 junction, the Oregon Route 372 cuts through 66 miles unique volcanic formations and geological beauty that offers everything that makes Central Oregon an outdoor lover’s paradise. Bring a camera along with a canoe, kayak, road bike, mountain bike, fishing gear, hiking shoes, skis, snowshoes, snowboards and camping equipment. This is a road you’ll want to pull off for adventure along the way. The byway starts out as Century Drive in Bend, and even before you leave the city limits, you’ll find trailheads just off the road. From small, dirt parking areas, you can explore hundreds of miles of Central Oregon mountain bike trails that are gaining traction as some of the best in the country.
A little further up the road you can hang a left and drive about five miles to the trailhead for Benham Falls, Dillon Falls and Lava Island along the Deschutes River trail. Continue up the byway and you’ll find winter sno-parks turned summer playgrounds. The Wanoga Sno-park is becoming a popular parking area for mountain bikers thanks to a growing trail system on that side of the byway that includes such routes as “Tiddlywinks” and “Funner.” There’s a kids BMX pump track there as well.
Get your camera ready as you head farther up the road and round a corner where you’re greeted with a majestic view of Mt. Bachelor. The largest ski area in the Pacific Northwest is now a true four-season resort with the addition of a downhill mountain bike park to a summer slate already filled with lift-served hiking, disc golf and sunset dinners at the mid-mountain lodge that takes sightseers up to 7,700 feet. The views of the Cascades from there are brilliant.
Across the street from the Bachelor parking lot, Dutchman Flat Sno-Park. Several great Central Oregon hikes originate here, including a short, but somewhat steep climb up Tumalo Mountain. You’ll gain about 1,200 feet of elevation in just 1.8 miles up, and the views at the top are well worth it. The 3.6 mile round trip hike is a good one for kids as well. (Be wary of lingering snow well into the early summer months and come winter, this is a popular snowshoe trail.) One of the more popular mountain bike rides – a 25 miler dubbed “Bachelor to Bend” that features a lot of ridiculously fun downhill sections suitable for even novice riders also starts at this trailhead. (You can also do a fun loop and arrive back in the parking lot to continue on your merry (by)way.)
Up next, about 28 miles from Bend is the turnoff for Sparks Lake, the first of the high alpine lakes along the byway and a hugely popular spot for non-motorized water sports, especially stand up paddling. (Even Outside Magazine says so.) It’s a Central Oregon postcard in itself, sitting in the shadows of Mt. Bachelor, Broken Top and the 10,358-foot South Sister. The Green Lakes Trail parking area is across the byway from Sparks Lake. This popular trail can be done by itself or you can use it to access the lengthy trail that summits South Sister. Hiking, fishing and secluded, walk-in camping awaits at nearby Todd and Devil’s Lake as well.
As the road snakes behind the ski area another resort appears. Elk Lake Resort is the perfect spot to bask in the summer sun on a rented sailboat, canoe or kayak. Grab a meal at the restaurant inside or snag one of the campsites and do some cooking of your own. Cultus Lake and Wickiup Reservoir are a bit further down the road and both are great places to fish and watch for wildlife, including Bald Eagles and owls.