History on Display: 4 Can’t Miss Museums in Central Oregon

Central Oregon has a rich and interesting history dating back, oh, a few thousand years (see: Lava Lands). But beyond the geological beauty abound (see also: Smith Rock) there’s a great bit of human history that pre-dates settlers along the Oregon Trail. We’re lucky to have a handful of exceptional museums with carefully curated artifacts to help tell the story of Central Oregon.

Here are 4 museums you can’t miss during your Central Oregon visit.

Erickson Aircraft Collection

Erickson Aircraft Collection

The Erickson Aircraft Collection in Madras proudly displays a vintage aircraft collection started by Jack Erickson in 1983. The collection features over twenty rare aircraft, most of which are still in flying condition. The newly named Collection will feature rare aircraft that are still in flying condition such as the P-38 Lightning, P-51 Mustang, Ki43 Hayabusa, F4U Corsair, SBD Dauntless, Grumman Duck and B-17 Flying Fortress.

Des Chutes Historical Museum

The Deschutes Historical Museum features exhibits that allow you to explore Deschutes County prehistory; area Native American tribal history; early exploration and fur trapping; homesteading the High Desert; logging and Forest Service history; and life throughout Deschutes County over the years. The museum also hosts an annual Haunted History Tour in the weeks leading up to Halloween.

Hawk in flight during show at High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon

High Desert Museum

Whether you’re three or 93, there’s something for everyone at the High Desert Museum.

See birds of prey, the porcupine exhibit, a bobcat and more. Check out our collection of desert dwellers in the Desertarium. Visit with living history characters at the 1904 Miller Family Ranch. Explore High Desert history and culture in our permanent exhibits. Enjoy watching the river otters in their newly renovated Autzen Otter Exhibit. The Museum is set on 135 beautiful wooded acres just south of Bend. It’s no wonder the Museum is ranked the #1 thing to do in Bend by TripAdvisor.

Museum at Warm Springs

Visitors to The Museum at Warm Springs will experience firsthand the sounds of ancient songs and languages, the mastery of traditional craftsmen and the sights of rich and colorful cultures that make up the Confederated Tribes of The Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon.

The three Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation – Warm Springs, Wasco and Northern Paiute, created this museum to sustain their cultures and preserve their traditions for their children and visitors.  The museum is a vital part of the Warm Springs tribal community.  Once you are done indoors you can stroll the 1/4 mile Twanat Interpretive Trail to learn about the plants, animals, fish and geology.

Family Fun in the Sun at Kah-Nee-Ta

Teepees, Kah-Nee-Ta Resort, Warm Springs

It was my own fault, yelling out vacation ideas from the living room to my wife while she was upstairs getting ready for the day.

“No, honey, I said teepee. Tanner would love to stay in a teepee.”

After she found he was nowhere near the couch and her concern over possible furniture puddles passed, I told her a little more about the unique, adventure-filled, culturally-rich family trip I thought up to Kah-Nee-Ta Resort and Spa in Central Oregon.

It has everything, I said: A spa for her, hot spring-fed swimming pools for the boy, an amazing museum for all of us and a golf course for me. And lots of sunshine.

Kah-Nee-Ta resort near Warm Springs

It’s right off Highway 97 about 11 miles from the Warm Springs Indian Reservation and just two hours from Portland. It sits among 10 miles of sagebrush and High Desert hills and when you throw in the Warm Springs River, some beautiful grassy park areas, it truly is a Central Oregon oasis.

And the perfect place for a short, but very productive, family trip.

Selling my son on the idea of staying in a giant canvas teepee, complete with its own fire pit inside, was easy.

Selling it to my wife, who was now well aware a luxurious full-service lodge and spa was just a half mile down the road, was a little more difficult.

I promised it’d only be for one night – just one night in sleeping bags on our air mattresses. (The teepee, while rustic, did come equipped with wifi. A fact I’m sure parents conveniently keep from the kids.)

“Nope, sorry, no internet out here,” I said as we walked to the horseshoe pits nearby. “Do you think the Native Americans and settlers had wifi when they were forging onward west!?”

(The natives also didn’t have working toilets and heated showers in a building nearby, but I digress.)

After a quick introduction to a game my father taught me, my son was hooked, asking how hard would it be to pound a couple of one inch metal stakes into the ground of our backyard for a horseshoe pit of our own.

We put down our sleeping bags and started to make the fire that would keep us warm for the night and heat our dinner. Don’t hot dogs always taste better when pierced by the end of a whittled stick and burned to a crisp by a campfire? Maybe it’s just me.

Teepee at Warm Springs Resort

Baked beans cooked right in the can and some foil-wrapped veggies made for perfect side dishes and we capped the meal, of course, with s’mores cooked right inside our “room.” We sat around and stared that that fire for a good couple of hours talking and laughing like we hadn’t done in months. Only once did my son even reach for his iPhone.

Even with the heat, the teepee area wasn’t too busy, so it proved to be a quiet night’s stay in a little piece of history – sheltered from the elements but one with the sounds of nature.

By morning, we were ready to “wash off” in the hot springs mineral pool just a short walk from our teepee. It’s a cool reprieve during the scorching high desert summer, but even on a cool Central Oregon morning the pool was just right – as was hot tub on site.

View of pool at The Village of Kah-nee-ta Resort in Warm Springs, Oregon

We spent a couple of hours playing around at the pool, and making more than a few trips up and down the stairs of the 184-foot-long waterslide before heading down the road to the resort lodge to check in. I could already see the stress fall away from my wife’s face as we got the key and opened the door to our Parlor suite with private balcony.

View of Lodge at Kah-nee-ta Resort on the cliff in Warm Springs, Oregon

The boy immediately turned on the TV while we took a seat out on the balcony to take in the views and talk about plans for the rest of our trip.

On Day 2, the plan was for me to go on a little road bike ride while the wife and son did some big time relaxing at the Madras Aquatic Center, an expansive and brand new facility that’s quickly become a community hub for the small town about 30 minutes from Kah-Nee-Ta and Warm Springs.

For just a few bucks the family can soak up the sun outside, tube down a man-made lazy river or barrel down a 300-foot water slide. With summer and the swim season still months away from happening for us over in the valley, the kids couldn’t get enough of the pool time.

Kah Nee Ta hot springs pool and water slide near Bend, Oregon in Central Oregon

As for me, I had in mind something a little more challenging – but relaxing just the same: The Madras Mountain Views Scenic Bikeway.

This 30-mile loop begins and ends in Madras so the family dropped me off before they headed over to the aquatics center. With virtually no traffic, the ride allowed me to look up and take in the breathtaking scenery as I pedaled through the high desert and basalt palisades.

Madras Mountain Views Scenic Bikeway with cyclist near Bend, Oregon

And at just over two-hours, it was the perfect amount of time for my own little spinning vacation from vacation.

But after the ride I was eager to meet back up with the family and return back to the lodge to hang out in the room for a little while before dinner, some billiards and arcade games at the Warm Spring Grill.

On Day 3 we left Kah-Nee-Ta early for a tour of The Museum at Warm Springs, home to one of the nation’s largest collections of Native American art and artifacts. It was a neat to see the kids really get into the experience and see in detail the history of a culture my family knows so little about.

Native American dancer at Warm Springs, Oregon

They especially liked learning about the “rites of passage” ceremonies passed down to children from the tribal elders and learning and seeing more on the teepees like the one we stayed in earlier.

We could have stayed much longer at the museum and taken a walk on one of the interpretive paths outside, but we heading about 40 minutes south for another walk at Smith Rock State Park, one of the true geological gems in Oregon.

Majestic, sheer rock walls rise straight up from the winding Crooked River making this one of the most photographed features in the state. Known as the birthplace of sport climbing, Smith Rock offers miles of hiking and biking trails as well, including the “worse-than-it-sounds” Misery Ridge hike.

Family at Smith Rock State Park

It’s a challenging hike for sure, about two hours round trip if you keep a good pace. But the views are something your family will be talking about forever.

A full day already, we finished it off with dinner at the Terrebonne Depot, a renovated 100-year-old train station in the tiny town that leads to the state park.

I started Day 4 early with a sunrise tee time at the golf course across the street from the lodge. Early morning rounds are a win-win: Being the first one out means pure greens and a fast round that can get me back home to the family before they’re usually even up and about for the day.

Kah-Nee-Ta Resort, Warm Springs

By the time I got back this time though, everyone was up, fed and ready for more adventures. (Well, the boy was ready for adventure. My wife was ready for a visit to the Spa Wanapine and her native hot stone therapy massage, whatever that is. )

While she pampered herself, Tanner and I unleashed our inner cowboy with a short but scenic horseback ride near the resort before hitting up the mini-golf course.

Group trail riding in Warm Springs, Oregon

We all finished the day together back at the pool relaxing in the warm water putting off packing for as long as we could.

We planned to be back to the real world in time for dinner…which was the toughest sell of all.

River Canyon Country

Philip Kuntz
Philip Kuntz

Terrebonne

This tiny hamlet just north of Madras is the gateway to Smith Rock State Park and the birthplace of sport climbing in America. Terrebonne may be small, but many of the world’s top climbers have paid her a visit after clipping bolts at Smith Rock. Terrebonne is also a popular spot for some of the best fly-fishing on the Crooked River. This spectacular little place was one of the settings for the 2001 movie, Swordfish, starring John Travolta, Halle Berry and Hugh Jackman. The Terrebonne Depot restaurant, housed in a renovated 100-year-old train station, is another good reason to make your way there.

Must see: The beautiful rock formations at Smith Rock State Park, with climbers far up the sheer rock walls. Look for slackline walkers at Monkey Face teetering hundreds of feet in the air.

Must do: Stop for regional wine tasting at Maragas Winery, then treat yourself to local fare at Terrebonne Depot. Enjoy a scoop of world-famous huckleberry ice cream at Juniper Junction.

Maragas Winery

 

Crooked River Ranch

Steelhead Falls on the Deschutes River in Central Oregon

Located above the steep basalt canyon walls of the Deschutes River, Crooked River Ranch is best known for its golf, hiking and fishing. Golfers can take a short—and exhilarating—shot over the river canyon on one of the course’s signature holes. Everyone should hike out to the Crooked River overlooks or down to Steelhead Falls on the Deschutes River. Anglers will want to fly-fish the Foley Waters section of the Deschutes for native rainbow trout.

Must see: The view down into the Crooked River from Otter Bench.

Must do: Play a round or two on the scenic and fun Crooked River Ranch Golf Course, a par 71 “with teeth.”

Prineville

The most historical town in Central Oregon, Prineville serves as the starting point for fishing trips along the Crooked River or the Prineville and Ochoco reservoirs. Camping, hiking and mountain biking are some of the area’s best in the Ochoco National Forest and Maury Mountains. Take in local history with a visit to the stately Crook County Courthouse, Central Oregon’s oldest public structure. Add in the Crooked River Roundup, the annual rodeo, and you get a sense of what makes Prineville authentic and Western. Fueled by economic growth from its new Facebook and Apple data centers, Prineville is experiencing a renaissance with more places to dine, a new brewpub and choice lodging.

Must see: The winding Crooked River as it flows from Prineville Reservoir into town.

Must do: Hit the Crooked River Round up in June or bring a gambling spirit to the Pari-Mutuel Horse Races in July.

Group trail riding in Warm Springs, Oregon

Warm Springs

The heart and soul of The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Warm Springs offers the new Indian Head Casino. For a cultural diversion, you’ll find one of the finest Native American art museums in the West. A short drive north is Kah-Nee-Ta Resort and Spa, noted for its warm water swimming pools, spa and blue ribbon fly-fishing. At the end of the day, the amenity-rich resort and spa has many paths to relaxation.

Must see: One of the nation’s largest collections of Native American art and artifacts at The Museum at Warm Springs.

Must do: Take the plunge in the warm water pools at Kah-Nee-Ta Resort and Spa; naturally heated by hot springs.

The Cove Palisades State Park in Central Oregon

 

Madras

From this Central Oregon hub, outdoor recreation enthusiasts can wade and fish the waters of the Deschutes, Metolius and Crooked rivers, or fish from their boats on Lake Billy Chinook. There’s camping on the lake at The Cove Palisades State Park. Nearby, there’s superb hiking on The Peninsula and The Island in the Crooked River National Grassland. For something completely different, take a drive north and east of Madras to the old mining town of Ashwood, a place where time has stood still.

Must see: The August Airshow of the Cascades with biplanes, military and vintage models taking to the air.

Must do: Spend a weekend on a houseboat at Lake Billy Chinook.

Maupin

Redsides and rafting are the mainstays of Maupin. Redsides are the brilliantly colored, hard-fighting native Deschutes River trout that anglers obsess over. Add to that, whitewater thrills, and this river town is a hive of recreational activity. In recent years, uptown Maupin has seen the addition of more lodging and dining amenities to make it more of a recreation destination.

Must see: Native Americans fishing from platforms below Sherars Falls.

Must do: Hit class-3 Boxcar Rapids, rafting the Lower Deschutes River with Imperial River Co.