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Hiking in Central Oregon

A solo hiker in the Sisters wilderness in Central Oregon

You could spend years along hiking trails in Central Oregon and still only scratch the dirt-, sand-, and lava rock-covered surface of what the region has to offer. No matter the season—and whatever the landscape that’s capturing your imagination—you’ll find enough natural wonder to wear your hiking boots out several times over.

In spring, colorful wildflowers cover the meadows outside Prineville and around Steins Pillar—one of the season’s top destinations for hikers and rock climbers alike. Come summer, the Central Cascades open up to hikers and backpackers who marvel at the wilderness area’s snow-capped peaks, alpine lakes, old-growth forest, thundering waterfalls, and otherworldly scenery. Fall means cool-weather outings along the Deschutes River Trail and at popular outposts like the Misery Ridge Trail at Smith Rock State Park, while winter sends hikers east—and into the high desert, where the Oregon Badlands Wilderness enchants with ancient juniper forests and volcanic rock formations.

Wherever you go, just keep in mind that the Central Cascades Wilderness Permit System is impacting the accessibility of (and improving the experience at) several of Central Oregon’s most popular trailheads—so plan ahead before your next trip. And if you’re backpacking, be sure to Take Care Out There and help prevent human-caused wildfires; before pitching your tent, research any fire restrictions that may be in effect, build your campfire with safety in mind, and ensure your campfire is fully extinguished before heading out.

Here’s how to explore Central Oregon’s nature and plan your next hike—whether heading out for the day or making an overnight adventure of it.

Day Hikes Near Bend, Redmond, and More

All year long, day hiking is one of the most popular outdoor activities around Central Oregon. We could offer dozens of ideas for every season, but here are a few of our favorites—organized by distance so you can find a hike tailored to your free time and skill level.

a couple enjoying a hike at Pauline Peak

Big Obsidian Flow: A one-mile interpretive trail at the Newberry National Volcanic Monument passes through the youngest lava flow in Oregon, with minimal elevation gain along the way. Interpretive panels line the trail and explain the natural history behind the 1,300-year-old piles of pumice and obsidian (which resembles black glass) that surround the footpath. Hike the trail between late spring and early fall for the best experience. The trailhead is 50 minutes south of Bend—and 30 minutes northeast of La Pine—via US-97 and Paulina Lake Road. Admission to Newberry National Volcanic Monument is $5 per day (payable at the Newberry Welcome Station or Paulina Visitor Center, both within the Newberry caldera) or free with a Northwest Forest Pass or Interagency Pass.

Tumalo Falls: Funny enough, some of the best views along the Tumalo Falls trail come near the trailhead, where the namesake waterfall can be viewed in all its raging glory. But a 3.8-mile round-trip hike heads to an upper waterfall, gaining a steady, yet gradual 700 feet along the way. While following Tumalo Creek, you’ll spy wildflowers in early summer (including purple penstemon), steep cliffs, rock formations, and a thick forest of ponderosa pine. In winter, the falls get an icy makeover and can be accessed via a five-mile round-trip hike along Tumalo Falls Road (which is gated each winter). It’s easy to see why Tumalo Falls is routinely named one of the best waterfall hikes near Bend, Oregon. The trailhead is a half-hour drive west of Bend via NW Galveston Avenue, Skyliners Road, and Tumalo Falls Road. There is a $5 day-use fee (payable at the trailhead); the site can also be used for free with a Northwest Forest Pass or Interagency Pass. (And since you’re so close to town—just a quick half-hour from downtown Bend—learn more about other things to do in Central Oregon.)

Steins Pillar: This three-season hike is a fun outing anytime between April and October, but a springtime jaunt takes you through meadows of red paintbrush, yellow balsamroot, and other dazzling wildflowers in the midst of a ponderosa pine forest. The 4.5-mile round-trip hike gains a mostly gradual 750 feet along the way before ending at the base of Steins Pillar, a 350-foot column of rhyolite ash. The trailhead is 50 minutes east of Redmond via OR-126 and US-26—or one hour, 15 minutes from Bend via US-20, Powell Butte Road, OR-126, and US-26; no fees are required.

West Metolius River: West of Sisters, this footpath ambles along the banks of the magical Metolius River before ending at Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery—where little ones can learn about the life cycle of fish and feed the residents of the hatchery’s display pond. The hike measures about 5.7 miles round-trip, with just 270 feet of elevation gain, making it a fun outing for the whole family. In spring, keep an eye out for the pink- or purple-chuted Peck’s penstemon; the rare wildflower grows in the forests around Sisters—and nowhere else on Earth. The trailhead is 30 minutes northwest of Sisters—or one hour northwest of Bend—via US-20 and NF-1420; no fees are required.

Backpacking in Central Oregon

With so much backcountry beauty to explore, backpacking is one of Central Oregon’s most popular summertime activities. Here are a few of our favorite overnight outings, organized by distance and geared toward backpackers of different skill and experience levels.

Before setting out, keep a few things in mind: Always let someone know where you’re going, how long you’ll be gone, and whether you’ll be accessible along the way. And if you’re new to backpacking, check (and double-check) your packing list to ensure you’re prepared, and familiarize yourself with trail maps and navigational tools if traversing little-traveled trails with limited signage. Learn more in our blog post about backpacking safety.

A tent under the Milky Way with Mt. Jefferson catching the first rays of moonlight in the distance

Green Lakes basin: Most of us hike the Green Lakes as part of a scenic day hike, but the trail’s 11-mile (round-trip) distance makes it an appealing overnight outing as well. Highlights along the mostly flat trail include the eponymous lakes, views of surrounding Cascade peaks, a raging waterfall, and summertime wildflowers. A few private and semi-private campsites can be found near the trail’s lakes—but note that camping along the lakeshore is not permitted. And if Green Lakes has you curious about other bodies of water in the area, learn more about the lakes of Central Oregon. (Heads up: You’ll need a Central Cascades Wilderness Permit to hike or backpack the Green Lakes trail.)

Obsidian Limited Entry Area: The classic outing for beginning backpackers and weekend warriors alike takes hikers into the heart of the magical Three Sisters Wilderness over the course of 11.5 stunning miles (with about 2,200 feet of elevation gain). Natural wonders along the trail include lava flows, up-close views of South Sister and other Cascade peaks, wildflower blooms in July and August, and the area’s namesake obsidian displays—all of which enchant hearty hikers throughout summer and fall and deliver some of the best backpacking in Central Oregon. (Note that you’ll need a Central Cascades Wilderness Permit to hike or backpack in the Obsidian Limited Entry Area.)

Mill Creek Wilderness Loop: This 27-mile trail (which gains 3,500 feet along the way) offers a fine introduction to the Mill Creek Wilderness, just northeast of Prineville. It passes through a forest of fir and pine, with an up-close look at the residual impacts of a wildfire that occurred in 2000; highlights include ample wildlife viewing (deer are common) alongside looks at the 200-foot-tall Twin Pillars and views of the bubbling Mill Creek.

Three Sisters Loop: If you can’t get enough views of the Three Sisters mountains from the likes of Bend, get a close-up view from along the Three Sisters Loop, a 50-mile trek that gains nearly 6,000 feet while circling the majestic mountains. The hike challenges with regular ascents and inclines, but rewards include epic peak views, ethereal lava flows, glassy mountain lakes, trickling streams, thick forests, and more. (Still need your peak fix? Learn more about the mountains of 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.