Oregon: Bend, High Desert Museum, bird of prey, owl, handler
Oregon: Bend, High Desert Museum, bird of prey, owl, handler

by Lee Foster

Beauty of nature in an alpine setting and diverse outdoor sports attract visitors to the Bend region of Central Oregon.

Perusing natural beauty is the most universal pleasure here. Snow-capped mountains, pristine lakes, white-water rivers, and pine forests abound. At any time, the wilderness scenery is striking, with one of the dominant peaks, Mt. Bachelor, Broken Top, and the Sisters, usually present on your horizon.

The main natural imprint on the land is a black volcanic presence. For the geology enthusiast, the Lava Lands Visitor Center explains the historic volcanic flows that form a stark legacy. Lava Butte is a 500-foot-high cinder cone, a silent reminder of past volcanic upheavals. A Rockhound Pow-Wow gathers amateur geologists here each July.

Since opening in 1982, the High Desert Museum, south of Bend, has emerged as the most important nature interpretive effort in the state. (The High Desert Museum at Bend parallels Tucson’s Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.) The raptor exhibit alone is worth the visit, putting you as close as you may ever get to a great horned owl, a red-tailed hawk, and an American kestrel.

Foremost among the outdoor sports here is skiing at Mt. Bachelor. An extremely long ski season, both for alpine and nordic skiing, lasts into summer. The high-elevation chair lift to the top of Bachelor is popular also with non-skiers who seek an inspiring view of the region.

In summer, hikers and campers depart from Bend for the nearby wilderness areas. Trout fishing, canoeing and whitewater rafting, horseback riding, and golf are popular pastimes. Because of the many possible activities, family resorts have become popular, with Inn of the Seventh Mountain and Sunriver as the most prominent. Both of these resorts can help you participate in the full spectrum of activities that the region offers. You can often undertake several outdoor activities in a single day in this compact area.

Compared to western Oregon, the weather around Bend is warmer and the sun shows dependably for about 260 days a year. Due to the imposing presence of the Cascade chain of mountains running north-south at Bend, most precipitation falls on the west side of the mountains. The eastern side is sunny and dry, with ponderosa and lodgepole pines. Douglas firs flourish on the wet west slopes. The likelihood of sunny dryness appeals to out-of-state visitors and to Oregonians, who seek a respite from the rainy climate in the western half of the state.


Getting to Bend, Oregon

Portland’s airport places you a scenic four-hour ride by rental car from Bend via Highways 26 and 97. A commuter airline can take you from Portland or from San Francisco directly to Redmond, north of Bend. However, from Portland, consider the merits of the drive because of the scenic route along the south slopes of Mt. Hood. You could return to Portland with another scenic route through the mountains along the Santiam River (Highway 20 west, Interstate 5 north).

From Portland you can also take a bus to Bend.

Amtrak stops at Chemult, 65 miles south of Bend. Public transport can convey you between Chemult and Bend.

If you drive to the area, allow a full day trip from Seattle to the north, San Francisco to the south, or Salt Lake to the east. Roads in the region are paved two-lane passages presenting numerous scenic vistas, so you’ll want to drive at a moderate speed and occasionally linger rather than careen at a freeway pace. Highway 97 is the main north-south artery.

History of Bend, Oregon

Indians lived in the region for thousands of years, with the first time of habitation not precisely known. It is certain that when Mt. Mazama (Crater Lake’s volcano) erupted, about 9,000 years ago, Indians witnessed the event and perished in the cataclysm. Caves sealed by lava and ash flow have yielded Indian artifacts, such as reed sandals, carbon-dated to this period.

Trappers such as Peter Skene Ogden explored the region in the early 19th century. John Fremont earned part of his pathfinder title by charting central Oregon in the 1840s. Immigrants with wagon trains began penetrating the lava-strewn terrain in the mid-1850s. Where water was sufficient to insure summer meadow grass, a cattle or sheep grazing livelihood was possible. When a rail spur became feasible, lumber interests located here.

Until relatively recently the Bend region was a backwater lumber and cattle ranching domain with inhabitants numbering in the hundreds only. Cattle scrounged the arid undergrowth that survived sparsely below the digger pines.

Now all that has changed, and the new era is most evident in the small community of Sisters, west of Bend. Sisters and Bend have become trendy villages where the annual migration of travelers has replaced in importance the thousands of geese and ducks that traverse this flyway. As the major economic props of the state (lumber, agriculture, and fishing) exhibit their plateaued maturity, tourism becomes increasingly attractive, now ranking as Oregon’s #3 industry (after lumber and agriculture). Bend and Sisters are towns that benefit from this boom because they offer what the traveler wants–stunning scenery, plentiful outdoor sports, and dependable sunny climate. Sisters, even more abruptly than Bend, has been transformed into a traveler’s town with fancy “old west” storefront buildings.

Oregonians will tell you that much of the money developing Sisters originally came from California, but that Oregon participated later. Some travelers will lament this change from an era when wranglers meant cowpokes to the present time, when Wranglers means a brand name of jeans. Other observers encourage you to get behind the facades of Sisters and discover in the Fly Box store a young Oregonian tying creations that will deceive the rainbow or brown trout lurking in blue-ribbon streams of the region.

Llamas are another exotic and “foreign” feature of Sisters. Large llama ranches flourish on the edge of town and can be toured. The llamas are raised for their wool and for their virtues as pack animals. Outfitters and conservationists favor the llama over burros or horses because the llama doesn’t eat vegetation down to the ground, the llama droppings are small and disintegrate easily, and the llama’s refined hooves do relatively less damage to trails.

The development of Bend as a tourism destination reflects the new perception that Oregonians have about outsiders.

Bend flourishes at a time when Oregonians, who are always competing with Washingtonians, take a more aggressive approach to luring travelers. The Oregon sensibility, with Portland as the power center, is changing. Oregonians have always been hesitant about growth. Portland, for example, at the dawn of the jet age, was in a better position than Seattle to get the Japanese trade from Tokyo to South America. Portland had the better airport then and is actually the shortest distance from Tokyo to South America if you examine a globe. However, Portland hesitated about expanding its airport appropriately until Seattle did expand theirs and took the trade. There was a time when Portland might have persuaded Boeing to settle in Oregon rather than in Seattle, but Portland was indecisive. Similarly, Portland talked about a World’s Fair before Seattle did, but Portland didn’t act, and Seattle did. Portland, at the mouth of the mighty Columbia, had great potential for industrial growth, even because of such accidental benefits as the hundred miles of fresh water that enabled ocean-going wooden vessels of the 19th century to clear their barnacles, which die in fresh water, simply by sailing upriver. Of course, who could predict that vessels would no longer be wood? And who could foresee that Alaska would become a U.S. state or would experience a Gold Rush, which boosted the fortunes of rival Seattle at the expense of Portland?

With respect to Bend and tourism, Oregonians were ambivalent in the 1970s. Governor Tom McCall is said to have coined the phrase, “Visit, but don’t stay.” Rust was proclaimed as the state color, reminding visitors of the incessant rain, which falls, of course, in the western part of the state rather than around Bend. The mosquito was said to be the state bird. The friendliness of Oregonians to outsiders became an issue and still shows up as a factor in surveys.

Oregonians today are as friendly as any people, and they appreciate the traveler, but a certain mystique did develop and continues to require some explanation. Oregonians are now taking a more hospitable and less smug approach, hoping to participate in the golden harvest of this renewable resource, as every other state scrambles to attract the traveler. The earlier, ambivalent attitude has also had some positive effects, however. No-growth Oregon has preserved its attractions, such as the Columbia River Gorge, rather well, and the state may become enriched eventually at the risk of present impoverishment. Litter-law Oregon has not been trashed by roadside negligence or bill-boarded to death. For the outdoor enthusiast, the pristine beauty of Oregon remains enticing, and Bend is a good example of the state’s multiple outdoor pleasures. Because the economy is somewhat depressed, the traveler’s dollar stretches a little further than it does in other states.

Currently, Bend is the largest Oregon city east of the Cascades. The population numbers are a large step from the day in 1900 when founder A. M. Drake established a small community along the Deschutes River and called it Farewell Bend, which the citizens later shortened to Bend.

Main Attractions of Bend, Oregon

The scenery and scenic loop west of Bend offer the area’s most universal appeal. Start with the serene chair lift through forests of hemlock and white pine to the top of Mt. Bachelor, at 9,060 feet. Enjoy the vistas from this promontory. Then continue collecting choice views of mountainous landscapes along the so-called Cascade Lakes Highway or Century Drive, the hundred-mile outing amidst the lakes and mountain west of Bend. You drive west, then south, and then east on this loop, returning to Highway 97. The three mountains called the Sisters, all over 10,000 feet, offer the most appealing cluster of alpine vistas in the Oregon Cascades. Only Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson are higher mountains in Oregon than the Sisters.

Several of the most pleasing views are along the first 20 miles west of Bachelor, when Bachelor, Broken Top, and South Sister are in sight, especially in the region of Sparks Lake. Vistas, streams, and lush vegetation wherever water is abundant are some of the pleasures here. Dawn and the half-hour before sunset are the optimal viewing times. A lifetime could be devoted to collecting memorable views of these mountains in the infinite kaleidoscope with three variables–changing light, different seasons, and the varying position of the viewer.

Oregon: Bend, High Desert Museum, bird of prey, owl, handler
Oregon: Bend, High Desert Museum, bird of prey, owl, handler

Another interesting stop along the Century Drive is the osprey or fish hawk reserve at Crane Prairie Reservoir, a site set aside in 1969 to perpetuate this colony of birds. Crane Prairie is one of the few osprey-nesting sites that is easily accessible. Summer months are the best time to view the nests and feeding of the young.

The Mt. Bachelor Ski Center lifts operate through July for downhill skiing on the upper reaches of the mountain. During the winter season, Bachelor features itself in the ski market as an excellent family ski site, with well-organized children’s programs featuring skiing and day care. The lift prices are a good value and the managers claim that lift lines never exceed a 10-minute wait.

Mt. Bachelor’s Nordic Center, the most ambitious in Oregon, boasts an attractive log lodge, a luxurious facility for what is usually a spartan sport. Racing is growing as fast as touring as a mix of the sport. The Nordic Center offers full service repairs, waxing, and a cafeteria, plus 56 kilometers of groomed trail for November-May skiing. From the Nordic Center you can access wilderness areas with hundreds of miles of un-groomed trail. The proximity of the Nordic Center to Mt. Bachelor allows for good telemarking.

The High Desert Museum, seven miles south of Bend, is your best introduction to the fauna, flora, and human history of the region. The raptor exhibit, as mentioned, is without parallel. The institution is not a museum in the usual static sense of the word, but envisions itself as a place where a citizen can encounter and delight in nature, thereby becoming a more effective participant in society’s decision-making process concerning nature. All this occurs in a very practical manner. For example, the raptor attender presents in his Birds of Prey talk the habits of a red-tailed hawk while the bird is sitting on his gloved hand. An entranced youngster in the audience, who happens to have a 12-gauge shotgun at home, may think twice about shooting a red-tailed hawk, in a misguided macho moment, after learning how valuable the red-tail is in controlling the rodent population.

Injured raptors, including merlins, hawks, kestrels, and owls, are rehabilitated and returned to the wilds. If their injury makes it impossible for them to survive in the wilds, the birds are kept at the raptor exhibit so that people will become aware of the role of raptors in the natural scheme. Porcupine and river otter habitats, labeled flora along the walking paths, and the forest uses exhibit are part of the encounter here. A re-created log house shows how the earliest white settlers of the region survived. In the Visitor Center you can examine at the hands-on table a rattlesnake skin or a beaver pelt. The Visitor Center includes a wickiup, or desert Indian habitation. A permanent exhibit of Edward Curtis’ Indian portraits is on display.

Lava Butte and the Lava Lands Visitor Center, 11 miles south of Bend, is the major place in eastern Oregon at which to meditate over the volcanic phenomena that created the landscape. After attending the audio-visual shows (which include pithy descriptions of our sphere, such as “Geologically speaking, the earth is a chocolate-covered cherry”), walk out on the Trail of the Molten Land. You walk amidst the lava flows, a no-man’s land with 6,117 acres of black basalt rock chunks, bare of vegetation except for a few hardy and invasive bitterweed plants. From the Phil Brogan Viewpoint, you get a stunning view of the Cascades. At the highpoint, called Lava Butte, streams of lava poured out through what are called gutters. U.S. astronauts trained in 1964 amidst the moonscape of eastern Oregon prior to the first moon launch.

Other more specialized geologic phenomena are intriguing in the region. From Paulina Peak you can see the largest obsidian flow in the U.S. The Lava Cast Forest amounts to castings made when tree trunks were slowly inundated by lava. The cooled lava retained the cast shape of the tree after the tree disintegrated. Newberry Crater is the caldera of an ancient volcano that collapsed in on itself, as did Crater Lake. Lava River Cave is a 1.2 mile underground walk in a lava tunnel created by one of the earlier flows. Smith Rock State Park, north of Bend, offers striking and colorful sedimentary rock formations, a favored location for rock-climbers. The Crooked River Gorge, near Smith Rock Park, is a 400-foot-wide, 300-foot-deep gash in the earth that early wagon trains found a formidable obstacle in the trek west.

Horseback riding is popular throughout the Bend region. Wilderness areas can only be penetrated on foot or by horse. As a good example of the shorter two-hour trail rides available, consider a jaunt around Blue Lake by horseback. During a past trip there, I witnessed their annual Guides Cookoff, featuring 11 guides preparing for celebrity judges the mouth-watering meals so prominently mentioned in promotional brochures. A fishing guide from Salem, OR, for example, showed how he cooked stuffed pork chops and peach cobbler. The Guides Cookoff, which has become an annual event, is an example of the local celebrations you are likely to stumble across in central Oregon.

Hiking is popular throughout the area, with easy access to several wilderness areas. One appealing hike to consider is a walk around Paulina Lake, which provides a pleasing panoramic view of the mountains, volcanoes, and rangelands from 8,000 feet.

Fishing for trout is popular throughout the Bend region. About 235 miles of fishable streams or rivers and 220 lakes are accessible in Central Oregon, many close to the Cascades Highway loop drive. Some lakes are in the four wilderness areas and are lightly fished. Native rainbows are the most plentiful trout, but eastern, brown, and brook trout are appreciated also by the aficionado. The major river, the Deschutes, begins in the Cascades southwest of Bend and winds north to the Columbia along the east flank of the mountains. One of the most beautiful rivers in Oregon, the Metolius, lies in this area. Part of the Metolius is open to flying fishing only. Fishing information is easily available within the region and all resorts have guides. Canoeing and white water rafting are popular along the Deschutes and McKenzie Rivers. A dozen rafting companies offer their services, with outings ranging from placid canoe trips to fast white-water excursions.

Bend itself is a pleasant small town to encounter. The five city parks invite relaxing and picnicking, especially Drake Park, because the Deschutes River glides past and hundreds of Canadian geese stride about.

Nearby Trips from Bend, Oregon

Crater Lake, the Oregon Coast, Portland, the Columbia River Gorge, and the Mt. Hood loop are all good trips to consider as a supplement to Bend. See my write-ups on each of these trips.


Bend, Oregon: If You Go

The main information source is the Central Oregon Visitors Association at http://visitcentraloregon.com.

The overall Oregon tourism source is http://www.traveloregon.com.



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  5. Lee, Outstanding narrative (w/pics) of our new home here in Bend, OR. Although I have lived here a year, I found out some new and interesting facts about the area. Great job. The High Desert Museum may have been updated since your visit. It is one of our favorite places to visit. It houses my favorite animal…the Gila Monster (which my granddaughter likes also-she lives next door to us).


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