8 Spectacular Outdoor Excursions and Hikes in Central Oregon

We’re lucky to have family in Central Oregon, and have been visiting the Redmond/Bend area every year for more than 20 years. We’ve tried everything from skiing Mount Bachelor to hiking the Cascades Lakes trails to kayaking the Deschutes. This post features our favorite hand-picked excursions and hikes after decades of exploring the area from our college days to being parents of babies in tow turned teen and tween.

Central Oregon, a spectacular “mountains meet high desert” destination, is truly a year-round adventure-lovers paradise. It is accessible from all modes of transportation including flights from most major U.S. cities, Amtrak rail, and of course by car. It is about a 5-hour, 44 minute drive from Seattle; a 3+-hour from Portland; and a 2-hour, 30-minute drive from Eugene.

When to go. Central Oregon is a popular year-round vacation destination and offers something for everyone every season of the year. Since we have not been doing much skiing in recent years, we prefer to go in spring and fall, while making sure to get up to the Cascades Lakes at some point during the summer months. Read on for eight of our favorite fair-weather excursions and hikes!

1. Walk (Bike or Scooter) Around Riverbend Park

Location: 799 S.W. Columbia Street, Bend, Oregon (in downtown Bend)
Open: Year-round from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Mileage and difficulty: Varies
Permits & Fees: Free

Riverbend Park, a 13.1-mile park along the Deschutes River near the Old Mill District in downtown Bend, is a great place for families to spend a casual afternoon. Enjoy the scenic paved and unpaved trails along the river, playgrounds, river access (including a dog off-leash area), and access to other popular Bend outdoors spots like the scenic Drake Park and Mirror Pond. When our kids were little, we enjoyed renting a tandem bike from Wheel Fun Rentals, although the Riverbend Park paths are temporarily closed to bikes due to COVID-19 distancing protocols so check the website for updates.

2. Enjoy a Picnic at Tumalo State Park

Location: 64170 O. B. Riley Rd., Bend, Oregon (14 minutes from downtown Bend via US-97 N)
Open: Year-round
Mileage and difficulty: Varies
Permits & Fees: 1-day parking permit available to purchase on-site

Tumalo State Park was one of our most recent excursions in Bend, and we loved strolling along the river trail and stopping at several shady first-come, first-served access points along the Deschutes River. Tumalo State Park also has campgrounds! Nearby, in the little town of Tumalo, there are loads of food trucks, Tumalo Cider Company, and Tumalo Coffeehouse for a treat stop afterward.

3. Scale Tumalo Mountain for One of the Best Views in Central Oregon

Location: S.W. Century Drive and Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway (27 minutes from Bend)
Open: May – October for hiking (also open for snowshoeing in winter)
Mileage: 3.8 miles round-trip with 1,407 elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Permits & Fees: Northwest Forest Pass (leashed dogs allowed)

We hiked Tumalo Mountain Trial last summer with out-of-town friends and four kids aged 8-13 years old and were blown away by the gorgeous panoramic views of Broken Top Mountain and Mt. Bachelor at the top. The trail is listed as moderate, but I’d call it “difficult” for younger kids due to the steep elevation gain. Tumalo Mountain Trail was also quite dry, dusty, and slippery. Trekking poles and hiking boots with good tread are highly recommended. It is also heavily trafficked, so pick an off-peak time to go, and be prepared with masks and other supplies. The trail can still have some snow in June, and mid-July was about perfect.

4. Hike Among Towering Rock Spires at Smith Rock State Park 

Location: Terrebonne (35 minutes from Bend via US-97 N)
Open: Year-round
Mileage and difficulty: Varies, click here for ideas, from easiest to more difficult, we enjoy Misery Ridge + Summit Loop Trail.
Permits & Fees: 1-day parking permit available to purchase on-site

Hiking at iconic Smith Rock State Park and past landmark rock formation “Monkey Face” are must-dos when in the Redmond-Bend area. (Smith Rock, as it turns out, is also one of the “7 Wonders of Oregon.”) Our favorite loop, although not easy, is the Misery Ridge + Summit Loop Trail, one of my favorite fall or early winter hikes in Central Oregon.

Misery Ridge is listed as one of the “more difficult” trails, and it is. We’ve done it with babies in packs, and now usually sneak away to hike it without the kids. It is six miles and 1,774 elevation gain starting at Smith Rock State Park trailhead, climbing up through the rock spires and around landmark monkey face, and looping back down along the scenic river trail. There are plenty of easier jaunts along Smith Rock’s canyon that might be easier if you are exploring with young children. 

5. Climb to Moraine Lake and Stunning Views of South Sister

Location: Cascades Lakes National Scenic Byway (44 minutes from Bend)
Open: March – November
Mileage: 5.1 miles round trip with 1,473 elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate for fit adults, and difficult and steep for kids (but worth it)!
Permits & Fees: Important! New Central Cascades Wilderness Permitting System in 2021! Wilderness permits are required for all overnight use in the Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington, and Three Sisters wilderness areas. New day-use permits are also required on 19 of the 79 trails into those same three wildernesses. Additional passes will be available at recreation.gov starting on May 21, 2021.

The popular high elevation Moraine Lake Trail features a steep climb through old-growth hemlock forest, stunning views of South Sister and Broken Top mountains, and ends in a plunge (if you like) into a crisp alpine lake. Mosquitos were a mild annoyance, and the dry trail was slippery in places so wear boots with good tread and bring your trekking poles. Moraine Lake Trail is also a popular backpacking destination in the Cascades Lakes area. We parked at the less crowded Devils Lake parking lot.

6. Kayak or Paddleboard on Little Lava Lake

Location: Cascades Lakes National Scenic Byway (about 1 hour from Bend)

We camped at Little Lava Lake, located next to the more popular Lava Lake, and had a great time and a very fun COVID camping experience last summer. (Little Lava Lake is also headwaters to the mighty Deschutes River.) In addition to the campsites, there is a limited day-use area, for day-trippers to access. Because there are limited picnic facilities it does not tend to draw a big crowd, and in addition to the happy campers, we noticed a handful of locals enjoying the lake for kayaking or paddle boarding during the day. Check out “Blue Lagoon” for a fun side jaunt!

7. Take a Stroll Around Todd Lake

Location: Skyliners Road and NF-370 (located 1 hour 23 minutes from Bend)
Open: May – October
Mileage: 1.7 miles and 78 feet elevation gain 
Difficulty: Easy
Permits & Fees: Important! New Central Cascades Wilderness Permitting System in 2021! Wilderness permits are required for all overnight use in the Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington, and Three Sisters wilderness areas. New day-use permits are also required on 19 of the 79 trails into those same three wildernesses. Additional passes will be available at recreation.gov starting on May 21, 2021.

Todd Lake Loop Trail is a fun excursion for younger children or people who are looking for an easy casual loop and not a more strenuous climb. Beautiful mountain views and plenty of shallow areas for kids (or dogs) to play in the water.

8. Visit Otherworldly Painted Hills

Location: In northern Central Oregon, part of John Day Fossil Beds Monument, located via US-26 E (about 1 hour, 47 minutes from Bend)
Open: Sunrise to sunset daily
Mileage: Varies but minimal
Difficulty: Easy
Permits & Fees: There are no visitor entrance fees for regular recreation visits at all three units of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument! Leashed pets are allowed in developed areas and along hiking trails.

The Painted Hills isn’t exactly a quick day trip from Redmond-Bend, but I had to work in a few photos of this marvel somehow! Many people plan a day trip here from Bend, even though it is almost two hours away, because Painted Hills isn’t located close to many towns (the nearest town is the much smaller town of Prineville).

I was blown away by this photographer’s dream with breathtaking landscapes and wildflowers that happened to be peaking around the third week of June when we visited. The Painted Hills are one of the “7 Wonders of Oregon” and feature five short hikes through an unbelievable landscape.

This is a remote area with limited services, so plan accordingly, and bring everything you need for a picnic and hydration. There is no visitor’s center, no water, limited garbage, and vault toilets. Pack it in and pack it out! 

Have you experienced any of these outdoor excursions and hikes in Central Oregon?


Images and content copyright © 2021 Tournesol Adventures. All rights reserved.

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