EXPLORING OREGON WITH KIDS: BEND – With the wild and scenic Deschutes River flowing into its city center, and the majestic Cascade Mountains watching over it from the west, Bend sits quietly poised for outdoor adventures of nearly every interest and ability. And with the year-round sunshine at this high-desert destination, it’s possible to “seize the outdoors” in every season of the year.
Snowy slopes surround Bend in winter months, when it’s a haven for snowboarders, skiers, and snowshoers. In other seasons, its pristine lakes and waterways call to fly-fishing and kayaking enthusiasts from around the globe. Our favorite season to visit is summer when we can hike, paddle, go horseback riding, swim, bike, and savor the sweet sage in the air.
Want to experience Bend with your own family? It can be reached by car in 3.5 hours from Portland, or in 9 hours on a road trip north from San Francisco Bay (we recommend the Highway 97 route). The Redmond Municipal Airport (RDM) is also just 20 minutes from Bend and now has daily direct flights from Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco (click here for more info).
However you plan to get to Bend, here’s what we recommend you put at the top of your family’s list for when you get there.
Activity 1: Visit the High Desert Museum
The High Desert Museum is not only TripAdvisor’s #1 rated “Thing to Do” in Bend, it is also a great place to get an overview of the history and nature surrounding you in this part of the Pacific Northwest. But if you plan to visit the High Desert Museum with kids, you’d better plan to visit for a good, long while (3 hours minimum).
There is far more to see here than you might expect, and once you do make it through all of the indoor exhibits, (visit the wild west and a fur trappers’ camp, follow the journey of the Plains Indian Nation, and see the Desertarium, in addition to six or seven changing exhibits usually on display), there will still be much more to explore outside.
Make a stop at the Birds of Prey Center and then head to the Otter Exhibit. But you might want to take a lunch break before you head over to the Miller Ranch, and you can do so either dining in the Rimrock Cafe or enjoying your own picnic at the shaded tables by the parking lot.
At the Miller Ranch, you’ll find several buildings including real log cabins and a functioning sawmill where costumed characters from 1904 await, all ready to share details and answer questions about the frontier lifestyle in this region in the late 1800s and beginning of the 20th century. Kids can join in popular pioneer games, learn to card wool, and operate the hand-powered tools of the time among other activities. Find out more: https://www.highdesertmuseum.org/
Tips: The High Desert Museum offers special activities and events seven days a week (except when closed for the major holidays), so be sure to check the schedule in advance to make sure you don’t miss something you’ll regret. Kids 4 years and younger visit free and the museum provides complimentary strollers and wheelchairs as well.
Activity 2: Conquer the “Misery” at Smith Rock State Park
The Misery Ridge Trail at Smith Rock State Park is not for everyone. Particularly not for those with a paralyzing fear of heights, bad knees, or a heart condition. But for those who welcome the challenge of the near-vertical climb with almost 1000-foot elevation gain (from that lovely flowing Crooked River you see below to the trail’s top up to the summit still a ways above this photo) it’s a spectacular hiking opportunity.
Bring a picnic to eat at the top while you continue taking in the hard-earned view. Then stroll on over where the path continues to alternative views–which may include some extremely accomplished rock climbers and the bizarre stone column called “Monkey Face.”
When you’ve had enough, simply return the way you came but slowly–and take special care in a couple areas where you might encounter slippery scree. The trail is recommended for kids 8 years and older, and is obviously a better match for kids who can be calm and cautious (ours did the hike at 7 years, but was willing to stick to the inside and hold on to Dad’s hand whenever we said to).
For the workout, it’s hard to believe that the round trip from the bridge to the top of the summit is only 1.5 miles, though if you continue over to the Monkey Face viewpoint the round trip is 3.8 miles. Those who want to do and see more can continue on the Smith Rock Loop Trail (5.8 miles total). Smith Rock State Park is just outside of Bend, Oregon, in the tiny town of Terrebonne. Find out more: http://www.oregonhikers.org/field_guide/Misery_Ridge_Loop_Hike
Tips: There is a $5 Oregon State Parks fee to visit and dogs are welcome on leash. In hot summer weather, you’ll want to avoid hiking during peak temps as there is almost no shade and the monolith itself radiates the heat.
Activity 3: Stretch Your Legs in a Lava Tube
As you travel around and through Bend with kids, watch for the geologic clues its volcano-forged history–and future! Right in town, you’ll see the cinder cone of Pilot Butte rising up (you can drive to the top to take in the view), the landmark that once helped guide wagon trains crossing the Central Oregon Plateau. And to the south of town you’ll see the 7,000-year-old cinder cone called Lava Butte.
That’s where the official–and still-active–Newberry National Volcanic Monument begins, stretching on for 55,500 acres (225 sq. kms). Among its marvels, you’ll find the 700-acre Big Obsidian Flow, the Lava Cast Forest, Newberry Caldera, and more. But if you ask me, there’s no more memorable way to teach your kids about the geology of Central Oregon than by taking them for a hike inside an actual lava tube–the only un-collapsed lava tube you’ll find in Oregon.
A visit to the one-mile-long Lava River Cave makes for a thrilling adventure illuminated only by the flashlights you carry yourself–and with the curves and unexpected jags of rock below, beside, and sometimes above you, you’ll want a light for each member in your party (there are some for rent at the entrance, but the prices are steep) and everyone should wear closed-toe shoes.
Note: It gets very tight toward the end–claustrophobic members of your party might not want to go the entire way. Also, Lava River Cave is a steady 42 degrees Fahrenheit year round and you will all want to have your jackets inside, no matter how hot it may be above in the parking area. What’s more, remember there are roughly 150 steps down just to access the cave–which means another 150 steps to climb back up at the end of your hike (have snacks waiting in the car).
Lava River Cave is only open to the public May through September. Check the official site for exact hours on the day of your visit. Find out more: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/deschutes/recarea/?recid=38396
Activity 4: Float through Bend on the Deschutes River
While much of what calls one to visit Bend is in what surrounds the central Oregon city, there is one special attraction that actually flows right through it. The Deschutes River is a designated “Wild and Scenic River” right up to the Bend urban growth boundary. But if you ask me, it’s still quite attractive where it runs right on through town, beckoning rafters, kayakers, paddle boarders, and tubers to take to the water throughout the warm season.
The most popular float route starts at Riverbend Park in the Old Mill District and concludes at Drake Park in downtown Bend. Owing to the urban waterway’s popularity, a whitewater channel has been added roughly halfway through this route, where experts can opt for the challenging course, soft-adventurers can opt for the small whitewater route (stay right), and those who want to skip any white stuff can hop out and carry their tubes around this part of the course on a riverside walkway (this will help you get the picture).
Tube rentals are available from Sun Country Tours at Riverbend park (look for their rental trailer), and all rentals include life jackets at no extra cost. Whether you opt to rent your river tubes or bring your own, a municipal shuttle will haul your troupe and its tubes back from Drake Park to Riverbend Park for $3 per person; you can purchase your shuttle wristbands from the Sun Country Tours kiosk at Riverbend Park. Find out more: https://suncountrytours.com/tour/river-tubing/
1 Great Place to Stay: Sunriver Resort
About 15 miles south of Bend, Sunriver Resort is like a village unto itself (in fact the shopping and dining center is called “the Village”) where nearly 300 different vacation rental properties can be found in different pockets of the property with more than 40 miles of bikeable, walkable, jog-able trails meandering between them and on through the forest and alongside some of the most picturesque stretches of the Deschutes River.
Did I mention the horseback riding with Sunriver Stables? Or the bicycle rentals–or in the case of many Sunriver vacation rentals, the complimentary cruiser bikes may be waiting for you in the garage? And if you’re really lucky (or clever), your vacation rental may even include member passes to SHARC–the Sunriver Homeowner’s Association Recreation Center, with a lazy river, two big water slides, and a zero-entry splash pool area for the littlest kids.
If you don’t have other access to SHARC, day passes are available for an extra fee. Click here to search for Sunriver vacation rentals at VRBO.com (Vacation Rentals by Owner – affiliate link helps support this site).
1 Great Place to Eat: Deschutes Brewery & Public House
If there’s one thing Bend is known for besides it’s amazing year round recreation and gorgeous natural setting, it would have to be its beer. One of its earliest craft brewing companies also happens to have a family-friendly pub right in downtown Bend: The Deschutes Brewery & Public House.
Its food alone may be worth your visit. Tempt your palate with Pacific Northwest-inspired, sustainable fare including notables such as a Juniper Elk Burger, Brie Bird (pan-roasted turkey), Fried Chicken Schnitzel Club Sandwich, and Pub Mac ‘n Cheese. You’ll also find multiple vegan mains and a few gluten-free. I can whole-heartedly recommend the Sourdough Pastrami Sandwich: house-smoked pastrami served sourdough bread with gruyere cheese, apple-onion sauerkraut and 1000 Island.
But you’ll also find many of their signature brews on tap, some named for the Bend & Deschutes area itself like Black Butte Porter, Mirror Pond Pale Ale, and Nitro Obsidian Stout, plus an offering of specialty pub-releases. And don’t worry, kids are welcome in the dining area (even if they just came off the river). Find out more: https://www.deschutesbrewery.com/pubs/bend/