An Autumn Escape to Central Oregon
East of the Cascade Mountains lies a high desert landscape filled with rugged canyons, lava beds and brilliant fall color
Fall has arrived and I’m not ready for the rain. I’m also not ready to give up RVing for the season.
In the Pacific Northwest, when the rain starts on the damp west side, people in-the-know head for the sunny high desert of Central Oregon and the town of Bend, a delightful mecca of cool museums, brew pubs and outdoor activities that make a perfect RV escape.
We start late on Friday afternoon, but the traffic is light on U.S. Highway 26. It’s spitting rain when we leave and, as we climb toward Mount Hood through the thick canopy of the Mount Hood National Forest, the rain becomes more insistent and finally turns to snow. Fall has firmly arrived in the Cascades and 16 inches of the white stuff has already fallen at Mount Hood Meadows, a popular ski destination.
After cresting the summit, the fir and cedar forests of the west side give way to pine and manzanita and the rain lessens and the sky lightens. By the time we reach the wheat-colored grasses and sage of Central Oregon, the rain has stopped. We motor down to the little settlement of Warm Springs through a magnificent canyon cut by the Deschutes River and spot a sign for fry bread, a Native American treat. We pull off and pony up $3 for a dinner-plate-sized disk of puffy, freshly fried dough liberally dusted with powdered sugar.
We pass a turnout where die-hard fishermen cast their flies into the chilly, fast-moving river and climb out of the canyon into high desert fields of onions, beets and winter wheat. The sun weakly burns through the clouds. At least it’s not raining!
We drive through Madras, a little up-and-coming town that sits at 2,437 feet elevation, where we top off the gas tank. Nine miles south of town, we stop for the night at one of our favorite parks, the Madras/Culver KOA. As we pull in, the sun peeks from behind the clouds to give us a blast of warmth.
The KOA here is a neat-as-a-pin campground that features full- and partial-hookup sites, extra-long pull-through spaces, grass and shade, a nice pool and kids’ area, and super-clean showers. My favorite, however, is the pancake breakfasts ($3) cheerfully served by the staff.
The following morning (after a few too many pancakes), we motor south on U.S. Highway 97. Though the area’s iconic mountains — the Three Sisters, Three Fingered Jack and Mount Bachelor — are all hidden in mist, the clouds are doing their best Maxfield Parrish impression and the temperature has risen to a balmy 60 degrees.
We pass a bridge that crosses over the Crooked River Gorge. Most motorists whiz past this pullout, but it’s worth a stop to peer into the craggy, almost vertical canyon walls. We drive through the burg of Terrebonne and, to the east, spot the rocky spires of Smith Rock State Park. This is a day-use area that’s popular with rock climbers and a great place to enjoy a picnic.
We spot a small sign for Petersen Rock Gardens. Intrigued, we turn off Highway 97 onto Young Avenue, then right on 77th. We meander a bit, wondering if we’re on a goose chase, but soon we see more signs and arrive at an old farmhouse surrounded by an amazing rock garden. We pay the small fee and wander amidst bridges, castles, and entire towns in miniature made from local lava rock and semi-precious stones. The high desert of Oregon is a rockhound’s paradise and its bounty is evidenced by this creative display.
Instead of getting back on Highway 97, we follow our GPS on to the Old Bend-Redmond Highway to Tumalo State Park, our home for the night. It’s late in the season so several of the many loops in this park are closed, but Loop A has plenty of level, paved spots with water/electric or full hookups at the bargain price of $26. It also has picnic tables, fire rings, big solar showers, and the clean, herbal smell of sagebrush.
Once settled in our campsite, we spend the afternoon hiking along the Deschutes River. Our dogs are more interested in digging up ground squirrels under every rock, but they reluctantly follow us along the spectacular river trail. As darkness falls, we’re surrounded by a deep quiet only found in the desert.
Desert Museum, Lava Flows, WaterFalls
The next morning, we wake feeling refreshed to broken clouds. We drive a few miles on U.S. Highway 20 past Bend, at 80,000-plus people, the largest city in Central Oregon, and then south on Highway 97. Our destination this morning is the High Desert Museum, a world-class museum that celebrates the plants, animals and natural history of the high desert. We wander through the many galleries — exhibits filled with Gila monsters, bobcats, Canadian lynx and the Hall of Settlement and Exploration, which features dioramas of the area’s Native Americans, early trappers, emigrants and miners. The museum has created an entire town with sound effects that includes a saddle shop, assay office, mercantile and Chinese store that visitors can walk through. The exhibits go on and on — the Spirit of the West gallery explores “leapers and creepers,” snakes, frogs, geckos and more; and the Hall of Plateau Indians features a big tule mat summer tipi as well as colorful and intricate embroidery, shell work, hand- beaded dresses and moccasins.
Outdoors, the museum is even more impressive. We walk along pine-shaded paths past big bronze sculptures of elk, bear and pronghorn. But it’s the birds of prey exhibit that’s really breathtaking. The museum houses native birds too injured to return to the wild — and seeing bald eagles, golden eagles and great-horned owls up close is humbling. When a golden eagle stretches its wings, we’re awed by her 7-foot wingspan that, in the wild, would carry it over a 60-square-mile territory.
Exhilarated by the High Desert Museum, we churn a couple of miles south on Highway 97 and spot a sprawling field of black lava surrounding a large cinder cone. More than 750,000 years ago, Central Oregon was a hotbed of volcanic activity. As lava flowed from Newberry Volcano, it cooled and shrank, leaving large buttes like this cinder cone and miles of craggy lava strewn across the landscape. This is Newberry National Volcanic Monument and site of Lava Lands Visitor Center. As we pull off the shoulder to snap a few photos, the sun skirts a cloud and streams onto the lava field, forming a beautiful rainbow over the mountain of lava.
Lava Lands Visitor Center is closed for the season and, while we could hike into the lava beds, instead we turn off at the Center and drive 4 miles down a narrow road to the parking area for Benham Falls. We snug the rig under the pines, leash up the dogs and head off along the Deschutes River on an old railroad-bed-turned-hiking-trial that used to service the area’s logging industry. The trail, wide and flat and wheelchair accessible, is only a mile round trip. And though the sun has disappeared and it’s starting to mist, it’s a pleasant jaunt to the falls, a turbulent gush of water swirling through steep canyon walls. We’re surprised to see loads of people — parents pushing strollers, young couples with dogs and daypacks, groups of older hikers — out enjoying the trail, despite the iffy weather.
The area’s volcanic activity has left plenty of lava tubes and caves and we’re keen to explore them. After our falls hike, we drive a short distance to Lava River Cave, but we’re disappointed to find a gate preventing entrance. While fewer crowds are a plus during fall, some attractions are closed for the season. Undaunted, we make a few phone calls and hook up with Wanderlust Tours, a local group that leads visitors through local sights like Boyd Cave. While Boyd isn’t open to the general public, Wanderlust has a special permit to take visitors into its fragile ecosystem.
With our guide, we stop at what looks like sagebrush covered land and hike a quarter mile to a crack in the earth with a steep metal staircase descending into the gloom. Discovered in 1920 by a man scouting for timber, the cave is one of 15 in the Arnold Cave system.
We flip on our helmet lights and scramble over rocks to walk along the room-sized tunnel. It’s cool year-round, about 45 degrees, and Native Americans used these caves to store food in the summer. Unlike limestone caves that have stalagmites and stalactites (rock icicles), lava caves are made up of basalt, silica, and white opal and the walls are relatively smooth. We spot tiny bats, their fuzzy coats huddled against the ceiling. At one point, our guide turns off our lights. The inky black and the silence are so deep it feels as though we’ve fallen like Alice in Wonderland into some otherworldly dimension.
It’s late afternoon by the time we return to Bend’s small, walkable downtown. The rain has stopped and the sun is shining so we grab a sub sandwich at the New York Deli and spend a couple of hours poking around the town’s interesting shops and strolling along the river at Drake Park.
Then we head to the Old Mill District, a former timber mill that’s been converted into an upscale shopping area. We’re amazed when we see a strange looking craft that’s part bar, part bicycle peddle by. This is CyclePub, an innovative roving bar that lets people cycle around town and simultaneously drink craft beer. In recent years, Bend has redefined itself as an artisan beer town and, with 12 breweries, it’s become one of the hottest brewing cities in the country. In fact, there are more breweries per capita here than in any other city in the U.S. We join the fun by quaffing a couple of pints at Good Life Brewing.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and it’s nearly 6 p.m. when we pack up and head toward Mount Hood and home. As we drive westward into a black wall of clouds ahead, we know we’re heading into rain. No worries, we can always come back to our sunny oasis in Central Oregon.
For More Information
800-800-8334 | www.visitcentraloregon.com
High Desert Museum
541-382-4754 | www.highdesertmuseum.org
800-562-1992 | www.madras-koa.com
Tumalo State Park
800-551-6949 | www.oregonstateparks.org
800-962-2862 | www.wanderlusttours.com