By Chip O’Brien
For a town with 10,000 fewer people than Redding, Bend, Oregon is a lot cooler.
Now, I could be referring to its proximity to the Mt. Bachelor Ski area, home to what many consider “the best powder on earth.” Or I might be thinking that it’s home to a staggering 25 breweries. I could also be recalling that it rivals Redding as a fly-fishing Mecca. But if you were to get in my face for preferring Bend to Redding, I’d tell you I meant cooler during the summer, about 15 degrees.
It takes five hours, (279 miles via I-5 north and Hwy. 97) to drive there from Redding. Granted, it is farther away than the Bay Area, the coast or Lake Tahoe, but the drive is scenic enough and different enough to make the time go quickly. The best part about Bend is that it’s a very active city with no lack of fun things to do.
Like Redding, Bend has a river. The Deschutes River begins with Little Lava Lake south on Bend and flows mainly north for 250 miles before flowing into the Columbia River. While renowned for its spectacular fishing, the river in Bend is more of a scenic attraction, and Drake Park hosts almost non-stop concerts and activities during the warmer months.
4th of July is a terrific time to visit Bend. The best strategy is to park somewhere between downtown Bend and Drake Park on the river. The weather is typically gorgeous, nowhere near as hot as a Redding. Before the 4th of July Pet Parade, treat yourself to some Starbucks (located across the street from Starbucks and just down the street from Starbucks). Like a throwback from the 1950s, people dress their dogs, cats, horses and goats in costumes and parade them through downtown in spectacular fashion. Handfuls of candy are tossed to the throngs of kids and families camped out with folding chairs along city streets. Apparently saving the best for last, you can see the last pet well before it passes you by. It’s a Chihuahua wearing aviator goggles flying 15 feet above the street suspended by a huge bouquet of red, white and blue helium balloons.
After the Pet Parade most families walk over to Drake Park to picnic, listen to live music, watch live belly dancers or participate in the games and activities set up for the kids. With most of the kids off the downtown streets by mid-afternoon, a more mature but no less crazy crowd replaces the Pet Paraders in Bend’s “unofficial” but massively popular other 4th of July parade. Called the Freedom Ride, it’s basically several thousand mainly teens and young adults riding bikes in outlandish red, white and blue costumes as an almost spontaneous celebration of freedom. Though it is not city-sponsored and no one knows precisely who puts it together, the City of Bend has not tried to fight it because it is so hugely popular. As many as 10,000 people flood into the downtown area for the 4th of July festivities. It’s a little crazy, family friendly and terrific fun. “Freedom Ride” now has its own Facebook page.
Bend’s downtown area is a lively place with busy shops, restaurants and pubs. While NorCal is making great strides toward becoming a leading craft beer producer, Bend has been in the game a bit longer. The Bend Oregon Beer website refers to Bend as “The Center of the Craft Beer Universe.” Liveability.com named Bend the #1 Beer City in America in 2014 and ranked it among the Top 100 Best Places to Live in 2015. It also claimed that Bend has one of the highest concentrations of breweries in the nation on a per-capita basis.
The “Bend Ale Trail” roughly follows the Deschutes River through downtown Bend and directs “hikers” to many of the areas best breweries. Some of these local offerings might fall into the category of “experimental” beers, but nothing’s ever been gained by not trying new things. 10 Barrel Brewing won a gold medal at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival for its “Cucumber Crush.” The Liveability survey also said that Bend’s largest brewer, Deschutes Brewery, won Draftmag.com’s 2013 top 25 beers of the year for its “Fresh Squeezed IPA.” You can also tour the Deschutes Brewery as well as several others.
With 65 miles of hiking trails within the city limits, there are some great hikes around town. Another popular summer activity is floating the river. Within the city the Deschutes is slowed down with a dam creating Mirror Pond. Floating this slow water is another popular activity, and you will see all manner of watercraft from kayaks to rubber rafts to standup paddleboards. Don’t feel like dragging your own equipment up there? No problem. You can rent whatever type of watercraft you prefer downtown.
Just south of Bend is the High Desert Museum, which is more than worth a visit. This cultural icon presents everything from local history, geology and science to art, nature and hands-on activities for the kids. It sits on 135 acres and boasts over 100,000 square feet of exhibit space.
If you like history, try visiting Bend’s Deschutes Historical Museum downtown. You can explore the local Native American history as well as what it was like for the first Europeans in the area. These are intertwined with logging history and plenty of hands-on activities for the kids.
Unlike Mt. Shasta Ski Park, Mt. Bachelor outside of Bend has remained fully open these last several years of drought. There is of course skiing and snowboarding including runs from beginner to expert. There are several terrain parks to choose from and rentals of all sorts. There is Nordic skiing, Snowblast tubing (with it’s own terrain park) snowshoe tours, snowmobile tours and sled dog rides. It is cooler in Bend than Redding in the winter because, among other things, it is 3,000 feet higher in elevation, but when the snow starts to settle it just gets people outdoors all the more. There isn’t a month in the year where Bend residents can’t be found outdoors.
The Old Mill District is Bend’s shopping hub with more than 40 shops, art galleries, restaurants and boutiques. It’s even surrounded by miles of paved and unpaved hiking and running trails with stunning views of the areas major volcanoes. The Old Mill also features the first permanent fly-casting course of its kind in North America. Arranged something like a golf course, the casting course offers “holes” requiring curve casts, distance casts and accuracy challenges.
Like most other active, outdoor activities, Bend takes fly-fishing as seriously as Redding does. Stream anglers can fish the upper, middle and lower Deschutes River (each section distinctly different from the others), the Crooked River, the Metolius or Fall River to name a few. Anglers who prefer still water can fish East Lake, Crane Prairie Reservoir (home to the massive “Cranebows”), Wickiup Reservoir, Cultus Lake, Lava or Little Lava Lakes. Unlike Redding which is home to one of the largest fly shops in the world (The Fly Shop), Bend has several very good smaller shops ready to provide fly- fishing equipment, local expertise and guide service if desired. You probably can’t swing a dead cat in Bend without hitting a fishing guide.
In NorCal people climb Lassen Peak and Mount Shasta. In Central Oregon people climb The Three Sisters (South Sister, Middle Sister and North Sister) just west of Bend. Neither of these are quite as tall as Shasta or Lassen, but they are all around 10,000 feet which is enough elevation to get anyone’s heart pounding. South Sister competes with Washington’s Mt. St. Helens for the title of America’s most-climbed glaciated peak. Mountaineers compete each year to win the Three Sisters Marathon, a grueling endurance event where participants summit all three volcanoes in the same day.
Just north of Bend the Crooked River passes under (a long way under) Hwy. 97. Here you are fairly close to Smith Rock State Park, an internationally recognized rock-climbing destination. Any climbers worth their salt would recognize names like Monkey Face, Mesa Verde Wall and Dihedrals, all world-renowned climbs in the park. Less fanatical adventurers can hike to the top of Smith Rock on the trail without any technical experience for great views and a popular picnic destination. According to Visitbend.com, “Smith Rock State Park is widely considered the birthplace of modern American sport climbing with literally thousands of established routes to choose from.”
Active people often choose to do their touring from the seat of their favorite bicycles. If you don’t bring your bikes on a trip to Bend, you will wish you had. Bend is not only intensely bike-friendly, but it also offers world-class mountain biking trails, but also seemingly infinite road biking opportunities against a backdrop of stunning natural beauty.
The Three Sisters Scenic Bikeway is a network of premier road cycling routes connecting Central Oregon communities with an emphasis on scenery. With a little Internet searching, you can easily download bicycle route descriptions and maps, pretty much all you’ll need except snacks and plenty of water. The Twin Bridges Loop is a popular 36-mile bike trail beginning and ending in downtown Bend’s Drake Park. There are also bike trails all the way from Bend to Smith Rock State Park.
Active Californians can find plenty to do in Bend, Oregon, and it is an excellent candidate as the kind of place you go back to time after time. There is little danger of exhausting all the possibilities of things to do in the area, and it’s just far enough away and different enough to never get boring. The average temperature in Bend is 82 degrees in July, 80 in August and 74 in September. I said it was cooler than Redding, right?
NorCal is not the type of place people typically want to get away from, but everyone needs a change of pace once in a while. Bend has far too much going for it to ever become just a place people go to escape the tedium of their everyday lives. With all that Bend has going for it literally twelve months a year, it is a place well worth going to.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine