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Lakes, lava, llamas.

Lakes, lava, llamas

With a world-class ski resort on MountBachelor, central Oregon simply means skiing to many Westerners. No argument there: the snow is abundant and unusually dry, the runs are plentiful, the weather's cold and often clear, and the ski season is long--often through June.

But winter's snow also hides the highdesert's surprisingly varied landscape, one revealed in summer as almost classically Western: flat grasslands perfumed with sage and juniper, rolling fields of treeless lava, roads paved with red cinder leading through tall pines to translucent lakes, a dense cluster of Cascade peaks capped with glaciers and fringed with timber and high alpine meadows.

It's a landscape that compels action. Hereyou'll find some of the Northwest's finest trout fishing, as well as uncrowded hiking, lake and river canoeing, miles of all-terrain cycling and trail riding, and some of the West's most challenging rock climbing.

You'll also find four 18-hole golf courses,more than 40 miles of paved bike paths, dozens of tennis courts, and a range of good restaurants, for central Oregon is coincidentally home to two of the state's premier resorts: Sunriver, 15 miles south of Bend, and Black Butte Ranch, 30 miles to the northwest.

The climate may be the biggest surpriseto the uninitiated. Oregon's reputation for rain is earned west of the Cascades; Bend has less rain than Los Angeles--and at least as many sunny days. The little rain that does fall in summer usually comes in brief Rockies-like afternoon thunderstorms. In July and August, high temperatures tend to range from the mid-70s to high 80s, and nights are predictably cool--occasionally dipping into the 30s.

No freeway leads to Bend (which may bea plus; first-time visitors are often surprised by the lack of crowds). Drivers from the south usually take U.S. 97. From Portland, Bend is a 3 1/2-hour drive on U.S. 26 past Mount Hood and through the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Since October, daily nonstop flights have been available from both San Francisco and Portland to Redmond, 16 miles northeast of Bend (Sunriver's paved, lighted airstrip also serves private planes).

For visitors' purposes, this part of centralOregon can be divided into three areas oriented to three distinct towns: the frontier-style ranch town of Sisters to the northwest; the Cascade Lakes area, Mount Bachelor, and the resort community of Sunriver to the west and south; and Bend, the region's commercial hub.

Sisters: civilized ranch town and the llama capital of the west

Set at the fringe of the high desert's juniperand pine ranch country, Sisters is characterized by Old West-style storefronts facing its growing collection of boutiques and cafes. The town attracts plenty of tourists, but the clientele at Leavitts Western Wear is still about equally divided between real cowboys and dudes.

Biggest ranch in the area is now a 1,830-acreluxury resort 8 miles northwest of town on U.S. Highway 20. At Black Butte Ranch, cattle still graze in sight of the lodge, but Big Meadow is now bordered by near fairways, tennis courts, and unobtrusive houses and condominiums. Stay at the lodge or rent a condominium or house ($45 to $150); dine at the lodge or buy groceries in Sisters (the resort also has a small market). For information, call (800) 452-7455 in Oregon, (503) 595-6211 from elsewhere.

The resort has no public stables; instead,guests can ride with nearby High Cascade Stables (549-4972). If riding is your main interest, consider a stay at Rock Springs Guest Ranch (382-1957), near Tumalo between Sisters and Bend. Daily trail riding is the prime attraction for most guests here, though some never leave the pool or tennis courts.

Llamas, not horses, are more likely tocatch visitors' attention in Sisters these days. Patterson Ranch, on the west edge of town along State 242, claims the largest llama herd in North America (the owners also raise prize Arabian horses). No tours are offered, but passers-by often stop for pictures or even a picnic on the grass between the fence and the road. Some local llama ranchers offer pack trips in the Cascades; for names, check with the Bend Chamber of Commerce.

Consider a detour to the backwater communityof Camp Sherman, on a side road about 5 miles north of Black Butte. Among the merchandise in the old-fashioned general store are custom-made fly rods and hand-tied flies, evidence of anglers in pursuit of the Metolius River's wild trout (fishing's usually better in August and September than in July). A coin-operated dispenser lets you feed the fish holding in the clear waters under the bridge. Lodging is available at a handful of quiet resorts.

Sisters is close to trailheads leading southinto the Three Sisters Wilderness and north toward Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson. The Pacific Crest Trail, a signed hiking route from Mexico to Canada, crosses State 242 at McKenzie Pass. Surrounding the pass are nearly 70 acres of stark, undulating lava beds; a 1/2-mile path has signs explaining the area's volcanic history. Just off the highway, walk into Dee Wright Observatory, a simple rock-walled structure with narrow windows identifying Cascade landmarks.

For an abrupt change of scenery, visitSmith Rock State Park, off U.S. 97 about 10 miles northeast of Redmond. This formation of compressed molten ash rises nearly 1,000 feet above the surrounding rangeland, attracting rock climbers from around the world; a new route, To Bolt or Not to Be, is among the world's toughest short free climbs. Watch climbers from the rim of the Crooked River canyon at the rock's base, or descend into the canyon to hike the riverside trail--but avoid midday heat in summer.

The Cascade Lakes chain

Southwest of Bend is a chain of translucentlakes you can reach from Cascade Lakes Highway (formerly Century Drive). Most were formed when tongues of lava spilled out of Mount Bachelor centuries ago, damming streams.

The Inn of the Seventh Mountain, on thehighway between Bend and Mount Bachelor, provides the closest resort accommodations ($46 to $108); telephone (800) 547-5668 in Oregon, (800) 452-6810 from elsewhere. Campers can choose among more than two dozen primitive Forest Service campgrounds bordering the lakes. Rustic resort lodging is available at Cultus, Elk, and Twin lakes (off Wickiup Reservoir) and Crane Prairie Reservoir.

The lakes are rarely crowded on summerweekdays. All are stocked with trout, and three are restricted to fly-fishing; Hosmer Lake's population of hard-fighting Atlantic salmon limits anglers to barbless hooks. Rent boats and buy tackle and licenses (nonresidents pay $3.50 for a 1-day permit, $18 for a 10-day) at Cultus and Lava lakes and Crane Prairie Reservoir. Fishing is best in early summer and early fall.

Trails leading north into Three SistersWilderness branch off the highway north and west of Mount Bachelor. Weather permitting, skiing at the resort may last through June this year, and the summit chair lift operates all summer for sightseers ($6, $4 for seniors and ages 12 and under); the eagle's-eye view of nearby peaks is dazzling. Ride both ways, or hike 2 miles back down on the ski runs.

Sunriver: resort town in the heart of Deschutes country

Central Oregon's original planned resortcommunity is a popular base camp for skiers in the winter, but it's even busier in summer, when the population swells from about 1,000 to nearly 8,000.

Two golf courses, 29 tennis courts, stables,canoe rentals, and even a shopping mall let family members with varied interests take off in their own directions. Bring bikes (or rent them here); many visitors forgo driving and get around entirely on the resort's 26-mile network of bicycle paths. For details on lodging ($79 to $160), call Sunriver Lodge, (800) 452-6874 inside Oregon or (800) 547-3922 from elsewhere, or ask the Bend Chamber of Commerce for a list of real estate offices that manage Sunriver rentals.

Most rafting on the Deschutes takes placeon the lower river, at least 50 miles north of Bend, but you can get a taste of whitewater on a 3-mile stretch between Sunriver and Bend. Get outfitters' names from the chamber of commerce; costs run around $18 for a 3-hour trip.

Apart from these rapids, most of the upperriver is a gentle, meandering stream frequented by fly-fishermen and canoeists. From Sunriver Marina, you can rent a canoe and drift or paddle 6 miles downstream; a truck meets you at the take-out and shuttles you back. Costing $14 to $20 per canoe, the package is popular on summer weekends; call (503) 593-1221, ext. 400, to check availability.

Relics of settlers and volcanoes

Among the region's small museums andinterpretive centers, one stands out. The five-year-old High Desert Museum, on U.S. 97 about 6 miles south of Bend, focuses on the natural and human history of the arid West. Among the outdoor exhibits are a re-created 1880s settler's cabin and a wildlife observation platform; talks and feedings (porcupines at 10 and 4; river otters at 10:30, 1, and 3) are great fun. Hours are 9 to 5 daily; admission is $2.50, $2 seniors, $1 ages 6 to 12.

Lava Lands Visitor Center, at the base ofLava Butte, can point you to a number of unusual volcanic sites off U.S. 97.

We particularly liked the spooky hike intoLava River Cave, a mile-long underground tube. Admission is $1, 50 cents ages 12 to 17, plus 50 cents for a kerosene lantern (much better than a flashlight). Wear shoes and warm clothes.

Relatively few visitors endure the 9-milegravel road to the Lava Cast Forest, but we found it well worth the drive. An uncrowded mile-long interpretive trail traverses the eerie moonscape. You can picnic on pine-shaded tables next to the parking lot (bring water).

To the south, 7,985-foot Newberry Volcanohas twice been proposed as a national park, without success. Lacking such recognition, it remains a relatively obscure but intriguing destination well known to anglers for the trophy-size trout found in its twin crater lakes.

Each lake hosts an old-fashioned fishingresort. Owners at Paulina Lake Lodge ($29 to $99 nightly; 536-2240) have been sprucing up the homey log lodge and eclectic collection of lakefront cabins; East Lake Resort's cabins ($25 to $70; 536-2230) are serviceable but less varied. Both rent boats, sell tackle and some groceries, and generously dispense advice.

Meanwhile, back at Bend, the commercial hub of central Oregon

Many visitors to the region, particularlythose on a budget, choose to stay right in Bend at one of several motels. Most in-town lodging is reasonably priced, and you're close to restaurants and other services. From the commercial strip along U.S. 97, Bend looks no different from any other modern American town; detour downtown to experience Bend as it was before its early-70s growth spurt.

For a bit of nostalgia, try dinner or Sundaybrunch at the 50-year-old Pine Tavern, 967 N.W. Brooks Street.

For a quiet outing just west of downtown,stroll along the Deschutes or feed the Canada geese at Drake Park. If you'd like an overview of Bend, drive to the top of Pilot Butte, east of downtown.

For help with vacation planning

The Bend Chamber of Commerce cangive you detailed information on lodging, restaurants, and recreation throughout central Oregon; write to the chamber at 164 N.W. Hawthorne Ave., Bend 97701, call 382-3221, or stop by weekdays 9 to 5.

For hiking and camping information,write to Deschutes National Forest, 1645 E. Highway 20, Bend 97701, or call 388-2715. Maps cost $1 each.

A third major resort, Eagle Crest, is beingbuilt near Redmond; there's no overnight lodging as yet.

Photo: At the heart of Oregon's high-desert country,Bend is 3 1/2 hours' drive from Portland, 9 from San Francisco, 13 from Salt Lake City

Photo: Early-morning canoeists slicestill surface of arnica-bordered Sparks Lake. Northernmost of the Cascade Lakes chain, it lies at the base of 9,175-foot Broken Top

Photo: Party of llama packers poseson a rise near Green Lakes, just inside Three Sisters Wilderness

Photo: Sisters play peekaboo withlava-cast tree mold, some 9,000 years old, southeast of Sunriver in Lava Cast Forest

Photo: Rising abruptly from the high desert,Smith Rock draws hikers and serious climbers--like the fellow at left, on belay as he straddles a chalk-smeared chimney in the Dihedrals area

Photo: Rafters race through short whitewater stretch just south ofBend; they're on a 3-hour outing that started with late-morning pickup at a resort

Photo: Hoping for salmon, drift boaters castbarbless hooks into Hosmer Lake, southwest of Sparks Lake off Cascade Lakes Highway

Photo: Great horned owl flexeswings at Sunriver

Photo: Forgoing the car, cyclingthreesome explores Sunriver on grass-edged riverside path

Photo: Golfer follows ball's progressdown Black Butte fairway aligned with Mount Washington

Photo: Boot hooks helphis transition from lace-ups at western-wear shop in Sisters. Among town's false-front businesses is Hotel Sisters, a popular local watering hole
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Title Annotation:central Oregon
Date:Jul 1, 1987
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