Volcanoes, waterfalls, wild rivers, and mountain panoramas can be found on treks through the magical Cascade Mountains.
By Rhonda Ostertag
Central Oregon boasts snow-etched volcanoes, towering ponderosa pines, sterling lakes, wild and scenic rivers, picturesque waterfalls, pristine meadows, wilderness, lava flows, cinder cones, and high desert. And two central Oregon towns, Sisters and Bend, serve as bases of exploration for marvelous journeys into the Deschutes National Forest.
Each town is within an easy drive from Redmond, the site of FMCA’s “Cascade Mountain Magic” convention August 16, 17, 18, and 19. Together, Redmond, Sisters, and Bend form a triangle on the map, with Sisters and Bend the left and lower points, respectively. So, before or after the convention, grab your sense of wonder and begin exploring the Cascade magic.
Sisters And Metolius River Recreation Area
Twenty miles west of Redmond, in the shadow of a trio of mountains called the Three Sisters, the scenic ranch and tourist town of Sisters presents an 1880s frontier facade. Its shops are brimming with art, bright-colored quilts, handcrafted log furniture, and a bonanza of sundries. You may want to spend an afternoon just exploring (and shopping).
From Sisters, head north on U.S. 20 to a ponderosa pine and western larch setting: the breathtaking, spring-fed Metolius Wild and Scenic River. The river is centerpiece to this recreation land and captivates with its deep trenches, riffles, and pools. It secludes large wild trout and its fly fishing is world-renowned; “catch and release” is the river mantra. The river’s grassy bars and islands flaunt wildflowers such as bigleaf lupine, Indian paintbrush, and monkey flower. Forest Service campgrounds dot the recreation corridor, along with private campgrounds and resorts.
While in the area, investigate the Head of the Metolius, where springs launch this full-fledged river in a matter of feet. The water emerges at the astonishing rate of 50,000 gallons per minute from beneath Black Butte, a prominent dark volcanic cone that adds to the central Oregon skyline. Mount Jefferson overlooks the river’s arrival.
Whether you cast a fly line or not, the Camp Sherman fish-viewing platform and Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery are fun stops. At the Camp Sherman river bridge, visitors toss popcorn and fish food into the water, attracting the greedy big trout out from under the bridge. The hatchery, farther downstream, has self-guided interpretive stations and is typically home to 3 million fish. Its “escapee” pool (closed to anglers) is popular with ospreys, otters, and mink, and has set a frustrated fisherman or two to dreaming.
Hiking trails string along the river, linking camps and fishing spots. Large, natural Suttle Lake, to the northwest, offers its own lineup of camping and recreational opportunities.
Another short trek from Sisters involves proceeding west on the McKenzie Pass Highway, State Route 242. This mile-high road is one of the most scenic in Oregon, as it traces the boundary between Mount Washington and Three Sisters wilderness areas. It’s a corkscrew journey, and, as such, is not for motorhomes. Do not even attempt it unless you have a towed car. Despite this, it’s worth the effort.
On the recreation and beauty meter, this road scores a 10-plus. For 36 miles it twists between the town of Sisters and the junction with State Route 126 through ponderosa pine forest and phantasmagoric lava flows, offering stunning volcano views. Some 75 square miles of lava flows, craters, and cinder cones characterize the area.
Hiking trails are many and range from easy nature walks to wilderness treks. Ample trailheads and viewpoints let visitors step into the bounty. At this close range, the volcanic trio of North Sister, Middle Sister, and South Sister mountains and the pointed helmet of Mount Washington rise imposingly.
Stop at the round fortress of Dee Wright Observatory, which was built of lava in the 1930s. It seems to have risen from the rock itself. Its windows of odd shape and size pinpoint the volcanic landmarks, and a locator compass on the open roof further aids in learning the neighborhood. Adjacent, a paved path travels atop the flow for a closer study of the 1,500-year-old lava. A few silvered snags and tortured trees rise among the jumble and appendages of melted rock.
Remaining on the route past Dee Wright Observatory and the Pacific Crest Trail, travelers enter neighboring Willamette National Forest, which adds a couple of popular stops. Scott Lake, at the base of Scott Mountain, is a favorite, because it reflects the Three Sisters. Farther south, Proxy Falls Trail (a little more than a mile long) visits a pair of waterfalls revealing nature’s sleight of hand “” the ultimate bottomless-glass trick. Two 200-foot waterfalls plummet into dead-end pools that never overflow. I could tell you the explanation lies within the porous lava, but the illusion is more fun.
Bend And The Cascade Lakes Highway
Sixteen miles south of Redmond, via U.S. 97, is Bend. The town was founded in 1900 and named Farewell Bend after a local ranch; the “Farewell” part was removed by postal service folks in 1905. Bend is the primary service community for the region and caters to recreationists. Guide services for rafting, fishing, and mountain biking can be found there.
A few miles south of Bend is the High Desert Museum, which introduces the natural history and culture of the region. Be sure to make a stop there while you’re in the area. It’s open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; phone (541) 382-4754.
From the town of Bend, a thrilling drive leads west to Mount Bachelor on an 87-mile scenic byway formerly called Century Drive. (It used to be 100 miles long, but was shortened through improvements.) Now called the Cascade Lakes Highway “” State Route 46 “” it travels the eastern foot of the Cascades, gathering liquid beads of blue and green and rounding up volcano views, mixed forests, accessible wilderness, lava flows, meadows, and Deschutes River access. Mount Bachelor (site of the popular ski resort), South Sister, Broken Top, Maiden Peak, and Diamond Peak pop up along the forested skyline.
The national organization Scenic America named the Cascade Lakes Highway one of the 10 most important scenic byways in the nation. Seemingly, the vehicle dress code calls for a canoe. Area accommodations run from luxury resort to rustic campground.
Begin by traveling up past Tumalo Mountain (elevation 7,775 feet). The expansive, shallow puzzle piece of Sparks Lake is difficult to fully appreciate from any one spot. It sweeps away to yellow-spangled meadow, dark forest, and lava flow. Sparks Lake was a favorite of Oregon photographer laureate Ray Atkeson. A trail named in his memory presents a knockout view of South Sister, Mount Bachelor, and their watery doubles.
Where the Devils Garden lava flow nudges the road, the jumbled rocks and crags shoot 200 feet skyward. A piece of this rock even rests on the moon. In the mid-1960s, Apollo astronauts (including James Irwin, who carried the rock to the moon) trained for their mission at the central Oregon lava flows.
A series of fine lakes and big reservoirs urges drivers south. Trails wiggle up through Three Sisters Wilderness to hike-to lakes, South Sister, and lonesome places. Of the larger lakes, Cultus and Wickiup serve water-skiers; all invite fishing; and many allow boats with trolling motors. Unlike much of the area, which is dressed in skinny, hardy lodgepole pines, Cultus Lake enjoys a shoreline of mature fir and ponderosa pine. Osprey Observation Point on Crane Prairie Reservoir looks out on an important breeding ground for the fish hawks. Ospreys nest atop the drowned snags and soar the Cascade Lakes skyway between May and October.
Side roads off the byway cross east to Sunriver, La Pine, and U.S. 97, so you can shorten the trip if desired. At the Crescent Creek cut-off, travelers can loop back to Bend via U.S. 97, or complete the tour by heading on to State Route 58.
The River Runs Through It
The Wild and Scenic Deschutes River (pronounced duh-SHOOTS) is acclaimed for its trout fishing and is the life thread in central Oregon. It flows all the way to the Columbia River, feeding ranches, fields, and cities along its path. In this part of the state, whitewater rafters find suitable stretches. Near Bend, hikers can explore shoreline paths to three river waterfalls: Benham, Lava River, and Dillon. Each spills over an old lava dam.
Lava River Cave, to the south of Bend off U.S.97, is one of the longest lava tubes in the Northwest and open to self-guided touring. These tubes form when the outer layers of molten lava cool and harden while the interior flow still rushes, leaving behind an empty shell. The temperature inside the cave is a chilly 42 degrees Fahrenheit. Lantern rentals typically are available in summer.
The Deschutes River invites side trips. La Pine State Park, for example, is ideal for motorhomes, with a campground that provides hookups, and is conveniently situated along the river and at the base of the crater.
Newberry National Volcanic Monument
Travel south of Bend on U.S. 97 to this outstanding park, which encompasses 87 square miles of fiery origins from Newberry Volcano. The mound has been formed by thousands of eruptions, which are said to have begun 600,000 years ago, and is not far from the Deschutes Wild and Scenic River. Sandwiched in between are pine forests, lava plains, cinder cones, pumice domes, obsidian flows, and a gaping caldera rim.
Newberry National Volcanic Monument entered the nation’s treasury of protected lands in 1990, but long before that, a volcanic armor provided its protection. The monument’s attractions are twofold: those on the Deschutes Valley floor (Lava Lands area) and those of Newberry Volcano itself. Lava Lands Visitor Center, 11 miles south of Bend off U.S. 97, is a good starting point. It is open daily and helps visitors learn about the geological significance of the region. In the immediate vicinity are lava flow nature trails, the Lava Butte summit, and an easy, 3/4-mile trail to an overlook of Benham Falls on the Deschutes Wild and Scenic River.
Lava Butte is one of more than 400 cinder cones on the flank of Newberry Volcano. Its summit holds a lookout and a 1/4-mile rim trail. The panorama encompasses the peaks of Mount Bachelor, the Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, and Three Fingered Jack. In an eruption 7,000 years ago, cinders spewed out and fell back to the earth to create this 500-foot-high, symmetrical butte. A breaching of the butte released molten rock over a nine-square-mile area, damming and altering the Deschutes River.
Newberry Volcano itself is still very active “” it last erupted approximately 1,300 years ago, and is expected to erupt again. Sparkling within the crater are twin lakes that rival famous Crater Lake in blue brilliance. Besides the lakes, the crater holds a half-dozen Forest Service campgrounds; waterfalls; an intricate network of trails; and realms of obsidian, lava, and ash.
The twin crater lakes, Paulina Lake and East Lake, invite boating and fishing. Small rustic resorts at each offer boat rentals, food service, lodging, and whopping fish tales. The lakes produce prized catches of trout. The most serious angling is done by boat, trolling.
Hikers can take on a seven-mile trail that rings Paulina Lake, while the nine-mile Peter Skene Ogden Trail parallels Paulina Creek and offers views of the 80-foot Paulina Falls, which also has a drive-to approach. Several shorter trails visit the volcanic legacy. The shiny black glass of the Obsidian Flow Trail captures the imagination, but requires respect, because collecting is prohibited. Dust is a common problem on trails, so be sure to carry plenty of water.
If you are in your towed car and ready to take on a rough, dusty road, travel up to Paulina Peak, elevation 7,985 feet. Forest Road 500 is a twister, but for the price of four miles of travel, you secure one of the best vehicle-accessible vistas in all of Oregon. From there you can see most of central Oregon, and on a clear day, into Washington and California. Sunrises there can be spectacular.
Well, this just touches on a few sights to see in central Oregon. You’ll find plenty to do, and if time runs short, there’s always another summer.
A Northwest Forest Pass (day or annual pass) is required for parking at most trailheads and sight-seeing stops mentioned in this article. These passes are sold at several outdoor outlets, visitors centers, and ranger district offices. Campground fees do not cover this pass; it is a separate purchase. For additional information about Deschutes National Forest, Newberry National Volcanic Monument, camping, or how to obtain a Northwest Forest Pass, contact:
Supervisor’s Office, Deschutes National Forest
1645 Highway 20 E.
Bend, OR 97701
To help flesh out a visit to Sisters or Bend (and Redmond, too) with information about more central Oregon attractions, contact:
Central Oregon Visitors Association
572 S.W. Bluff Drive
Bend, OR 97702
The following is not a complete list, so please consult your campground directory or the Business Directory, found in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
Black Butte Resort Motel and RV Park
25635 S.W. Forest Service Road #1419
Camp Sherman, OR 97730
Cold Springs Resort and RV Park
25615 Cold Springs Resort Lane
Camp Sherman, OR 97730
Mountain Shadow RV Park
540 W. Highway 20
Sisters, OR 97759
Bend Kampground, C3240
63615 U.S. 97 N.
Bend, OR 97701
Crane Prairie Resort
P.O. Box 1171
Bend, OR 97709
Crown Villa RV Park, C2573
60801 Brosterhous Road
Bend, OR 97702
Lava Lake Lodge and RV Park
P.O. Box 989
Bend, OR 97709
La Pine State Park, off U.S. 97 north of La Pine, and Tumalo State Park, off U.S. 20, five miles outside of Bend, both offer sites with hookups.
For state park campground reservations, phone (800) 452-5687; for more information, visit www.oregonstateparks.org.