The high desert of Central Oregon offers a reprieve from bad weather with a typical 300 days of sunshine a year. The vast open spaces surrounded by mountains provide 360-degree views with remarkable sunrises and sunsets.
The largest city in the area is Bend, known as the beer capital of Oregon. It is also known as the place you go to play due to the many outdoor activities available. Charming small towns such as Redmond, Sisters, La Pine, Madras, and Warm Springs are each unique and within a short drive from each other. Choose one town as your base and then explore all the area has to offer.
Note: My stay at the Brasada Ranch was a hosted press trip. All opinions are my own.
Peter Skene Ogden State Scenic Viewpoint
You might find it odd to have a rest area listed as a must-explore place, but you will be pleasantly surprised. Located off U.S. Route 97, it is about 9 miles north of Redmond, and you can easily access it from both north and southbound traffic. The Crooked River Canyon is like a mini Grand Canyon with great views. Unlike the Grand Canyon, you can walk across the Crooked River High Bridge and look down into the middle of the canyon. To the west is the Crooked River Railroad Bridge and the Rex T. Barber Veterans Memorial Bridge is to the east. Both are worthy of a photo. Throughout the park are outdoor exhibits and memorials which give interesting facts about the area. The rest area has restrooms, picnic tables, and a short trail around the park.
Pro Tip: For some reason, dogs like to run toward the low wall near the gorge, and many have plummeted 300 feet to their death. It has happened so many times the park has signs warning to keep your dog on a leash.
Smith Rock State Park
Smith Rock State Park is the crown jewel of the Oregon state park system, and Travel Oregon considers it one of their seven wonders. It is easy to see why. The park is a deep river canyon with views from the many overlooks. You can hike into the canyon, and for the fit, hike up and over the rocky cliffs. The Smith Rock is famed for its rock climbing, with thousands of climbs available. Over a thousand are bolted routes. It is fascinating watching the climbers scrabble up the cliffs. Keep your eye out for wildlife. In the sky, look for eagles and falcons; along the trail, you may observe mule deer. Keep your eye peeled on the river for otter and beaver.
As you come into the park, I recommend parking in the first lot, the RV/Bus parking lot. There is car parking as well. The fee station takes debit or credit cards for the $5 fee. This area avoids all the congestion further ahead by the welcome center. It is just a short walk over flat ground to the welcome center where you can pick up a map and get information. There is hiking for all fitness levels. For those less fit or with mobility issues, head back toward the parking lot on the easy Rim Rock Trail. It is a half-mile stroll and follows the rim of the canyon. There are overlooks with exhibits about the park.
The River Trail is a 2.5-mile, out-and-back hike, so you can easily head back early for a shorter hike. This is the one I did during my visit, and the majority of it is flat except for the downhill at the beginning and the uphill at the end. So, when you plan your hike, don’t forget the steep ascent at the end. From the welcome center, head down toward the bridge which crosses over the Crooked River. There are two routes down to the river, the Chute Trail, which is very steep and shorter, so I took this one down. Just watch your footing. The Canyon Trail is a more gentle slope, and I took that one on the way back up. I had to stop a few times but made it up without too much effort. Once you cross the bridge, the trail is nice and flat and follows the river around a bend, and offers views of all the climbers.
Pro Tip: This park is super popular, and the parking lots fill up fast. Visit on a weekday if possible or get there as early as possible. The park’s day-use areas open 30 minutes before sunrise. It is well worth getting up early to visit.
Stay At A Luxury Resort Community
The Central Oregon area abounds in luxury resort communities that sit on lots of acreage, many with golf courses and other luxury amenities. You know you are visiting a great area when people invest in vacation homes. These resorts offer stays in traditional hotel rooms or in a cabin or vacation rental. One of my favorites is the Brasada Ranch. Situated on almost 2,000 acres, there is plenty of space to get away from it all. The high-end cabins blend in with the natural surroundings, and the lighting at night is designed to allow great “dark sky” stargazing. This resort has every amenity imaginable for a vacation: heated outdoor pools (a separate one for adults), a fitness center with Peloton Bikes, a spa, a golf course, horseback riding, and a stellar restaurant.
Pro Tip: Order one of Chef Doug’s famous Ranch Platters to cook at your cabin. I eat quite a bit of salmon living in the Pacific Northwest, and the salmon filets in this meal were some of the best I have had. When you have a good quality ingredient, you don’t need to do much to it. The meal was super easy to prepare, and everything you need comes with it.
High Desert Museum
Located in Bend, the High Desert Museum is part museum and part zoo. Set on 135 acres, you will have the opportunity to learn about the art, history, culture, and wildlife of this high-desert region. There are multiple indoor galleries across 100,000 square feet of exhibit space. Outside you will find interpretative paths weaving through an expansive forest. Learn how the people who lived in this area used the high desert’s resources. Enjoy the animal exhibits. Tour the Miller Family Ranch and an authentic 1904 sawmill.
Pro Tip: The large gift shop has a great selection of local products to take home with you. Oregon has no sales tax so it is a shoppers paradise.
Make sure to visit one of the many local drive-thru coffee stops in the area. The local coffee scene has many Mom and Pop shops that roast their own coffee or source from a local roaster. Not far from Smith Rock State Park is Crooked River Coffee in Terrebonne. It is in a covered wagon and the baristas make a great cup of coffee. The Sisters Coffee Company owners Winfield and Joy were the first roasters in Central Oregon. They started small, and today they roast over 300,000 pounds of coffee beans a year. Their flagship cafe is located in Sisters, and you will want to stop in the cute town where all the storefronts are western-themed. Grab a cup of coffee and explore the art galleries and local shops.
This is just a small glimpse into the Central Oregon region. I love the small-town friendliness of the area. Unlike many wilderness areas, you can have a luxury stay and enjoy the outdoors without having to rough it. There is a big focus on local. You’ll find restaurants sourcing from area farms and ranches while shops carry artisan-crafted products. That sense of community really comes across as you visit the small businesses.
Plan to up your water intake while in the area. Even in the winter, the dry high desert climate will find you parched.
Avoid Portland and Seattle traffic by flying into Redmond Municipal Airport. This regional airport has flights to many hub cities on six airlines, making it a convenient way to visit Central Oregon.