These days, it can feel as though there really are no more secret watering holes in Oregon. Whether discovered and documented by a social media influencer, a state tourism agency, or a scrappy alt-weekly that takes pleasure in publicizing undiscovered gems, the research and GPS data is all out in the open when it comes to Oregon’s wealth of opalescent lakes.
But every once in a while, a new oasis will seemingly spring up out of nowhere and surprise you, even as you wonder how it remained hidden in plain sight for so long.
That reflects your experience during a weekend at the 8-mile-long Lake Simtustus: giddy with discovery and thankful for that rare gift. Formed by the construction of Pelton Dam in 1958, the reservoir somehow remains a mystery even to those who live in nearby Redmond and Bend. When those locals ask where you’re staying while making small talk on the other side of the cash register or bartop, they’ll either stare at you blankly or claim it’s a place they’ve “never heard of.”
Known to some as “the volcanic Grand Canyon of Central Oregon,” the lake, about 5 miles south of Highway 26 just past Warm Springs, sets itself apart from its neighbors thanks to its leisurely pace—the water is best navigated by paddle strokes. On land, most mosey along inside golf carts rented at Lake Simtustus Resort (2750 NW Pelton Dam Road, Madras, 541-475-1085, lakesimtustusresort.com). Without the distraction of high-powered speed boats and multistory barges turned into mini amusement parks, it’s easy to settle into the wonderful rhythm set by nature—you’ll be up with the sun like the golden eagles and herons to gaze at the sheen on the narrow canyon borders, then it’s dusk with the bats on their dinner run as you wait for the sky to be lit up like a Broadway marquee by too many stars to count.
Once you’ve exhausted yourself with a full day of lakeside play, retire to the comforts of a tiny home furnished with a king bed. The first little abodes were installed here on the cliffs above the water in 2019, and the resort has been adding them to the one-time RV-only campsite ever since.
Out in Oregon’s High Desert, happening upon any lake feels a bit like a miracle—and many of them are, in a way, created by human-made blockages in the 20th century. The arid landscape can be unforgiving, as generations of farmers can attest to, but the beauty of that which does thrive here seems more brilliantly rewarded for the effort. Simtustus may have once been off the radar for many, but now you have all the reason to suspect that won’t last much longer.
Drink farm-to-glass beer
In nearly every winemaking region, it’s common to sample the fermented juice of grapes surrounded by the source: row after row of well-kempt vines. But getting back to the agricultural roots of beer has always been more of a challenge. In December 2020, Seth Klann—the farmer, maltster and now brewer at Mecca Grade Estate Malt (9619 NW Columbia Drive, Madras, 541-526-8152, meccagrade.com)—made that a bit easier by opening a taproom that serves beer made exclusively from grains grown on the 1,000-acre property. A sip is a lesson in the difference between grains from an estate malthouse and those produced by the handful of giant commodity manufacturers. Klann will explain how everything from the High Desert terroir to the farming practices lend character to those cereals you wouldn’t otherwise get. Learn how barley straw becomes sacks of malt by touring the warehouse behind the tasting room. There lies a custom-designed mechanical floor malter that can steep, germinate and kiln up to 12 tons of kernels at a time—the largest of its kind.
Eat plated art
Every meal at Rio Distinctive Mexican Cuisine (221 SE 5th St., Madras, 541-475-0424, riomadrasmexicancuisine.com) must begin with the performative art of making guacamole tableside. With quick wrist flicks to mash and mix, watching your server prepare the dip is a bit like observing a sculptor who knows exactly what the masterpiece will look like. Rio’s recipe of deep red cascabel chilis, juicy tomatoes, onion, cilantro and the more unusual but delicious mango results is a topographic map of a guacamole mountain range that will forever have you suspiciously eyeing smooth versions.
Hot tub space machine
At Lake Simtustus, you can transition from a day on the water to an evening in a bubbling bath thanks to the addition of private spas on the decks of each residence. There’s no better seat in Central Oregon to watch the stars flickering on since the glare from the closest city is over 10 miles away. As you pick out constellations, the heavens may surprise you with any number of celestial sightings—during our stay, it was the SpaceX satellite train. The near-equidistant points of light were like a cross between a fleet of spaceships marching to battle and Santa’s procession had the reindeer become stars.
Hike through volcanic history
Less than 30 minutes south of Lake Simtustus lies a much larger—and rowdier—body of water. But why bother to leave your placid pool for Lake Billy Chinook, which during peak season pulses with the thrum of motorboats and whoops of people sliding off party barges? Because a strip of land flanked by two rivers in a much quieter pocket of Cove Palisades State Park (Culver, 800-551-6949, stateparks.oregon.gov) offers a hike along the 7-mile-long Tam-a-láu Trail to views of such great height, it’s as though you can almost survey the entire 72-mile shoreline. And if you pay close attention to everything from the sediment at your feet to the sheer walls of basalt rising up around you, the route offers a history lesson on how flowing water and lava battled back and forth over time to shape the land.
Beer worth buckling up for
The City of Redmond has been pumping money into improving its historic downtown for over two decades, but you may have never noticed until 2014. That year marked the opening of Wild Ride Brewing (332 SW 5th St., Redmond, 541-516-8544, wildridebrew.com), which drew tourists and locals alike, essentially jumpstarting the area’s revitalization. Despite the wide variety of food and beverage options available now, it’s always worth stopping at Wild Ride—not only was the brewery one of the region’s first to forgo a kitchen and put out the invite to food trucks instead, the Radio Flyer-red accented patio was always where the party was long before outdoor dining became a health precaution.
Those skilled with a rod and reel will want to wager that they can catch tonight’s dinner back at the lake. It’s true that in summer, Simtustus is typically stuffed with kokanee, trout and bass. Should you win the tug-of-war battle, the resort provides a cleaning station. But a trip to the grocery store in Madras as a backup isn’t a bad idea.
We only come out at night
Start the evening at a slower, seated pace on the water in one of the rentable vessels at the resort’s marina. Time your outing so that you shove off right before sunset, and keep an eye out for a pair of rectangular wooden boxes perched atop a beam onshore. They may look like birdhouses, but bats are actually roosting inside, and dusk marks the start of feeding time. It’s similar to watching the famed swifts in reverse: Instead of a tornado of birds descending into a chimney for the night, the bats pour out of the underside of their boxes to begin theirs.
Pet an alpaca
Few spectacles will cause a person to avert their gaze from Smith Rock while headed south on Highway 97. But you may be distracted by what’s parading in its shadow: a herd of over 100 alpacas in stunning shades of red, black, fawn and white. The 42-acre Crescent Moon Ranch (7566 N Highway 97, Terrebonne, 541-923-2285, crescentmoonranch.com) raises camelids for their voluminous fleece that was once reserved for Incan royalty. You no longer need to be an emperor to take pleasure in the softness of this animal’s coat. But, let’s face it, you came here to let these gentle giants eat out of your hand. Guests are free to roam the pastures’ walking paths, where you might spot a mother giving birth or a baby trotting around in its own fur-lined coat.
See the tallest tree
Right about now you may still be rubbernecking at Smith Rock, confused by the fact that you’re destined for a different state park. Instead of competing with the crowds, end your weekend with a walk that allows you to experience Central Oregon at its best: in near solitude, skirting two winding rivers while ducking in and out of forests. You’ll find all of that by driving a bit out of the way to LaPine State Park (15800 State Recreation Road, La Pine, 800-551-6949, stateparks.oregon.gov) a sprawling 2,300-acre property that is undervalued by most valley dwellers. The most striking route here is the Falls River Loop, a 5-miler that begins and ends at the most stunning vista: the McGregor Viewpoint, which overlooks the Deschutes arcing like a rainbow. Before you leave, follow signs on another trail that lead to the Big Tree, a 500-year-old, 162-foot-tall ponderosa pine with a circumference of more than 28 feet. Those measurements make it the largest of its species on record.