By Nicole Vulcan
Maybe it's the sun. Maybe it's the shredding.
Whatever it is, the secret's out on Bend.
What was once a quaint logging town that registered barely a blip on the radar of Willamette Valley residents is now a full-fledged mountain town and growing every day. Between 1999 and 2016, Bend's population jumped by more than 150 percent. Clearly, people are relocating. But they're visiting in droves, too.
According to the most recent data, nearly 3 million people visited Bend in 2015—that's more than 8,000 people every day of the year.
If you're thinking about an outdoorsy trip to Bend, there's a very good chance you've been there before—and this time around, you may be looking for something new to do. Whether you're the type who prefers to avoid crowds or you're simply looking for what else there is to do in Bend, here's your guide.
Driving over the mountains in winter? Bring chains—they're often required on the passes. A solid pair of hiking shoes will do you good year round, on the trails or otherwise. If you're coming from the drippy-wet Willamette Valley, don't forget there's actually sun in Bend, so dig those sunglasses out from their dark depths, and bring sunscreen. Also, there's a bumper sticker found in Bend that reads, "Trump skis in jeans." Don't be like Trump.
IDEAL VISITING TIME
For sun lovers, Bend offers your UV fix year round. To escape the crowds, come in the shoulder seasons: April, May, September and October. Spring skiing can be epic.
Don't: Phil's Trail
Do: Swamp Wells
When it comes to mountain biking, Central Oregon is a destination, with 277 miles of single track. The trails are enough of a draw that 10 percent of visitors surveyed in 2017 said they'd visited the Phil's Trail network during their visits. Do the math on that one and the number of visitors to Phil's is staggering.
Similar to the Phil's network, the Swamp Wells area is not just one trail but a series of trails you can ride in loops extending from 10 to 30 miles. While this area southeast of downtown has a somewhat drier desert landscape, much of the trail network is in the trees. Note, though, that the area's sandy soils can make the trails pretty dusty during the dry months—but what's something of a negative during that time can be a plus in winter, as the network can be ridden nearly year round. Another bonus: views of Central Oregon from Horse Butte, one of several buttes along the trail network.
Don't: Smith Rock
Do: Oregon Badlands
There's one good reason people seek out a hike when they're in an outdoor mecca like Bend: It doesn't take much gear, or prep, to have a good experience. What can lay some shade on that hike, however, is a hefty crowd.
The most popular spot for a hike—and for memorable views—is Smith Rock State Park, often touted as the birthplace of American sport climbing. It's visible from the Redmond Airport when you fly in, and equally visible as you drive to Bend from Portland or other parts north. Locals routinely bemoan its overcrowded parking lots and trails. More than 770,000 people visit the park as day visitors each year, according to Oregon State Parks.
Instead of Smith Rock State Park, check out the Oregon Badlands Wilderness. It's far less busy, yet still offers stunning views of rock formations and volcanic peaks. Much of the hike is a dry, desert landscape, but you'll also be treated to some expansive views of Central Oregon. Located about 16 miles east of Bend, the Badlands Rock Trail is a 6-mile round trip that leads you to a rocky protrusion where you'll get a 360-degree view of the surrounding area.
Don't: South Sister
Do: Black Crater
More serious hikers looking to knock a summit off their lists in the summer months tend to flock to the South Sister, part of the Three Sisters Wilderness. At 10,363 feet, it's the third-highest peak in Oregon, and a far less technical climb than the two highest peaks.
Still, the trail originating from the Cascade Lakes Highway gets stuffed full of amateur mountaineers. For a challenging hike that boasts some stunning views of the North Sister, Mount Washington and sometimes even the northern Cascades as far as Mount Adams, hike Black Crater instead. At 7,251 feet in elevation and 7.6 miles round trip, Black Crater can be far less daunting, too.
Skiing and Snowboarding
Don't: Mount Bachelor
Do: Hoodoo (or the backcountry)
When it comes to sheer acreage of terrain, nothing in the state of Oregon beats Mount Bachelor. In fact, the opening of Bachelor's new Cloudchaser lift in 2016 meant the mountain could boast 101 runs and more than 4,000 skiable acres, making it the sixth-largest ski resort in North America. Still, when the traffic on the Cascade Lakes Highway gets heavy—as it often does—you do have other options.
When you're ready for something besides Bachelor, try Hoodoo. Located along US 20 about 21 miles west of Sisters, Hoodoo is decidedly more mellow in size and vibe. The runs are shorter and fewer, and the snow can take on that wetter feel, like a Mount Hood ski resort—but the price of lift tickets is also cheaper, and there are fewer crowds. Park your RV there for the weekend, plug in your Crock Pot in the lodge, and bask in the homey vibe of a smaller Cascades resort.
And when lift-ticket prices overall are giving you sustained sticker shock, skip a resort and try backcountry skiing. Plenty of ski shops in Bend will be willing to give you the lowdown on where to go in current conditions. Popular backcountry spots include the Tam McArthur Rim and Tumalo Mountain, and local outdoor shops, including Crow's Feet Commons, Mountain Supply and Pine Mountain Sports, staff backcountry specialists who are more than stoked to show you the ropes.
Nordic and Snowshoe Trails
Don't: Cascade Lakes Highway Sno-Parks
Do: Ray Benson Sno-Park
The Cascade Lakes Highway is a superhighway of speeding trucks, SUVs and Sprinters when the snow is falling—and that's not just for riding Bachelor. The Sno-Parks on this highway, including Wanoga, Dutchman Flat and Virginia Meissner, can be packed with visitors, weekends or not.
Hoodoo Ski Resort offers a number of Nordic ski trails that are groomed on weekends. Also, check out the Ray Benson Sno-Park just outside Hoodoo, available for snowshoeing, Nordic skiing and other winter sports. Bonus—there's a warming shelter in the parking lot, with its own wood-burning stove.
Do: Tumalo Creek
Drive anywhere near the Deschutes River in Bend during the summer months and you're sure to see a gaggle of floaters sporting everything from unicorn floaties to cherry new paddleboards, cruising the water and hitting the man-made rapids at Bend's Whitewater Park. (There's even a surf wave, so if that's your thing, bring your board.) Floating the river is something of a rite of passage for a Bend visitor, so don't feel bad about wanting to jump on the bandwagon. After all, how many cities can boast spending millions to create a series of rapids that even babies and dogs can handle?
Once you've done your bit in the Deschutes near downtown Bend, take that unicorn floatie elsewhere. Just west of Bend, on the road to Sisters, lies the hamlet of Tumalo, home to excellent views of the Three Sisters and a lesser-known state park with a fun float. Start off at Tumalo State Park and float the mile or so into the town of Tumalo. Foodie tip: There's an excellent food-cart pod, the Bite, awaiting you near the disembark point. If you're staying in Sunriver, you can also float the river from the Harper Bridge area to the Sunriver Marina.
Paddleboarding, Canoeing and Kayaking
Don't: Elk Lake
Do: Hosmer Lake
Spend more than a day in Bend and you're likely to do something that involves traveling along the Cascade Lakes Highway, which stretches west from Bend, into Sno-Parks, past Mount Bachelor and, in the warmer months, along the many Cascade lakes from which the highway takes its name. A popular spot for lake living is Elk Lake, earning its stellar reputation as a fun family spot for swimming, boating and general partying, with killer views of the Three Sisters.
While still on the busy Cascade Lakes Highway, Hosmer Lake tends to draw a slightly smaller crowd—and it still has some of the stunning mountain views that make the area such a draw in the first place. If you're not into the sights and sounds of buzzing motorboats, you'll enjoy a visit to Hosmer more because it allows "electric motors only." That alone can make for a more relaxing experience.
Don't: Cascade Lakes Highway
Do: Suttle Lake
The Cascade Lakes Highway doesn't hold a monopoly on lake fun, either. About 14 miles west of Sisters is Suttle Lake, a decidedly more mellow hangout that still lets you get in your water sports. It's also home to the Suttle Lodge, offering cabins, boat rentals, a restaurant and boathouse cafe—and fancy dinners from renowned Pacific Northwest chefs on a regular basis.
Don't: Riverbend Dog Park
Do: Big Sky Park
Bend is definitely dog-friendly, and while you're out and about, you're likely to need some spots for the pooch to play. While Riverbend Park and the Deschutes River Trail both offer off-leash options—in the case of the Deschutes River Trail, only in non-summer months—you do have some other alternatives.
Bend's Riverbend Park is the nexus of the mad cacophony that is the river float launch along the Deschutes River in the summertime. It's also home to a mostly bare patch of land called the Riverbend Dog Park—where dogs can hang out, sniff some fellow canines and also splash in the river and cool off. While it's nice to let the dog get some friend time, the spot is not exactly relaxing for humans.
On the eastern edge of Bend is a park mainly used for its sports fields—but in addition to that, Big Sky Park offers a fenced off-leash area of several acres, great for allowing the dog to stretch his legs while you do the same. Pro tip: Exit the dog park fence along its northern edge and walk along that fence toward the east, where after several hundred yards you'll run into a small pond, perfect for a doggie dip. Also well worth a visit is Pine Nursery Park on the east side of Bend, also with its own expansive off-leash area.