The Top Things to See and Do in Bend, Oregon

By: James Stafford

Bend is the largest urban area in central Oregon. With a permanent population of around 77,000 people, the modestly sized city is a testament to just how sparsely developed and unspoiled this beautiful region of the Pacific Northwest really is. Bend makes an excellent base for visits to the area, which draws large numbers of tourists each year. Central Oregon has a wealth of outdoor activities to enjoy, with Bend also serving as a noteworthy hub of local history and culture.

If you’re planning a visit, here are 12 activities you’ll want to make room for in your itinerary:


12. Trek Through Smith Rock State Park

This 651-acre state park is open all year round, and features a network of gorgeous hiking trails that offer stunning views of the unspoiled wilderness that extends for miles in every direction. Part of Oregon’s high desert plateau landscape, the park has an elevation of around 3,000 feet, delivering incredible vantage points you’ll remember for a lifetime.

Smith Rock State Park is also a rock climber’s paradise, with well over 1,000 climbing areas. Bear one thing in mind as you plan your visit: conditions can be very hot in the summer, and daytime temperatures can break the 100-degree barrier. Spring and fall are generally the best times to visit.

11. Drive the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway

Also known as Forest Route 46, the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway is one of the most beautiful drives in the western United States. This 66-mile route passes eight beautiful lakes, where you can pause to take pictures or spend a few hours exploring. Breathtakingly beautiful Cultus Lake is a particularly appealing place to spend some time, as it has well-developed tourism and visitor facilities including a lodge and restaurant as well as boat rentals and overnight cabins. If roughing it is up your alley, you can also pitch a tent and camp.

10. Hit the Slopes at Mount Bachelor

The Mount Bachelor skiing area is a short drive from Bend, and is reachable from the scenic Century Drive Highway. With a total area of more than 1,000 acres, the Mount Bachelor ski area is Oregon’s largest, and it features one of the most generous skiing seasons of any resort in the country. Visitors can hit the slopes anytime between the middle of November and the end of May, though weather conditions can affect slope availability, especially in spring.

Mount Bachelor is well-known for its high-quality, naturally dry snow, and the mountain averages over 450 inches of snow per year. During the summer, the Mount Bachelor ski area transforms into a mountain biking hotspot, so you can enjoy its beauty no matter what time of year you visit.

9. Head Out on the Water at Elk Lake

Once you’re finished at Mount Bachelor, you can head about 11 miles further down the road to Elk Lake, which offers some of the most beautiful mountain scenery you’ll find anywhere in the world. The lake’s crystalline waters are ideal for sports and boating, and it is a particularly popular place to go fishing.

If you’re looking for a laid-back good time in a peaceful natural setting, Elk Lake is perfect. Motorboats are banned to help maintain the lake’s sense of calm tranquility. Elk Lake also boasts a beach with excellent swimming, amazing sunsets, miles of hiking trails, and a convenient on-site restaurant that serves some of the best burgers in Oregon.

Photo by: Elk Lake Resort and Marina Facebook


8. Check out the Newberry National Volcanic Monument

Designated in 1990, the Newberry National Volcanic Monument is housed within the beautiful Deschutes National Forest area. It covers about 50,000 acres of unique landforms, including volcanic caldera lakes and obsidian lava flows. Its Lava River Cave and Lava Cast Forest are especially popular tourist draws, with the forest resting atop a lava flow that’s about 6,000 years old. Its haunting molds make excellent photo opportunities.

The site’s Newberry Caldera serves as a camping, hiking, and outdoor recreation base. Campgrounds, indoor lodgings, and an excellent trail network encircle the scenic volcanic lake, which is accessible throughout the year.

7. Tour the Oregon Badlands Wilderness Area

If you want to experience another area filled with fascinating landforms, the Oregon Badlands Wilderness area beckons. Part of the National Landscape Conservation System since 2009, the Oregon Badlands Wilderness is a desert area that houses ancient Native American pictographs, arid canyons, centuries-old juniper trees, and formations of ancient igneous rocks that bear uncanny resemblances to castles. You can also enter the Oregon Desert Trail from the park, as its western end point exits into the badlands.

6. See Stars at the Pine Mountain Observatory

About 25 miles southeast of Bend, you’ll find one of the region’s premier places for gazing up into the heavens. The University of Oregon’s Pine Mountain Observatory serves as one of America’s leading astronomical research centers, and it is open to the public during the summer months. Several powerful telescopes deliver wondrous close-ups of celestial objects, which you can experience for yourself on weekends. The observatory is accessible on Saturdays and Sundays between Memorial Day and the final Sunday in September.

Photo by: Pine Mountain Observatory Facebook

5. Experience the Dreamlike Serenity of Mirror Pond

Central Oregon is brimming with natural lakes, but this artificially created pond is one of its most interesting places. Well worth a visit, Mirror Pond was formed by construction activities dating back to the early years of the 20th century, when the Bend Water, Light & Power Company built a dam to power Bend’s first electricity services. Mirror Pond is now a serene, quiet place to relax, and is surrounded by deciduous and evergreen scenery with snow-capped mountain peaks rising in the background.

4. Enjoy Local Food and Shopping in the Old Mill District

If you’re looking to head indoors for a little while, Bend has a wide range of shopping and dining options, especially considering the city’s relatively cozy size. Its Old Mill District is a great place to start, as this historic quarter of town occupies a pretty perch on the banks of the Deschutes River and houses an intriguing lineup of restaurants, locally owned shops and boutiques, galleries, and bars. Many of the area’s original buildings have been preserved and repurposed into award-wining and innovative mixed-use facilities.

Photo by: Old Mill District Facebook


3. Visit Bend’s Educational Museums

Bend has a long and interesting history, and the city’s story is well-told at the Deschutes Historical Museum and the High Desert Museum. The Deschutes Historical Museum is housed in a heritage schoolhouse, and features exhibits that cover the region’s history from prehistoric times to the pioneer era and beyond. The High Desert Museum is an excellent place to learn more about central Oregon’s deserts and badlands, and it’s a great place to visit either before or after you visit these unique geological regions in person.

Photo by: Deschutes Historical Museum Facebook

2. Attend the Bend Film Festival

If you’re in town during October, the Bend Film Festival is a highly recommended cultural activity. With screenings featuring the latest offerings from the region’s most renowned independent filmmakers, the festival also prioritizes cinema education through a fascinating lecture series.

Known for its staunch support of artistic expression over commercial objectives, the Bend Film Festival is a breath of fresh air on the annual movie circuit. Screenings take place in a range of interesting venues, including state-of-the-art projection rooms as well as historic theaters and eclectic performance spaces.

Photo by: BendFilm Festival Facebook

1. Delve into Oregon’s Storied Past

Bend has 10 sites that are part of the United States’ National Register of Historic Places, with several standouts that reward curious visitors. The Drake Park Historic Neighborhood district is a fantastic place to go for a walk if you want to see some great residential architecture, while the one-of-a-kind Goodwillie-Allen House is the oldest house within Bend’s city limits. Other noteworthy entries on this list include the N.P. Smith Pioneer Hardware Store, which dates to 1909 and stands as a rare and authentic glimpse into the old ways of bygone years, as well as the Gothic Revival-style Trinity Episcopal Church.

Photo by: Ian Poellet via Wikimedia Commons