The landscape of Oregon crosses quite a spectrum — from the mystical stacks of rock smashed by frothy Pacific Ocean waves to the open range of dry desert in Eastern Oregon. At the heart of it all, in Central Oregon, is the bustling town of Bend. Wake up to the smells of juniper and sage dancing through the air while gazing at snow covered peaks, all from the sandy bank of the energetic Deschutes River. The area is about three hours from Portland, making it a sunny alternative to the often cloud-drenched Willamette Valley. I first visited the Bend area in high school with friends, staying at nearby Sunriver Resort and have enjoyed returning to the high desert time and time again. At just over 100,000 inhabitants, the city is full of as many breweries as activities — this article is all about 10 great things to do in Bend, Oregon.
Be sure to check out the map at the bottom of this article, with tons of details about my favorite places to stay, food and drink, museums and green spaces — and remember to save it.
Table of Contents for things to do in Bend, Oregon
- Pole, pedal, paddle
- Go with the flow
- Scale Smith Rock
- Pop culture in Bend, Oregon
- Take in the views on a scenic drive
- Play with alpacas
- High Desert Museum
- Hike a volcano
- Hunt for thunder eggs
- Visit the Painted Hills
- Map of things to do in Central Oregon
Pole, pedal, paddle
Bend is famous for an arid climate full of sun even as the snow pack adds up to outstanding skiing on nearby Mt. Bachelor. This area is a playground for outdoor enthusiasts wanting a thrill in any direction. Ski from Winter through Spring and then hang up the poles for a pedal and explore the rolling hills of pine trees on a bike. Resorts like Sunriver offer miles upon miles of bike trails that traverse some of the most inspiring scenery in the state. Then, let the heat of Summer entice you to hop in the river, paddle in hand, for some great rafting, kayaking or even surfing on the wave machine that’s right in the middle of the Deschutes River in the downtown area. Fall offers great hikes, including a rocky climb to the summit of South Sister, which doesn’t require technical skills — just endurance and grit. No matter the level of action, there are limitless things to do in the great outdoors of Bend, Oregon.
Go with the flow… of the Deschutes River
One of Bend’s key attractions flows right through the town making it convenient to grab an inner tube and lazily float down the river. What better way to cool off in the heat of the Summer by taking a dunk in the Deschutes River as she makes her way North to the Columbia River — offering areas of both slow and briskly moving mountain runoff. The best white water is on a stretch of the river further downstream near Maupin, Oregon (1:45 and 90 miles away), where numerous companies offer both guided and independent rafts for hire.
Scale Smith Rock
Meanwhile, while the Deschutes River wanders North through carved out canyons, another river is making way through stunning Smith Rock State Park. Just 30 miles up the road in Terrebonne, Oregon, this crowd pleaser offers a variety of options for visitors. The easiest involves snapping a photo a few steps from the parking area ($5 per day or $30 for a twelve-month Oregon State Park Permit) that follows the contour of the bubbling Crooked River in the canyon below. The extreme adrenaline-pumping option is to scale the giant rock face to the precipice using rope, pulleys and nerves of steel. Of course, numerous hiking alternatives in between these two extremes exist and it’s recommended to avoid the heat of midday in Summer. This rock climbing Mecca is open year-round from dawn til dusk — both sunrise and sunsets are stunning.
Visiting the last Blockbuster is a fun thing to do in Bend Oregon
In between the time spent in the outdoor sun and fresh air, there are a few pop culture things to do in Bend, Oregon. The final outpost of iconic Blockbuster Video still rents movies the old fashioned way — by walking up to the cashier with DVD boxes and exchanging payment through human interaction. The central location makes this a fun stop on the way to doing something else in town.
Pop culture bonus: Lesser known but thrilling motorists since 1916 is the Sinclair Oil Dino. Swing by to fill up the tank (note that you cannot pump your own gas in Oregon), give him a hug and snap a photo — glossy green skin makes him quite photogenic.
Take in the spectacular views on a scenic drive
Speaking of filling up the tank, I’ve always been struck with how easy the access to beautiful scenery comes when driving around the Bend area. Even the elevated roadway that races through the middle of town offers mountain views of the Three Sisters and Mt. Bachelor. Get lost on a lonely country road and chase the sunset or wind through ranch land with ponderosa pine sprinkled throughout rolling pastures with livestock grazing. This is a particularly great thing to do in Bend, Oregon for people of any level of mobility because the landscape can be enjoyed from the climate controlled comfort of a vehicle.
Take a drive out to the quaint pioneer-inspired town of Sisters, Oregon by way of Tumalo and Eagle Crest, and get a glimpse of beauty in every direction. Or try the Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway, which begins in Bend and works up and around Mt. Bachelor before weaving through several stunning lakes on the way to LaPine, Oregon (open seasonally, so be sure to check for road conditions).
Play with alpacas
The country roads pass bucolic scenery that features farmland hosting cattle, sheep, horses and also, on occasion, alpacas. Alpacas come from the Andes region of South America and are in the camel family. These furry creatures provide exquisite wool used to create cozy products, including socks and Winter beanies.
On my most recent visit to the Bend area, we came upon a farm teeming with the curious animals and pulled over to check it out. There we met Nancy, co-owner of Alpaca Country Estates, who gave us an in-depth tour of the farming operation — including rolling pastures looking out at the stunning skyline of Three Sisters. We perused the pastures with the curious animals, who approached us with their playful personalities. Growing up on a dairy farm myself, I had a long list of questions about raising alpacas, and the two-hour experience delivered well beyond an Insta-selfie with my new shaggy friends.
Visiting the High Desert Museum is one of my favorite things to do in Bend Oregon
We went from playing with alpacas to watching fun-loving otters dive into their pond at the High Desert Museum. The compact museum is one of my favorite things to do in Bend, Oregon and I make it a point to schedule time with each visit I make to Central Oregon. In particular, it’s important to learn more about the tribes of the Columbia High Basin to better understand the people who inhabited the land long before the Oregon Trail fostered pioneer expansion. The exhibits are informative and I learn something new with each visit.
After exploring the indoor areas, which include a gift shop and cafe, venture through the doors to a living outdoor museum, complete with cute agile otters playing in the water and examples of pioneer farms. Read the placards along the path to learn more about the pine forests and how work is done to limit the exposure to forest fires in the area. And don’t forget to look up and get lost in the flowing needles of the ponderosa pine swaying in the gentle high desert breeze.
The museum has plenty of parking and is all on one level, making it friendly for people with limited mobility. Also fun for kids and the young at heart. At the time of this writing (May 2021) entrance is $17 for general admission, $14 for seniors and $10 for kids and the hours are 9AM-5PM March through October and 10AM-5PM November through March.
Hike a volcano and wind through lava beds
Just a stone’s throw away from the High Desert Museum, the Newberry National Volcanic Monument offers an up-close look at the volcanic activity that created much of the landscape of Oregon. Although Mt. St. Helens gets most of the attention as far as Pacific Northwest volcanoes go, one of the largest in North America is the Newberry Volcano, which last erupted about 1,300 years ago. The lava flows cover 1,200 square miles (the size of Rhode Island) and the visitor center, just off Hwy 97, features up close options to experience one of the almost 400 cinder cones that are part of the giant volcano system. A fun thing to do is walk the mile-long paved path that winds through a jagged black obsidian field immediately around the lurking cinder cone — small flowers and a few knotty pine trees forging into the rock for dear life.
The cinder cone can be summited as well by hiking along a paved roadway that winds 1.75 miles up to the top. In Summer, shuttle busses also carry visitors to the top for a $2/per person fee. Either way, the sweeping views from the 5,000-foot peak of this geological feature remain inspiring. Another 5-mile path weaves around the lava field and is fully accessible. The monument is open year-round and parking is $5. The visitor center remains closed through the pandemic.
Hunt for thunder eggs
Speaking of volcanoes, the official rock of Oregon is appropriately a relic from the days of spectacular lava light shows gracing much of this area. What is a thunder egg? Dictionary.com defines one as a globular concretion of opal, agate, or chalcedony weathered out of tuff or basalt. While any quality gift shop will sell these fascinating chunks of Oregon geology, why not go on your own expedition to find one in a natural state amongst the wild high desert of Central Oregon. There are many great rock shops in Central Oregon but I enjoy Richardson’s Rock Ranch, outside of Madras, Oregon (about an hour drive from Bend).
Grab a pickaxe and a five gallon bucket and drive along a dusty road through a cattle ranch to excavated areas waiting to be explored. The eggs appear to be round rocks on the outside, so sift through the dry dirt to reveal your prize. Back at the ranch, they’ll cut and polish your find for a fee, or if your prospecting wasn’t prosperous, there are beautiful examples available for purchase in the shop.
Update March 2021: it was fun while it lasted, but Richardson’s no longer allows digging to discover your own thunder eggs. It still remains a fun thing to do around Bend, Oregon — stop in to learn about rocks and find the perfect souvenir right from the source. This can also be worked into a loop around the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, which includes the stunning Painted Hills.
Visit the Painted Hills
Yes, the Painted Hills in Oregon are truly stunning and worth the 2-hour drive from Bend, Oregon. These flowing bands of red, yellow, and black inspired me so much I wrote a complete article about a recent day trip to this Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The drive through the Ochoco National Forest is also a beautiful way to see different Oregon topography.
If you have a bit more time, the entire driving loop of all three Units of the John Day Fossil Beds makes for a scenic geological experience. Check out my article, John Day Fossil Beds — the best 3-day itinerary, for all the helpful details, including an interactive map and downloadable checklists.
Map of things to do in Bend, Oregon
The map below offers my tried and tested favorites and covers the Greater Central Oregon Area — including Bend and Redmond, Oregon. Food and beverage locations, including stores, are shown in red. Blue refers to lodging options. Purple markers highlight museums, shopping, or other indoor points of interest. The green markers guide you to outdoor things to do.