At first glance Central Oregon might seem like merely, as a hardy local once put it to me, “a whole ‘lotta lonely.” If you’re looking for wide-open landscapes, big skies, and solitude, you can certainly find it in central Oregon’s high deserts and rocky canyons.
But that’s not all there is to it. Between the ribbons of quiet highway and networks of rural dirt roads lie enough geological sights, outdoor activities, and interesting towns to keep road trippers and weekend warriors busy for days. The region’s tumultuous volcanic history means many of the best central Oregon activities are all about appreciating the distinctive geology and terrain.
In this post I’ll highlight some of the best places to visit in central Oregon, with a focus on nature and outdoor recreation. Linking these up would make a wonderful Oregon roadtrip for outdoorsy folks (free camping is readily available throughout the area’s vast national forests and BLM land) or connoisseurs of small-town motels. Or, base yourself in the pleasant outdoorsy town of Bend and take day trips to the nearby geological wonders in this vast and unique region.
I’ve personally had the pleasure of visiting all these central Oregon sights (mostly on my bicycle, my favorite way to travel), and have learned so much about this distinctive region in the process. It truly gets better with each visit. Give yourself some time to ease into the humbling vastness of the landscape, and I promise you’ll be rewarded with a memorable experience.
What: Fork Rock is a volcanic caldera rising dramatically above the flat Oregon Outback which, at the time of the volcanic eruptions that formed this impressive landmark, used to be a giant lake! Though from far away it may look like it’s just… well… just a big rock, it’s definitely worth a closer look for anyone on a central Oregon sightseeing mission.
Where: Fort Rock is a couple miles north and west of the small town of the same name, and a 1.5 hour drive south of Bend. You’ll find restrooms, water, and a site host at this day use area, but no camping unless you continue northward into Deschutes National Forest.
To Do: Visit Fork Rock to learn about local geology and wildlife and take a straightforward 1.2 mile hike around the inside of the caldera. It won’t take more than an hour of your time, and if you’re lucky you’ll catch the site host for some bonus insights into the area’s geology. The nearby small town of Fort Rock has a restaurant and tavern, and Silver Lake about twenty miles south has a bigger store and RV park.
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
What: John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is actually three separate areas, all showcasing different aspects of central Oregon’s geology. Sheep Rock unit features scenic layered rock formations and the main visitors center and paleontology exhibit. Painted Hills unit is the most popular and features distinctive colorfully layered formations. And Clarno unit is the place to go for glimpses of actual fossils “in the wild.”
Where: All three units are accessible via good roads. Sheep Rock is on Highway 19 near the junction with Highway 26. Painted Hills is about 9 miles northwest of Mitchell on Burnt Ranch Road. And Clarno is on Highway 218 between Shaniko and Fossil.
To Do: All three units have short hiking trails and day use areas for those wanting to explore and enjoy the scenery. To learn about the area’s geology and explore the Paleontology Center, visit the Sheep Rock unit which houses the main visitors center. The educational content and outdoor activity combine to make this an excellent Central Oregon activity for families especially, though anyone will enjoy it.
What: Beneath the scrubby sage-covered Oregon Outback southeast of Bend lies a surprising network of lava tube caves, deep and cool enough to hold ice even when outside temperatures soar. Here is an overview of some popular caves, and here’s a good explanation of how they formed.
Where: The biggest cluster of ice caves, including Arnold and Hidden Forest, lies just off gravel China Hat Road about ten miles southeast of Bend, OR. It’s passable with a 2wd vehicle but take it slow. Boyd Cave is a few miles back toward Bend and is more accessible than Arnold, which has a steep entrance. A few other caves lie even deeper in the network of gravel forest roads for the more adventurous.
To Do: These are fairly undeveloped attractions and the main thing to do is walk around and explore the caves. You’ll find a dirt parking area and perhaps an explanatory sign, maybe a pit toilet at some. If you intend to explore inside the caves, bring at least two flashlights or headlamps (not including smartphone flashlights) and a warm jacket (they’re called ice caves because some of them are cold enough to hold ice even through the scorching summer months). Take special care in cold weather as the rocks can be icy and slippery.
Newberry Volcanic National Monument
What: The 50,000+ acres of Newberry Volcanic National Monument are worth at least a full day or two and make a perfect central Oregon weekend getaway. This landmark is all about Newberry Volcano crater, home to a sparkling pair of lakes at its center and scenic hiking and mountain biking along its rim. Several lodges, campgrounds, and small stores offer shelter and sustenance between your explorations of obsidian flows, waterfalls, and mountain peaks in this volcanic playground.
Where: Most visitors enter the “monument” (a large specially designated area of Deschutes National Forest) from Highway 97 to the west. This route is less than an hour from Bend, entirely paved, and easily traveled by even large RVs. There is also a gravel east entrance via NF-21, for those into exploring the backroads.
To Do: Plenty! Hiking, mountain biking, paddling and boating, camping, horseback riding, geology education, and (in winter obviously) cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. See the Forest Service website for details.
What: Of all the gorgeous and interesting places to visit in central Oregon, Crater Lake National Park is probably the most famous. And for good reason! This stunning lake – the deepest in the US – was formed around 7700 years ago by a volcanic eruption and is every bit as blue and pristine from up close as it appears in pictures.
Where: The park’s entrance is roughly a two hour drive either northeast of Medford or southwest of Bend. Because it’s a national park you will have to pay to enter; check the park website for up-to-date information.
To Do: Besides just sitting and gawking at the beauty? Crater Lake National Park offers 90+ miles of hiking trails, camping and lodging, fishing, boat tours, and cycling (the 33 mile Rim Drive loop is a popular road cycling route). Summer is the most popular time to go, but you can visit Crater Lake in winter too for backcountry skiing, snow camping, sledding, and more.
Smith Rock State Park
What: It may not be as obvious as some other central Oregon sights in this post, but even the canyon walls flanking the Crooked River in Smith Rock State Park were formed from volcanic upheaval (specifically, compressed volcanic ash).
Where: Smith Rock State Park is about a thirty minute drive north of Bend, mostly on Highway 97. There is a $5 day use fee, or repeat visitors can purchase an annual pass.
To Do: The canyon walls at Smith Rock are popular with rock climbers. If you’re less vertically included, you can enjoy miles of hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking trails along the river and up to the rocky canyon rim. Some are quite accessible, while others are more rugged. There is a walk-in tent campground called The Bivy which is generally used by climbers, otherwise the park is day use only.
Crooked River Wild and Scenic Recreation Area
What: The Crooked River is a tributary of the famous Deschutes, flowing 125 miles through the Ochoco Mountains and above-mentioned Smith Rock State Park, among many other scenic places.
Where: The Crooked River can be appreciated from many places along its length, but one of the most accessible is the Wild and Scenic River Recreation Area, along the Crooked River Highway south of Prineville.
To Do: This stretch of quiet riverside road is home to many developed campgrounds and offers fishing, hiking (the 2.6 mile round-trip trail to Chimney Rock is popular), bicycling (the quiet highway is a pleasant ride), and great scenery. Further south the Prineville Reservoir offers a venue for more camping and also boating, paddleboarding, and other water sports.
What: Ok, Bend is not exactly a geological site or natural landmark, but it’s an outdoor playground shaped by the surrounding terrain and I can’t resist including it. With its legendary trails, inviting river, and excellent craft beer scene, the lively outdoorsy town of Bend is a required stop on any Central Oregon vacation. It’s also a perfect base from which to explore many of the other attractions in this post.
Where: Bend, Oregon is a 3-4 hour drive southeast of Portland, or a similar distance northeast of Medford. It’s chock-full of affordable motels and charming Airbnb’s. The national forest just a few miles outside of town offers plenty of free camping options as well.
What: There’s enough awesomeness in and around Bend to fill at least a week. Mountain biking, river floating, hiking and backpacking, beer tasting, coffee shop sitting, picnicking in the park, camping… It’s a great destination for everyone, from hardcore outdoor adventurers to families on summer vacation (or both at the same time!). I love it so much that I’ve written an entire article on outdoorsy things to do in Bend.
More Outdoorsy Travel Resources
If you’re into exploring the natural beauty and unique attractions of central Oregon, you’ll probably like these other vacation ideas too:
- California desert roadtrip destinations
- Joshua Tree National Park for outdoor adventurers
- Best ski resorts in Tahoe
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