It happens on summer mornings in Bend. I open the windows, and the air drapes around me like a warm sheet. Outside, butternut shards of sunlight splinter through the central Oregon pines, the sky spotless and bold. It's a great season in a great place, and today is a great day to get wet.
Bend gets barely a foot of rain a year. But arid as it is, the town and the high desert that surrounds it both course with cool, clear water. Within an easy drive of Bend and nearby Sisters you'll find 20 major lakes and five major rivers. Alpine pools spill into fitful creeks. Basins of glacial runoff gather below towering peaks. The Metolius River bubbles up out of the ground, the Deschutes drains Little Lava Lake. Whether you boat, float, or swim, summer on the dry side of the Cascades is best appreciated in or on the water.
This July marks my 13th summer in Bend, and it seems like the whole country now knows my town is the place to be when the weather turns warm. They know about the breweries, the rafting, the trails for hiking and biking. I know all that, too—but as a local I also know a bit more.
Take floating the Deschutes River, a classic choice on scorcher days. One standard—and excellent—option is the mellow 1.5-mile drift from Riverbend Park north to Drake Park. You leave your car and rent a tube from Tumalo Creek Kayak and Canoe near Riverbend, and enter the river at the put-in there. The Deschutes meanders lazily past backyard patios and leafy parks, hitting some friendly rapids in the man-made white-water park under the Colorado Avenue Bridge along the way. After you float to Drake Park, the Ride the River shuttle will whisk you back to the parking area where you started.
It's a great way to spend the day, but I'd also recommend an alternative. When friends or family visit, we rent tubes at Riverbend like everyone else. But then I lead them about half a mile upstream to Farewell Bend Park. There we ease into the river, where cool water meets hot skin. Not only do we extend our time in the water by about 15 minutes, but we also get to float peacefully past the crowds at the park put-in.
Then, at the end of the float at Drake Park, we skip the lines for the shuttle bus. Instead, we return the tubes there at the park and rent bikes from Bend's newly expanded bike-share program, Zagster. We then pedal back to the Park and Float where we left the car, winding through the quiet streets of Old Bend, maybe swinging by the Iron Horse Second Hand store to peruse the antiques or refueling with a Berry Tasty smoothie at Active Culture, a cute joint housed in an old gas station.
Floating the river in the wilderness outside of Bend is even better; to me, it's what makes this region really sing in summer. For total serenity, I'll often head upstream from Bend to the Dillon Falls Day Use Area, where the Deschutes pushes languidly past thundering falls, craggy lava flows, expansive meadows, and moody forests. Sometimes after work on those endless summer days, I'll even throw an impromptu dinner party out there: Friends and I will grab a picnic table or spread out a blanket and cast for rainbow trout between bites of chicken.
The river up here is tame enough to tackle with a standup paddleboard. I can muscle my way upstream before drifting down, often reclining on the board, the sky scrolling by like movie credits just for me. Stand on Liquid rents boards for DIY trips, and Sun Country Tours offers lessons and shuttles. Either way, pausing to jump in the bracing swimming holes along the route is a must.
If I'm looking to add a splash of adrenaline to my river floats, I head for the Big Eddy rapids on the Deschutes southwest of Bend, where riotous wave trains contrast with a backdrop of calming woodlands and cliff-ringed canyons. It takes about 75 minutes to paddle the three-mile stretch of Class III rapids with a guide in a rugged rubber boat; some tours conclude with complimentary beer tastings. For an all-day affair, we'll drive north to Maupin to raft 13 miles of Class III rapids on the Deschutes.
Prefer pedaling to paddling? The Paulina Plunge is a 2,000-vertical-foot downhill mountain bike tour near Newberry National Volcanic Monument that stops at six waterfalls and two spots where natural waterslides sluice through the rock.
The Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway west of Bend is also popular with summer guests, for good reason: Up here the air is mercifully cool, the sky a cornflower blue. We might rent a pontoon boat at Elk Lake, where we can motor out into the middle for a picnic and swimming session under the peaceful gaze of 9,068-foot Mount Bachelor to the east. The kids swim. I cannonball. Come evening we could head to the Elk Lake Resort for grass-fed burgers, beers, and maybe some bluegrass.
There's plenty of company hiking to Green Lakes in the Three Sisters Wilderness along the Fall Creek Trail, a nine-mile out-and-back. My wife and I often opt instead for a 12-mile counterclockwise version: We head up Soda Creek Trail, take a left onto Broken Top Trail, and end up at the lakes soon enough. The difference? We have aster-flecked hillsides mostly to ourselves along the way.
North of Bend, the area around Sisters is peppered with awesome summertime options, too. There's the hatchery in Camp Sherman, where kids can trade quarters for pellet feed and toss it to enormous fish. The trout do run big in the Metolius River, a lick of icy water where the fly-fishing-only rules keep the ranks of anglers thin.
On really hot days I might drive the family to Three Creek Lake, a gem at the base of a glacial cirque at 6,500 feet, and hike up Tam McArthur Rim for airy views of the Cascades. Later we'll cast for brook trout from shore or take a tour in our canoe. My daughter loves Scout Lake, 13 miles northwest of Sisters, because its shallow, sun-filled waters are often warmer than others in the area.
At nearby Suttle Lake there's an easy 3.4-mile trail that runs past the 11-room Suttle Lodge, where a fish-and-chips sandwich and cold pale ale in the open-air beer garden could convince you to sit a spell.
I might bring a bike up to the Peterson Ridge Trail system for views of all three Sisters, or hike to the old fire lookouts atop Black Butte for a 360-degree look at the lay of the land. Sometimes I'll head out early for the 1.5-mile hike up 4,768-foot Bessie Butte, a cinder cone south of Bend where few people go. And visitors always like cooling off inside the lava tubes of Boyd Cave, a 1,880-foot tunnel near Bessie Butte where the temperature holds steady in the 40s.
Then there are those summer days when I may not rush out to do anything active at all. The light is too sweet and the air is too soft to do much. So I'll grab a new book from Dudley's Bookshop Café downtown and sit under the pines near the First Street Rapids, where I'll read by the timeless roar of the river. Soon the seasons will change. But for now, I'm fine right here.
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