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Summer Guide
Written by Kim Cooper Findling

3 Scenic Central Oregon Road Trips

Stock the car with a picnic, water, the kids and the dog—it’s time for a road trip! From Bend, picturesque driving and sightseeing opportunities can be found in all directions. Here are three of our favorite scenic byways to get you out of the house and into the beauty of Oregon in a half-day’s drive.

Photo by Austin White 

Oregon Outback

Photos top row: Felix Wittern, George Ostertag / Alamy Stock Photo, Jak Wonderly | Bottom row: Alex Jordan

Give the high desert a fair chance to work its magic, and it surely will. The desert is one of the last best Oregon surprises for many people. The wide-open skies, expansive vistas and clarifying austerity dig their way into your psyche. Just a couple of hours south of Bend, off of Highway 31, is Oregon’s Outback. South of LaPine, the road travels through miles of pine forest before emerging into the sagebrush covered high desert, punctuated with rimrock and the occasional ranch homestead. First you’ll encounter Hole in the Ground, which is exactly what it sounds like. Hike its rim and continue to Fort Rock, a massive, eroded, volcanic tuff ring unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Capture a selfie with the looming monolith, and zoom south through the small town of Silver Lake. Soon enough you’ll climb over Picture Rock Pass, so named for petroglyphs carved into the rocks at the flat top of the summit. Take a walk and keep your eyes peeled—you’ll find the figures of animals and humans clearly visible in the rock. From here the highway drops down into the Summer Lake basin, the alkaline remains of the former Lake Chewaucan, one of the largest water bodies in the region, had you been here 13,000 years ago. This basin is now a flat, bleached expanse, at the south end of which is Summer Lake Hot Springs, a gathering place for hundreds of years, with hot, healing waters as the draw. Today, Summer Lake Hot Springs is a developed place of respite and lodging that remains a destination for desert-lovers and hot springs aficionados from all over the West. Stop in for a soak and then continue to Paisley and dinner at the historic Pioneer Saloon.

Old McKenzie Highway

Photo by Alex Jordan

Choose a beautiful summer day and head west out of Sisters past the high school to reach the outset of Highway 242. Casually, 242 is known as the Old McKenzie Highway. It was constructed as a highway in the 1920s, but the route already existed as a wagon trail, established in the 1860s. Today, 242 is open seasonally and offers tremendous views of the Cascade Range, up-close angles of lava beds and access to waterfalls and hot springs. Stop first at the Dee Wright Observatory, built by a Civilian Conservation Corps crew in the 1930s. This open shelter built from the volcanic basalt that surrounds it has open-air windows framing the Cascade peaks. A peak finder helps you name the mountains you see. Hike the half-mile Lava River Interpretive Trail, which begins at the observatory, and is paved and all-abilities friendly. Then continue west through a spectacular forest of Douglas fir, hemlock and alder. Near the west end of Highway 242, a short loop hike takes you to Proxy Falls, one of the most frequently photographed waterfalls in Oregon. Grab a picture and continue on 242 to where it joins Highway 126. Just past this junction you’ll find Belknap Lodge and Hot Springs. A natural hot spring source feeds the soaking pools, set in spectacular landscaped grounds with a view of the spring-fed McKenzie River.

Cascade Lakes Highway

Photo by Alex Jordan

Cascade Lakes Highway is Bend’s backyard playground. A wagon road was constructed between Bend and Elk Lake in the 1920s, and the region has been a destination ever since. This National Scenic Byway begins with the route from Bend to Mount Bachelor, which is open year-round. Beyond Bachelor, the highway is plowed and open in May or June each year. From there, the road hopscotches a series of mountain lakes to the west and south. Take in incredible views of Broken Top and the Three Sisters, and then make a steep and winding descent past Todd Lake and Sparks Lake, from which you can capture a cool view of the backside of Bachelor. All of these mountains are volcanoes, and the legacy of lava is everywhere. Catch the jagged lava flow on the right of the road just after Sparks Lake and before Devil’s Lake, which is also near the trailhead to the summit of South Sister, if you’re so inclined. At Elk Lake, grab an ice cream cone, a beach-front spot, visit the Elk Lake Guard Station, rent a standup paddleboard or a boat, or grab a burger or a six-pack. On the way back into town, consider partaking in a sunset dinner at Mount Bachelor (advance reservations required). Return to Bend with your scenery-loving soul satisfied.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in July 2020. 

Click to read about more SUMMER FUN to be had in Central Oregon.

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