Residents of Bend unite around the core conviction that they live in a beautiful place. But great beauty also inspires an undercurrent of concern that this mountain town’s natural splendor will be imperiled if too many people show up and spoil the place. A popular local bumper sticker reads, “Bend Sucks, Don’t Move Here,” and Visit Bend, the local tourism promotion board, has launched a campaign asking visitors to take “The Bend Pledge,” essentially warning them against rotten behavior with the lure of a free trip to — where else? — Bend.
Once called Quelah, the Beautiful Valley, by Native Americans, central Oregon is home to the world’s last Blockbuster video store and it’s known for its proliferation of cannabis dispensaries and craft breweries. But drinking, smoking and renting videos aren’t the key attractions here. With all the opportunities to hike, bike, kayak, fish and daydream in the unspoiled nature that surrounds Bend, the place is a natural for family fun. Start with this kid-tested, parent-approved weekend and you might end up joining the crowd that hopes everyone else keeps out.
1) 2 p.m. Immersion therapy
There’s no better family-friendly introduction to Bend and its environs on a warm day than to float the Deschutes River. Rent a river tube from Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe ($16), and take the Ride the River Shuttle ($3, unlimited rides, June 15 to Labor Day), or walk to Riverbend Park, where you’ll float down to Drake Park and then take the shuttle back. Your lazy float will take you north through the Old Mill District, with its three towering smokestacks — a legacy of the competing lumber mills that once operated here — then through a narrow section of the river where you’ll float by the backyards of some lovely homes before ending up at pretty Drake Park, named after Alexander Drake, a Midwestern businessman who built a cabin here in 1900. After you clean up, treat yourself to a delicious almond cronut ($3.50), a doughnut-croissant hybrid at Too Sweet Cakes, owned and operated by the 25-year-old pastry chef prodigy Shelbi Blok.
2) 5:30 p.m. Downtown action
In 1905, the year the city was incorporated, Bend’s first doctor, Urling Coe, wrote in a letter that the town had two saw mills, eight all-night saloons with gambling, seven phone lines and a “lusty red-light district consisting of several shacks on the river bank,” frequented by “freighters, stockman, buckaroos, sheep herders, timber cruisers, gamblers and transients of all kinds.” The vibe these days is less raucous, but the walkable downtown’s two main north/south streets, Bond and Wall, still host much of the action. Downtown is particularly lively after work on the first Friday of each month, as child-friendly local businesses like Leapin’ Lizards Toy Company and Dudley’s Bookshop Café stay open late and frequently offer free wine and snacks for the First Friday Art Walk. Sit on one of the picnic tables with a view of Mirror Pond and the snow-capped Three Sisters peaks at Crow’s Feet Commons, a combination cafe, bar, bike and ski shop, and you’ll feel like you’ve landed on Bend’s front porch.
3) 7:30 p.m. Dinner, old school and new
The venerable Pine Tavern, established by a pair of enterprising women during the Great Depression, is a Bend classic, with an expansive patio overlooking Mirror Pond, curtained booths and a giant Ponderosa pine tree growing through the dining room. The happy hour bar menu specials are a good value, and their delicious, warm sourdough scones with honey butter, served after 5 p.m, are a bargain at 75 cents each. Children can feast on mac-n-cheese, chicken strips or grilled cheese for only $5.95. If you want something a bit less old school, try Bos Taurus, an upscale steakhouse that features premium meats from around the world, or Zydeco Kitchen & Cocktails, a busy, stylish spot where you can feast on grilled redfish ($27) while sitting at a sidewalk table enjoying the parade of people strolling by. Dinner runs about $20 to $30 without drinks at Pine Tavern or Zydeco, and about $30 to $50 at Bos Taurus.
4) 9 p.m. Beer, with and without the kids
With nearly two dozen breweries in town, almost anytime is beer o’clock. Companies like Wanderlust Tours and the Bend Tour Company operate tours if you want to make the rounds. The tattooed, dog-owning parent set loves Crux Fermentation Project, which has a fenced yard and is pure Bend magic around sunset. For a taste of Bend history to go with your cream stout, head to the family-friendly McMenamins Old St. Francis School, an atmospheric complex built on the grounds of a former Catholic school that includes a small hotel, a cinema, an on-site brewery and restaurant, four intimate bars (including the hidden and aptly named Broom Closet bar) and, if you come a few hours earlier, a Turkish-style soaking pool where anyone can soak for $5 amid the fountains and ornate tiles depicting scenes with St. Francis. (Non-hotel guests can soak until 8 p.m., minors allowed until 6 p.m.; bring your own towel.) Hidden behind the main restaurant across a courtyard is Okanes, McMenamins’ most charming pub. Its namesake, Hugh O’Kane, was a 300-pound Irishman who traveled the world as a stowaway before founding Bend’s first hotel and saloon in 1905. Sit outside by the firepits, but don’t overlook the tiny pub’s stained glass windows and old church doors.
5) 7 a.m. Ocean rolls
Get to the Sparrow Bakery’s original location off the Bend Parkway early, before a line forms for ocean rolls ($4.50), Bend’s must-eat pastry. Made with hand-folded croissant dough and layered with sugar, vanilla and cardamom, it’s dense, rich and sensationally good. Sparrow’s treats are on sale at several other places in Bend, so if you’d rather enjoy your ocean roll with a view of the river, go to Looney Bean Coffee, and pair your roll with the Dirty Hippy, a chai tea latte with shots of espresso. If pastries aren’t your thing, get a mouth-watering, organic, free-range breakfast burrito ($6) and a dragon fruit smoothie ($5 to $8) from a drive-through (Life & Time:Free Range Fast Food). Then work off your breakfast on a Zagster bike share bike ($1.50 per 30 minutes, adult size only), or rent bikes of all sizes, as well as child trailers and buggies at Wheel Fun Rentals. Take a spin along the (partially) paved Deschutes River Trail or through the Drake Park Historic District to see some lovely homes, including the G.P. Putnam House at 606 Northwest Congress, which was once home to George Palmer Putnam. A New Yorker, Putnam came to Bend in 1909 at 21, became publisher of the local newspaper and then mayor in 1912 when the incumbent fell out a window to his death. He later married Amelia Earhart.
6) 10 a.m. Tortoises and river otters
Bend is more Mother Nature than museums, but you can enjoy both at the superb High Desert Museum (adults $17; children 3 to 12 $10), a 135-acre, indoor/outdoor museum in a woodsy spot south of downtown. The museum showcases the cultural and natural history of the Oregon High Desert, with an emphasis on Native American history and folklore, and animals that cannot survive on their own in the wild. Children will love the (injured) birds of prey, the desert tortoises, who inch around their habitat about as rapidly as some locals drive, and Pitch, Rogue and Brook, three musky-smelling river otters who showboat around their habitat like they’re auditioning to be reality TV stars.
7) 1 p.m. The great outdoors
The experts at Visit Bend can help you narrow the dizzying number of outdoor activities and tour options, based on your tastes and fitness level. In town, a two-mile, round-trip hike (or drive) up 480-foot Pilot Butte offers panoramic views of the arid, sagebrush-dotted High Desert country to the east and the snow-capped mountains to the west. Families with younger children can cycle the closed-to-traffic road through Shevlin Park, one of the city’s prettiest green spaces. Farther afield, the trails at Dillon Falls and the North Fork trail at Tumalo Falls are photogenic, or you can cool off inside the Lava River Cave ($5), where it’s always 38 degrees. And don’t leave town without venturing out to Mount Bachelor, Bend’s premier ski resort, where in midsummer you can take the chairlift up to the 7,775-foot elevation Pine Marten Lodge ($20 adults, $14 youth 6 to 12), and have dinner or bomb down the 13 miles of downhill mountain bike trails. Cap off your afternoon of fun by driving along the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway to idyllic Lucky Lake, where an easy one-mile hike through the woods earns you the right to take a blissful dip away from the summer crowds.
8) 7:30 p.m. The bend in the river
The hamlet that grew up around the Farewell Bend Ranch was named Farewell Bend, until it was shortened by scrooges at the post office to Bend. You can learn about the city’s logging history by reading the interpretive signs along the Deschutes River Trail in Bend’s lively Old Mill District, where you’ll see the three smoke stacks that have dominated Bend’s skyline since the 1920s. For dinner, order the two-choice plate with kalbi beef and volcano chicken ($16.25) at the friendly Hawaiian restaurant Big Island Kona Mix Plate, or have the super-indulgent wagyu beef burger ($16) at the nearby Boxwood Kitchen & Supper Club, which also has a children’s menu with options like buttered pasta or cheeseburgers for $8. Bend is a long way from the Caribbean, but if you travel a mile west of the Old Mill District to Cuban Kitchen, you can play dominoes and tuck into down home Latin delights like thin cut palomilla steak or puerco asado ($12 and $13 with two sides; children’s meals are $7), lovingly made by the Aguilar family.
9) 9 p.m. Beyond gelato
Bontà means “goodness” in Italian, but the term undersells how outstanding the gelato is at this popular local business. They vat pasteurize their milk and cream in house, ensuring that flavors like their Oregon hazelnut and peanut butter Theo fudge are intensely creamy. Before calling it a night, save time for a bit of family roistering at Worthy Brewing Company, which has its own “Hopservatory” — a research-grade telescope, manned by a “sky guy,” or teach your children how to play Tapper and Donkey Kong at the Vector Volcano Classic Arcade.
10) 8 a.m. Country style
Sisters is a charming ranch town north of Bend, originally called Three Sisters for the nearby peaks Faith, Hope and Charity, more prosaically known as North, Middle and South. The town is graced with Old West-style storefronts, a fun annual rodeo, and a hyper-abundance of outdoor activities in the vicinity. Start your day with a cup of what many consider central Oregon’s best coffee at Sisters Coffee, a block off the town’s touristy main drag, and across the street from Paulina Springs Books, arguably the region’s best independent bookstore. Then walk through town to Sisters Bakery, which has scones, doughnuts and other treats, and is housed in a 1908 building that was the town’s general store from 1925 to 1950. Try the superb marionberry or bacon-smoked cheddar scones ($4 and $4.50) or the double chocolate doughnuts ($1.25).
11) 11 a.m. The end of the road
Drive another 20 minutes north of Sisters to Camp Sherman, a delightful it’s-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know it community of about 200 souls, deep in the woods, along the exceptionally pretty, spring-fed Metolius River, a fly fisherman’s dream. Kids love the Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery, where you can feed the rainbow trout for a quarter, and there are picturesque trails and campgrounds up and down the river, particularly Allen Springs and Lower Bridge. Wind up your weekend by checking out what may be the coolest general store in the West, the Camp Sherman Store & Fly Shop, which has been a hub of community life here since it was established in 1918. The place has everything from fly-fishing equipment to souvenirs to surprisingly tasty breakfast burritos.
Vacation rentals are extremely popular in Bend. Look for a place with outdoor space that’s (preferably) walking distance to the Deschutes River. Prices start at about $150 a night for a single family home and go up depending on size, quality and season.
The luxurious Tetherow Resort is a family- and dog-friendly golf resort on the way to Mount Bachelor that has a lovely heated pool that’s open year round. (Rooms from $159.) In Sisters, FivePine offers Craftsman-style cabins, stylish suites and complimentary bike rentals, next to a fine brewpub (Three Creeks Brewing Company) and the four-screen Sisters Movie House, where you can have draft beer and food delivered to your seat. (Rates from $159)
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