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High-Desert Adventure

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

There’s always the wind – singing across the high-desert plateau, rolling tumbleweeds down
roadways and riffling through grasslands – blowing through your hair. It’s the same wind
that drifted smoke across an early Native American village, howled through a lonely miner’s
camp and flapped the canvas of a covered wagon making its way along the Oregon Trail. The
high-desert plateau around Bend, Oregon, is rich in history and offers a magnificent
playground for today’s traveler. With only 10 to 13 inches of precipitation per year, the
days are drenched in sunshine even during the winter, though the nights can get pretty
chilly year round. Summer daytime temperatures are in the 80s and 90s, while winter days
are generally in the 40s and 50s. At an elevation of 3,628 feet, there is some snowfall
during the winter. We travel through this area as often as possible and would like to share
with you some of our favorite places. Bend Originally called Farewell
Bend, after a ranch by that name along the Deschutes River where weary wagon trains stopped
to rest while traveling to the Willamette Valley, the town name was later shortened to Bend
by a local postmaster, who thought the name too long and unwieldy. With today’s population
topping 50,000, Bend is the economic hub of central Oregon and provides just about any kind
of amenity a traveler could want. Dining out is a delight at more than 100 restaurants in
town. Outlet malls provide great shopping, and microbreweries offer tours and tasting. Golf
courses are plentiful, river rafting and fishing are popular activities, and during the
winter, you will find the best skiing in the Pacific Northwest only a few minutes out of
town at Mount Bachelor. A stop at the Visitor and Convention Bureau on the north end of
town can provide up-to-date information on what’s happening in the area. Check your 2003
Trailer Life Directory for local campgrounds. We often choose to camp in Bend and make our
side trips with our smaller vehicle. High Desert Museum Our favorite
activity while in this region is visiting the High Desert Museum, located about four miles
south of Bend on U.S. Highway 97. You won’t find moldy old exhibits here. This is an
exciting, interactive living-history museum where you, the visitor, are a participant. You
will spend time indoors and out as you explore and take part in the excellent presentations
depicting 10,000 years of local history. Outdoor trails take you past a number of living
creatures in natural habitats. During our last visit, the new “Birds of Prey” exhibit was
open and the museum staff was showing an enormous golden eagle. The young man demonstrating
the bird had it perched calmly on his arm, but we could imagine the damage it could do if
provoked. Farther down the trail, several docents were handling snakes, letting them coil
around their arms and necks, as a group of school kids watched in fascination. Inside the
spacious museum building, a volunteer demonstrates the old craft of rug-hooking. She
willingly hands the hoop to a visitor, eager to try it herself. Artwork lines the hallways,
and the Earle A. Chiles Center offers an exciting opportunity to walk through a number of
realistic dioramas interpreting the settlement of the American West. The Doris Swayze
Bounds collection of Native American artifacts brings “oohs” and “ahs” from visitors over
the exquisite beadwork on numerous pieces of Indian dress. You will enjoy gourmet coffee
and lunch at the Rimrock Café, and what’s a good trip without a bit of shopping? The Silver
Sage Trading Shop has a great selection of Native American jewelry and baskets, as well as
an enticing collection of books. With only a modest entrance fee, the High Desert Museum is
open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Newberry National Volcanic Monument It wasn’t until 1990 that this
volcanic area was designated a national monument, protecting it from geothermal development
and preserving its geologic and archaeological treasures for the public. We recommend a
stop at the visitor center, located 13 miles south of Bend off U.S. Highway 97, to find
interpretive trails and educational displays offering a good overall view of the 50,000
acres of volcanic lands in the monument. Drive to the top of the 500-foot Lava Butte (a
cinder cone formed 7,000 years ago) for spectacular views of the high-desert country.
Visitors may use the Golden Age Pass here. A mile south of the visitor center, off U.S. 97,
the Lava River Cave provides an opportunity to rent a lantern and walk through the
mile-long lava tube. At a constant temperature of 42 degrees F, the cave warrants a jacket
– and we hope you’re not afraid of bats. Drive approximately 10 miles farther south on U.S.
97 and turn east on Forest Service Road 21 to visit the Newberry Crater. Put on your sturdy
walking shoes and take the easy trail through a corner of the Big Obsidian Flow. Created by
an eruption 1,300 years ago, the shiny black obsidian casts an intriguing moonscape look
over a vast portion of the caldera. Just remember, this stuff is sharp and can cut like
glass, so be careful. Bring your fishing poles and drop a line into one of the two caldera
lakes, Paulina and East Lake. Both are rich in nutrients and grow enormous trout. Boat
rentals are available, and East Lake has an RV park with water and electric hookups.
Smith Rock State Park Located about 24 miles north of Bend off U.S. 97,
Smith Rock State Park has no campground, but you will find ample parking in the large
day-use area. Bring a picnic lunch, binoculars and a camera, and take an easy walk along
the Crooked River that flows at the base of a series of mammoth rock spires. Find a flat
rock in the sun and enjoy your lunch while you watch people from all over the world playing
Spider-Man on the steep rock walls. Keep your eyes open for a variety of wildlife,
including golden eagles and prairie falcons. Painted Hills The
late-afternoon sun turns spectacular mounds of earth to rich hues of red, purple, chocolate
and gold. Geometric designs in the colors look as though an early Native American artist
used a giant paintbrush to decorate the hillsides. Several short trails meander out around
the hills, and you will surely want to try your photographic skills at capturing the vivid
patterns of color and shadow. On weekends, weather permitting, a park ranger gives lectures
from noon to 2 p.m. To reach the Painted Hills, drive north on U.S. 97 to Redmond, then
east on State Highway 126 to Prineville, then northeast on U.S. Highway 26 to the Painted
Hills nine miles west of Mitchell in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Enjoy your
adventures in central Oregon, and don’t be surprised to find yourself singing with the wind
that spins its song across this hauntingly beautiful high-desert country.

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