Destination: Bend, Oregon

Central Oregon’s playground of a city serves mild and wild adventures alike with a side of sun, scenery and frothy, cold beer

Smack dab in the middle of Oregon, the town of Bend bustles with energy. Its high desert landscape, with a clear river, big mountains, and scenic trails attract year-round adventurers—trail runners, skiers, mountain bikers, paddlers, cyclists, climbers, hikers, equestrians, and more—and a burgeoning population. In spite of growing pains from decades of sustained growth, Bend still feels like a small town.

A view of the Central Oregon Mountains overlooking Bend. Photo: Jess Barnard

Beyond in-town attractions—63-plus miles of trails, local eateries, more than two dozen breweries, open air concerts—crystal lakes, high peaks, sagebrush, and volcanic rock beckon in plentiful sunshine. Even locals rarely tire of the countless scenic adventures within an hour’s drive or less.

As for those 63-plus miles of trails, they are a local point of pride. Over decades, a strong coalition of outdoor enthusiasts, led by the mountain biking community and including trail runners, has formed to advocate for and maintain an impressive multi-use network.

“We treasure trails more than anything else,” says Teague Hatfield, owner of FootZone, Bend’s local running store. “We are all the same. We like to recreate on dirt.”

Hatfield moved to Bend in 1995 to open FootZone and has fostered the local running community ever since. While the ever-evolving running scene has grown, he says, running is just one of the many sports practiced by Bend’s active population. Bend is home to “Hero athletes who are community oriented,” such as pro runners Max King and Stephanie Howe, he says, but also “a lot of people who just want to find fitness in their lives.”

Flatlanders beware: Bend sits at 3,623 feet above sea level. If you go, you may feel the effects of altitude running, or even just sitting, with shortness of breath, stomach issues, or fatigue; it’s best to stay hydrated, fueled, and within your limits. Try running by feel, not pace, to make the most of a trip.

The Deschutes River Trail offers miles of singletrack bliss as it snakes through Bend. Photo: Jess Barnard

Highlighted Runs

Deschutes River Trail

The Deschutes River curves through town, and an evolving trail system runs alongside it. Eventually, a 19-mile system will create a route from Tumalo State Park to Sunriver along the banks. For now, one option is to start at the Old Mill District (former home to two ponderosa pine mills and current site of a shopping and dining center); a mix of paved and gravel trails run on both sides of the river, and bridges allow for convenient loops. For a surprisingly wild-feeling run along rapids, try the 5-mile loop from near Les Schwab Amphitheater. Starting on either side of the river, run south to a wooden footbridge, cross, and circle back on the other side. For a 3-mile sampler, start at Farewell Park and run south to the bridge and back. In summer months, the river teems with people on colorful floaties—a nice post-run activity.

For more secluded, quiet trails, find additional access to the Deschutes River Trail near Inn at the Seventh Mountain and Sunriver, two resorts between Bend and its closest lift-operated skiing destination, Mount Bachelor.

Shevlin Park

Trail runners love this mecca west of Bend. It features 647 acres of old growth trees and a web of hilly trails that parallel Tumalo Creek and crisscross the secluded canyon. Watch for birds, elk, bears, and even cougars. FootZone’s Hatfield has run more than an estimated thousand loops around Shevlin, but has yet to think, “Oh, this is boring.” Try the 6-mile (one way) Loop Trail canyon-rim route.

Pilot Butte

Tackle the mile run (or hike) with 500 feet of elevation gain to the top of this old cinder cone (choose between pavement or dirt paths) and you’ll earn an incredible vantage point from the east side of town. Take in views of the Cascade Mountain Range to the west. Connect with the Larkspur Trail to the north or south to add on additional miles. Don’t forget to start and stop your run-tracking device if you’re inclined to create cool-looking Strava art. If you’re up for the real Pilot Butte challenge, swing by Pilot Butte Drive-In before your hike; eat an 18-ounce burger, fries, and a shake—as fast as possible—and then run to the top—also as fast as possible.

Oregon Badlands Wilderness

East of town, the Oregon Badlands Wilderness area features 30,000 preserved acres of nature to explore. Ideal to visit from September through June, especially when trails in town may be covered in snow, this pristine wilderness holds lava flows, ancient trees (western junipers that are over 1,000 years old), and a range of remote trails. If you’re prepared to pack water and supplies in and waste out, try the 5-mile Flatiron Rock trail. A note for this adventure: the trailhead has no amenities such as water or bathrooms.

Cruising along the Crooked River in Smith Rock State Park. Photo: Tyler Roemer

Smith Rock

Outside of town in Terrebonne, Smith Rock is an intriguing geologic formation that’s become a climbing hub. Its trail system delivers off-road vert, plus abundant cross training and/or people-watching options in the warmer months. The 7.2-mile Smith Rock Summit Loop affords spectacular views of the majestic rock spires that are popular among climbers.

Local Flavor

World-class runner and native Oregonian Max King moved to Bend for a pharmaceutical engineering job after college. “I couldn’t think of a better place to work and live than Bend,” says King, who’d experienced Bend’s epic landscape as a summer intern. Now a professional runner for Salomon, among other sponsors, King has created a lifestyle around fitness and running. He trains and races competitively, works part-time as a FootZone ambassador, raises two kids with his wife, and adventures year-round as a mountain athlete. His accolades include the 2014 IAU 100k World Championship title, 2011 World Mountain Running Championship title, and regularly placing on the podium at Sky Running, trail, ultra and obstacle races. “I’ve come to love running over the years, the longer I’ve been doing it, but I’ve always had that competitive desire to race and beat people even when I didn’t enjoy running,” says King, who started running competitively in seventh grade. Two years ago, he founded the Max King Trail Running Camp. King designs youth and adult sessions to foster skills and passion for trail running and nature stewardship.

Bend Buzz

While AirBnB, VRBO and resort lodging options proliferate, reserve a room at the Old St. Francis School Hotel downtown. McMenamins, a family-owned company that restores historic locations throughout the Pacific Northwest, turned this 1936 Catholic schoolhouse into a hotel, pub, brewery, and movie theater. Relax in the soaking pool, explore recently renovated “secret” spaces (including the Broom Closet bar), and peruse school memorabilia. Recommended orders include a Rubinator (a combination of McMenamins’ Terminator Stout and Ruby Ale) and Cajun tots.

Local Eats and Sips

Post-run hot spots proliferate, but do not miss The Sparrow Bakery’s Ocean Rolls—flaky breakfast treats that frequently sell out. Baked with a foundation of croissant dough and flavored with sugar, cardamom and vanilla, they pair perfectly with dark coffee or a latte.

Additional breakfast and brunch choices include McKay Cottage and Jackson’s Corner.

For a locavore’s take on international cuisine, try Spork—which caters to vegans, gluten-free diets, and all walks of foodies with fresh takes on hearty dishes from almost every continent for lunch and dinner. Think: chilaquiles, curry, and short ribs. Try the on-trend drinking vinegars for surprisingly palatable experience. Other delicious dining options include Brother John’s Public House and Alehouse, fast-casual Parilla, and Wild Rose Thai.

Community Knowledge

Central Oregon Running Klub, Bend’s preeminent running group, forms a pillar of the local scene. CORK, as it’s known, hosts weekly runs around town, a XC series, winter hot chocolate runs, trail races, and even a monthly pub run in conjunction with FootZone. Pub run destinations vary, including breweries and distilleries, so you can sample Bend’s most delicious drinks, from 10 Barrel, Crux, Sunriver, Worthy, and more.

Start your week off right with Bend Area Running Fraternity, a self-named “group of drinkers with a running problem,” on Mondays for a 3.5-mile all-comer’s run from Atlas Cider Company.

If you’re looking to test your legs and lungs, join an all-abilities workout for Tuesday Performance Group lead by Max King. Workouts vary, but will include intervals or hills with options tailored to your preference and fitness—plus free insight from an elite runner.

Go Fast

Arguably the most quintessentially Oregon of all races in the state, the Pole Pedal Paddle (May 19, 2018) is a six-leg, multi-sport event that includes alpine downhill, cross-country skiing, road cycling, water paddling, and—yes—running. A 5-mile running portion covers the Deschutes River Trail, and a separate half-mile sprint anchors the relay. ­­Try it solo or with friends to test your mettle.

The Heaven Can Wait 5k (June 3, 2018), a two-decade-long tradition, was founded by breast cancer survivor Charlene Levesque to raise funds and awareness about early detection. The flat, fun course starts and finishes in Drake Park.

The challenging Cascade Lakes Relay (August 4-5, 2018) covers 216 breath-takingly beautiful miles from Diamond Lake, around Mt. Bachelor, and into Bend. Teeming with camaraderie, it’s a runner-friendly, logistically-dialed race of 37 legs, traditionally run by self-supported teams of 12. 

Dirty Half (June 2018) was Bend’s first trail race, and now welcomes up to 500 racers every summer in the high desert forest. It benefits the Deschutes Land Trust, and continues to deliver a fun, community-oriented vibe.

For a quick-hitting relay experience, the Beer Chase (June 2, 2018) is a 50-mile, 12-leg challenge that runs from a Bend brewery to Sisters, a nearby town, and back to Bend for a Keg Leg—a final stretch that stops at seven breweries. If you’d rather skip the long stuff and get straight to drinking, you can sign up for the Keg Leg itself.

Elizabeth Carey
Based in Seattle, Washington, Elizabeth Carey is a freelance writer with nearly two decades of experience in the running and outdoor industries. She enjoys running trails, is part of the Oiselle Volée, and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @elizabethwcarey.