A hike around and a boat ride on Crater Lake are quintessential experiences when visiting Central Oregon. // © 2015 iStock
Feature image (above): Climbers can tackle Oregon’s Smith Rock with help from local operator Smith Rock Climbing Guides. // © 2015 Tamara Gruber
There was a time when a family vacation meant a trip to the nearest beach. But these days, whether it is from a desire to stay active or to create treasured memories, families are seeking out more adventurous experiences. One location that is an adventure fantasyland — allowing families to experience nature’s magnificence while participating in activities for every age group and fitness level — is Central Oregon.
Part of the High Desert or Great Basin, Central Oregon is cradled between the Cascade Mountains to the west and Mount Hood and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the north. While considered a desert, this area is teeming with rivers and lakes including the Deschutes River and Crater Lake. Much of the landscape was formed from volcanic activity millions of years ago — black lava flows, extensive underground lava tubes, mountains and even lakes — resulting in so many opportunities for adventure.
Getting Wet On the Deschutes River
One of the few rivers in the country to run north, the Deschutes River runs flat and wide through downtown Bend, perfect for river tubing and stand-up paddleboarding. But just north of the city, the river turns to rapids in a section known as the Big Eddy. Sun Country Tours, with locations in Sunriver and Bend, outfits families for all levels of adventure. River tube rentals launch from the Old Mill District of Bend, with two-hour rentals starting at $10 for children 6-12 and $15 for ages 13 and up.
For children ages 10 and older, Sun Country Tours offers stand-up paddleboarding rentals and lessons. Lessons start at $55, and rentals begin at $20 for two hours.
More adventurous families will enjoy the Class III rapids on the Big Eddy Thriller. This two- to three-hour roundtrip tour includes transportation from Bend or Sunriver and just over an hour on the river. At $46 for children 6-12 and $53 for ages 13 and up, The Big Eddy Thriller offers just enough excitement to thrill adventure seekers, but not too much to intimidate beginning rafters.
Hiking Through Lava Fields
In the heart of Central Oregon is Newberry Volcanic National Monument and its Lava Lands Visitor Center. For a $5 vehicle fee, visitors can ascend the 500-foot Lava Butte, offering panoramic views of 1,200 square miles of blackened lava flows.
If it looks to you like a scene from the surface of the moon, you aren’t alone. This site was actually used as an astronaut-training ground prior to the first moon landing. While the views from the top are eye opening, it’s even better to get up close to the crumbling black rock of the lava fields. Visitors can hike out on a 5.5-mile paved path or join a guided tour from a forest ranger to learn more about the history and ecology of this ancient site.
Journeying to the Center of the Earth
Adventurers young and old will enjoy exploring underground lava tubes with Wanderlust Tours. Unlike the more commercial tours of caves and caverns, this small group tour allows visitors to set off underground with just headlamps to light the way. While learning about the history and geology of the area, kids will love crawling into crevices and tramping through the volcanic dust in these seemingly endless tubes.
Tours depart from Bend and run for three hours. It costs $55 for children ages 5-11 and $65 for family members who are 12 and older.
Scaling Mountains at Smith Rock
Just 30 minutes north of Bend is Smith Rock State Park, a perfect place for day hiking but also a famous rock climbing destination. For anyone who has considered trying outdoor rock climbing, this is an ideal place to start — but, first, they will need the services of a certified outfitter and instructor such as Smith Rock Climbing Guides. There are more than 1,000 climbs throughout the park, so expert guides will find the appropriate level of difficulty depending on a group’s experience and physical fitness.
Climbing at Smith Rock is open to all ages and abilities. Guided experiences begin at $65 per person for a half-day climbing adventure.
Swimming in the Deep
The one not-to-be-missed adventure in Central Oregon is a day trip to Crater Lake National Park. While it is easy to spend the day circumnavigating the lake’s rim road, stopping at the never-ending viewpoints to gape at the jaw-dropping vistas, there is even more adventure to be had.
There is only one hiking trail, Cleetwood Cove Trail, which winds about a mile down to the lake (and it is a steep one). At the bottom is a boat launch where visitors can go on tours of the lake and Wizard Island. Even those that don’t choose to take a boat tour can still enjoy the honor of swimming in the cold waters of the deepest lake in the country.
Consider booking families at the centrally located Sunriver Resort or in one of the 4,000 privately-owned residences in this community. Visitors can take advantage of 35 miles of bike paths, swimming pools, tennis courts, a nature center, an observatory, riding stables and even an expansive water park and recreation facility.