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In summer, Bend, Ore., fills to the brim with people. Locals and visitors alike take to the Deschutes River, which almost disappears under the cover of inner-tubes, canoes and stand-up paddleboards. Fans of the hoppy stuff vie for outdoor seating at the city’s many breweries, and masses of hikers, mountain bikers and kayakers soak in endless vitamin D.
Winter months here, however, are much quieter in comparison thanks to sparser crowds and, as a result, more space to roam. Yet, the season is just as magnificent: The peaks of the Cascade Mountains are blanketed by fresh powder, and early mornings exhibit pink-hued skies and a twinkling layer of ice on foliage. And there’s still plenty of sunshine — Bend lays claim to the highest number of sunny days in the state of Oregon.
Below are a few of the top things to do when discovering Bend in its winter season. (Bonus: During my recent travels to Bend, I found that its residents are exceedingly warm and generous to visitors, as well as passionate about their craft and city.)
Get a Lay of the LandWhen it comes to showcasing the best of Bend, there’s not much that The Bend Tour Company can’t do. Equipped with the help of its local operator partners, the company has nearly every possible Bend experience under its belt, from craft-beer fun and off-road adventures to an escape room modeled after an 1864 trapper’s cabin.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Visit Bend Oregon (@visitbend) on Dec 30, 2019 at 12:27pm PST
A post shared by Visit Bend Oregon (@visitbend) on Dec 30, 2019 at 12:27pm PST
But if clients are stepping foot in Bend for the first time, I recommend booking one of its Bend City Sights Tours. Bret Graham, founder of The Bend Tour Company, led my eCruiser City Sights Tour of Bend, during which I was whisked around the city on an open-air electric car (be sure to bundle up accordingly).
Charismatic and outgoing, Graham — like all the guides he hires — has the formula of a great tour down pat: one part ability to educate and one part ability to entertain. On our approximately two-hour ride around town, he shared must-see spots, such as Bend’s Art in Public Places project that showcases sculptures at roundabouts. (Look out for the “Phoenix Rising,” which locals have affectionately nicknamed “The Flaming Chicken.”)
Try Out a Snowshoe TourA well-informed naturalist guide interprets the environment while snowshoes allow for off-trail exploration during Wanderlust Tours’ daily medley of snowshoe tours. For those who opt for the local operator’s popular Bonfire Snowshoe Tours, they’ll put on headlamps in addition to snowshoes and make their way to a hand-carved “snow amphitheater.” Upon arrival, they can sip on hot cocoa (spiked with Crater Lake vodka) and nibble on a local dessert from Sparrow Bakery, all while learning facts about the surrounding forest.
I chose a daytime snowshoeing tour, where I was lucky to have the mastermind behind Wanderlust Tours at the helm. Dave Nissen — who founded the company in 1993 and occasionally still leads tours — was thoroughly in his element as he energetically bounded off-trail and into Mt. Bachelor’s fleecy wilderness, with me cautiously following suit. With the sweet scent of subalpine fir trees in the air, Nissen explained the subnivean zone, which is the area between the ground’s surface and the bottom of the snowpack, where creatures retreat and seek shelter. He also pointed out tracks of pine marten and shared the weasel-like animal’s history of being hunted for its prized silk fur.
We continued to clomp our snowshoes over chunky snowbanks and deeper still into the thick of the forest. Every so often, we would stop to catch our breath and further discuss our ethereal setting — like how the soaring native mountain hemlock trees owe their exceptional height and structure to cellulose, which is found in all plants and trees. The organic compound also enables mountain hemlocks to sway in heavy winds and withstand the forces of Mother Nature, which can be especially daunting in Bend.
“Everything on Earth has to adapt to stay alive,” Nissen told me, his eyes bright with excitement.
Besides the interactive lesson in field biology, I tested my bravado by running (read: clunking) downhill, culminating in a snowy landing. I also tried leaping into the air from the top of another hill — especially difficult when weighed down by snowshoes — which capped off the memorable experience.
Learn About the High DesertFar from an average museum, the High Desert Museum is situated on 135 acres and features more than 100,000 square feet of thoughtfully curated, engaging exhibits. A stopover here is sure to be immersive, no matter a client’s age. Prickly yet adorable porcupines were among the first animals to greet me during my visit, before I made my way over to the Donald M Kerr Birds of Prey Center, which houses an impressive bunch of eagles, owls, vultures, falcons and hawks.
At the Autzen Otter Exhibit, playful resident otters Rogue, Brook and Pitch seemed to show off while dipping in and out of the water. (Note: All animals at the exhibit are humanely treated. They cannot be released into the wild due to previous injuries, for example.)
Permanent exhibits including “Spirit of the West” and “By Hand Through Memory” invite guests to embark on moving journeys through their realistic portrayals of history and the present day. Spirit of the West, for example, details scenes such as a trapper’s camp, while By Hand Through Memory offers an intimate look into the lives of Plateau Indian Nations that inhabit the high desert between the Rocky Mountains and the coastal mountain system.
“Infinite Moment: Burning Man on the Horizon,” which will run through Oct. 4, 2020, is a temporary exhibition that clients won’t want to miss. Created by staff at the High Desert Museum in partnership with the Burning Man organization, the pieces will be interactive and illustrate the thriving creative community that attends the annual event in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
Take a Brewery TourMany folks have jovially dubbed Bend “Beer Disneyland” for good reason — after all, there are more than 33 breweries spanning the city. But if clients want to get to know the OG beer spot, they should prioritize Deschutes Brewery.
Established in 1888, Deschutes’ Public House is a popular fixture in the downtown culinary scene. Besides beer, it specializes in locally sourced and seasonal ingredients; popular dishes include the elk burger and a housemade pretzel that’s dipped in creamy Tillamook white-cheddar cheese. Beer options are, of course, abundant and include Deschutes’ beloved Black Butte Porter, Obsidian Stout and Mirror Pond Pale Ale.
Those curious about the inner workings of brewing will appreciate a tour at Deschutes’ production facility. Recommended to be booked in advance, the one-hour brewery tours are offered daily and take guests throughout the facility. Clients will get a fun peek into how the magic happens, including the mechanics of a beer bottling assembling line and how certain employees partake in sensory analysis testing and palate training. I particularly enjoyed seeing 30-plus years of seasonal labels for Jubelale, which are created annually by different Oregon artists.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Deschutes Brewery (@deschutesbrewery) on Nov 27, 2019 at 11:42am PST
A post shared by Deschutes Brewery (@deschutesbrewery) on Nov 27, 2019 at 11:42am PST
Bonus: While walking around, you’ll get to sip on a brew that may be a longtime customer favorite or an exciting, newly released offering. Deschutes’ tasting room awaits guests afterward, where they can indulge in beer, just tapped from the source.
Go Wine TastingIf beer isn’t your clients’ nectar of choice, perhaps they’ll choose to warm up with a wine tasting. Open since August 2019, Bledsoe Family Winery’s Bend tasting room serves world-class varieties from Oregon’s grape-prolific Walla Walla Valley in a gorgeous, welcoming atmosphere. The 3,953-square-foot indoor-outdoor space features elevated design in fashionably neutral hues, save for colorful floral arrangements, and guests can brave the cold by gathering around outdoor firepits.
And if the owner’s name, Drew Bledsoe, sounds familiar, that’s because he’s the same Drew Bledsoe who played 14 seasons in the NFL, most notably for the New England Patriots. Bledsoe operates Bledsoe Family Winery alongside his wife, Maura Bledsoe, and winemaker Josh McDaniels, and the Bend tasting room is the winery’s first location outside its 160 acres in Walla Walla.
I found that the establishment’s superb wine is coupled with even better service: Mike Enright, Bledsoe Family Winery’s enigmatic hospitality supervisor, waxed poetic about each wine that I sipped — his passion evident (and infectious) in every anecdote he shared.
On my visit, on deck for the tasting selection were the 2018 Elizabeth Chardonnay, with notes of Bosc pear and tropical fruit; the 2017 Flying B Cabernet, both smokey and fruity; and the 2017 Stolen Syrah, rich and balanced in flavor. Last but not least was the 2017 Bledsoe Family Wine, whose combination of cherries, coffee, cobbler, dried herbs and blackberries convinced me to bring home a bottle.
Hit the SlopesSuggesting skiing or snowboarding might seem like a cop-out for a winter activity, but it’s a seasonal classic for a reason. And the slopes at Mt. Bachelor are especially spectacular, as they’re bookended by the snowcapped perennial trees that comprise the Deschutes National Forest.
Not to mention, Mt. Bachelor offers one of the six biggest ski areas found in the U.S., including seven high-speed lifts and up to 3,365 feet of downhill skiing. Yet it remains somewhat under the radar when compared with ski destinations such as those in Colorado, California and Utah. Despite skiing on the first weekend of Mt. Bachelor’s ski season, I always had plenty of space to hit the slopes enjoyably.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Visit Bend Oregon (@visitbend) on Dec 15, 2019 at 7:05am PST
A post shared by Visit Bend Oregon (@visitbend) on Dec 15, 2019 at 7:05am PST
Clients will find that there’s a true sense of respect for the mountain, too. It’s not dotted with condo developments, slope-side lodging and the like; instead, the team behind Mt. Bachelor strives to preserve the wilderness’ integrity and the core offerings of a ski resort.