7 parks you must visit during your Bend vacation
Bend locals love to joke that there’s a new brewery opening every week or two in Bend, which isn’t far from the truth.
And while it’s true the legendary Bend Ale Trail helped put this city on the map, that map is also dotted with dozens of outdoor spaces devoted to Bend’s unquenchable need to play outside. It seems like every time I venture from my own backyard, I discover a Bend park that’s either brand new, or new to me.
Bend Park & Recreation District manages more than 80 of our local parks, which make up 2,600 acres of outdoor space that ranges from trails to playgrounds to off-leash areas for your furry friend. To put that into perspective, you could consult their online park directory every week to find a new park to frolic in, and you’d still be discovering new places to play after 18 months. That doesn’t even count state parks like Smith Rock or vast outdoor playgrounds like Newberry National Volcanic Monument.
But if you have a limited time in Bend and you want to see the best of the best, here’s my not-so-humble opinion of which Bend parks should make your shortlist.
This one’s a no-brainer, and if your Bend vacation time limits you to only one park, this is the one you should pick.
Drake Park spans 13 breathtaking acres along the Deschutes River in Downtown Bend, and you can stroll the entire length of it and discover a postcard-perfect view every three steps. It’s home to Mirror Pond, the scenic section of glassy river that inspired the name of Deschutes Brewery’s famous Mirror Pond Pale Ale.
A visit to Drake Park is a perfect accompaniment to a stroll through Bend’s historic Downtown. Grab a cup of coffee or a bowl of gelato, then mosey west until you reach the entry point along Franklin Avenue or through Mirror Pond Plaza.
Bonus: If your kids aren’t satisfied with tossing pine cones and frolicking in grassy fields, amble across the footbridge to adjacent Harmon Park. There, you’ll find a playground with an awesome centerpiece—a life-sized boat that’s been a fixture there for decades.
Not far downstream from Drake Park is its quieter cousin, Pioneer Park. One of Bend’s oldest parks, it boasts a covered group picnic area, formal rose garden, and tons of open lawn and riverfront woods. It’s a popular site for weddings, and was actually the runner up venue choice for my own nuptials a little over a year ago (keep reading to learn where we actually tied the knot).
What I love about Pioneer Park is that it feels a bit more tucked away and quiet. I like to go there with a picnic lunch, then wander north along the path until I reach First Street Rapids Park and its iconic footbridge.
Got a little extra energy to burn? Keep walking north along the Deschutes River Trail all the way to Sawyer Park. It’s a great spot for birdwatching, and for wandering a woodsy mix of juniper and pine and some of the coolest rock formations you’ll ever see.
Pilot Butte State Park
Bend is one of the only cities in the U.S. that boasts a dormant volcano in the city limits, and that’s Pilot Butte. A 500-foot cinder cone, Pilot Butte is part of the larger Pilot Butte State Park, which also includes a playground, running track, and expansive trails.
But you’re coming here for the views you’ll get from the top of this majestic peak, so start walking! In the warmer months (May through November) you can drive to the top, but hiking it is a great way to get your heart pumping and your body acclimated to the higher elevation in Bend.
The viewing area at the top is handy for orienting yourself to Bend and the surrounding areas. On a clear day, you get stunning views at the Cascade Mountains to the west, the Oregon Badlands Wilderness to the east, and all the little subdivisions and shopping areas scattered around the rest of the city.
Depending on your hiking speed, you should be able to make it up and down in about an hour, so try timing it out to reward yourself afterward with a burger at Pilot Butte Drive In.
Pine Nursery Park
One of Bend’s most expansive parks, Pine Nursery Park offers a little (or a lot!) of everything. This 159-acre whopper of a park boasts softball fields, soccer fields, pickleball courts, a disc golf course, a fishing pond, a playground, and a 14-acre dog park known as the Bob Wenger Memorial Off-Leash Area.
I’ll confess a certain fondness for this park since it’s about 200 yards from my front door, so I quite literally walk here every day. But even when I used to have to drive here, I used to do so at least a couple times a week.
My dog goes nuts for the Off-Leash Area and its cool spray park, woodsy trails, and endless fields for fetching. My step-kids love the paved trails for bike riding and skateboarding, which they usually enjoy en route to the brand-spanking-new playground. Our whole family loves the pickleball courts, and the fact that the four of us can usually find a court and play for free pretty much any day of the week.
Bonus: Bend tourists tend to stick to the uber-popular Westside of town, but Pine Nursery is on the Northeast side where very few vacationers venture. In other words, this is a good spot to visit if you want to see Bend from a slightly less-touristy angle.
Tumalo State Park
As you probably gathered from the name, this is a state park, rather than one operated by Bend Parks & Rec. Also worth noting: Tumalo State Park and Tumalo Falls are NOT the same thing, and in fact, are separated by about 15 miles).
But Tumalo State Park is the aforementioned site of my Sept. 2014 wedding, and for good reason. The day use area spans some of the most breathtaking riverfront acreage you could ever hope to see, and the adjacent campground allows you to park your tent just a few hundred yards away.
Fishing, birdwatching, looking for deer, or just lazing around on the riverbank are all great options here. It’s a terrific spot for a small family picnic or a big event like a wedding or family reunion (which require only a small fee and a reservation to ensure you have dibs).
Tumalo State Park is also a great place to visit year-round, whether you’re strolling the river banks in your puffy coat during the winter months, or wading in the Deschutes on a sunny day in August. Campsites book up fast at the nearby campground, so plan ahead and book a reservation if you hope to stay the night.
Another cherished Bend park that’s been part of the community since the 1920s, Shevlin Park offers a terrific mix of undeveloped forest and developed picnic areas, along with historic Aspen Hall (the site of many local weddings and family events).
It’s a popular spot for snowshoeing when the white stuff blankets the ground in winter months, and trail runners are especially fond of its elaborate network of great running routes.
Pick this park if you want a little room to spread out and explore with your mountain bike, cross country skis, or running shoes. If you’re here in the fall, this is an incredible spot to watch the aspens change color.
While “beautiful” is certainly an adjective that describes Riverbend Park, it’s actually not the first one that comes to mind for me. “Convenient,” is how I’d describe this sprawling expanse of riverfront property along the Deschutes River Trail.
The sandy beach in the middle of it is the most common spot for river floaters, kayakers, and SUPers to put in during the warm months. From there, you can paddle upstream toward Farewell Bend Park (which has a terrific playground), or drift downstream toward the amazing Bend Whitewater Park.
But even if you’re not looking to hop in the water, there’s plenty to do here. Stroll along the paved path to reach the Old Mill District for a bite of lunch or a bit of shopping. Walk the opposite direction for a stunning look at towering basalt cliffs lining the edge of the Deschutes River Trail.
If you have your pooch in tow, wander over to the fenced off-leash area to let Fido frolic for a bit. Then plop down in the grass and read a good book or let the kids tear around like wild banshees on the riverbank.