8 family-friendly hikes in Bend and Central Oregon
Driving along a country road Sunday afternoon, I heard a voice from the backseat.
“Thank you so much for taking us on that hike. It was really fun.”
The voice belonged to my 14-year-old stepson, and those of you with teenagers know it’s kind of a big deal to have anything declared “fun” when it doesn’t include electronic devices or friends.
But the hike was fun, which got us talking about other fun family hikes we’ve done around Central Oregon over the last five years. There were tons. But we narrowed it to a few of our faves, as voted upon by Cedar and his 10-year-old sister, Violet.
And the grownups. We sometimes get a vote, too.
Alder Springs Trail
Let’s start with the hike that inspired my stepson’s comment last weekend, since it’s the newest one in our repertoire.
The Alder Springs Trail hike offers stunning glimpses of high desert landscapes with sagebrush-dotted plateaus and sweeping vistas in all directions. Unlike some of my other favorite desert-centric hikes (i.e. the Oregon Badlands Wilderness), this one has water thrown in, which makes it nicer for both kids and pets.
There’s a bit of elevation here, but don’t let that stop you. En route down toward Whychus Creek, we passed two families with kids around five or six and one mom with a toddler in a backpack. While laziness and an abundance of caution (not to mention the fact that I don’t actually have a toddler) would preclude me from doing that, you’ll do fine with kids in the 7+ age range.
It’s about 1.5 miles from the trailhead down to Whychus Creek, which is an excellent spot for a picnic. Many folks opt to wade through the river and keep hiking another 1.5 miles to reach the confluence of Whychus Creek and the Deschutes River, but springtime flows made the water a bit too deep and swift to risk it with the 10-year-old. But there was still plenty to see, especially on the hike back up when we detoured toward the old bridge site for more awesome access to Whychus Creek.
The adventure took us about three hours, plus about 90 minutes of total drive time. Be aware that the road leading to the trailhead is pretty rutted, and that there are no bathroom facilities anywhere nearby. Make a potty stop in Sisters or plan on holding it for a little while. The folks at Cascade Hiking Adventures offer great, detailed directions for reaching this area, so go here to check those out.
Tamolitch Pool (aka Blue Pool)
Where the Alder Springs hike offers the best of high desert scenery, Tamolitch Pool covers the opposite base with an abundance of towering, mossy trees and damp earth. Getting here requires a drive of about 1.5 hours southwest of Bend, but that makes it a perfect day trip (especially when you reward everyone with a soak afterward at nearby Belknap Hot Springs, which is much more kid-friendly than lots of hot springs you’ll find around Oregon).
But back to the hike. There are two potential starting points, and while the one beginning at the Koosah Falls parking area offers the bonus of waterfall views, 8+ miles of hiking might be a bit much for families with younger kids in tow. Personally, I prefer to start from the trailhead near Carmen Reservoir or Trailbridge Reservoir, which reduces your hiking time by roughly half, but still gives you plenty of great river and forest scenery to savor.
The end result is the same either way, with glorious views of the Blue Pool (which really is as blue as it looks in photos). Bring a snack and sit on a log or boulder near the rim to enjoy the views while nibbling your cheese and crackers. Expect the kids to sleep well on the drive back to Bend.
If your time is limited and you don’t feel like driving far to enjoy a Bend hike, Pilot Butte is the ticket. It has the bonus cool factor of being a dormant volcano, making Bend one of the only cities in the U.S. with a volcano in the city limits (and providing bragging rights for your kids when they return to school and tell their friends, “yeah, I hiked a volcano. . . I’m kind of a big deal.”)
This 500-foot cinder cone offers a couple different routes to the top. The unpaved trail is steeper and gets you to the top a minute or two faster, but with one kid prone to dust-inspired asthma attacks, we usually opt to hike alongside the paved road. It’s closed to motorized vehicles between November(ish) and April(ish) depending on snowfall, so if you’re hiking between those months, feel free to let the kids run wild in the road. Otherwise, you’ll want to herd everyone into the shoulder to keep them safe from speeding cars.
Regardless of how you get to the summit, plan on spending a little time up there to savor the 360-degree views. When the kids were younger, we used to bring a container of bubbles to blow in all directions so they could chase them as they floated along the wind.
I suspect the 14-year-old wouldn’t find that quite as cool these days.
Deschutes River Trail
This is another good option for families who prefer not to drive far from a Bend home base to reach the trailhead. Your distance depends on your starting point. The main trail starts at the Meadow Camp picnic area just off Century Drive. You can access a lot of other trailheads off FS road 41, so pick your starting point and your route depending on your family’s skill and endurance.
To keep it nice and short, try the Meadow Camp to Lava Island hike, which clocks in at just over a mile. If you’re game for a bigger hike, you can hoof it all the way from Meadow Camp to Benham Falls, passing Lava Island Falls, Aspen Camp, and Dillon Falls along the way. That one will require about 8.5 miles of hiking, so plan accordingly.
The nice thing is that you can set out from Meadow Camp and decide along the way what you feel up to. If everyone’s still feeling strong after a couple miles, keep going. If someone in your party (possibly a parent) has a temper tantrum meltdown after mile one, just head back. Easy-peasy!
No matter how far you go, you’ll be treated to splendid views of the Deschutes River and the towering ponderosas and lava rocks that line the trail. This is a pretty well-trafficked trail, so expect crowds if you set out in the middle of summer.
Waterfall hikes are a big hit with kids, and this one is another favorite for my family. The kids love the winding, woodsy trails and the fact that they get to see not one, but two magnificent waterfalls along the loop.
While the trails are fairly well-maintained, there are some spots where you’ll have to scramble a bit, so keep that in mind if you have teeny-tiny kids or anyone in the party who isn’t sure-footed. But the fact that this is a fairly short hike (1.5 miles) and the fact that it’s a loop instead of an in-and-back hike makes it a great choice for families.
Be sure you have plenty of space on your camera for this one, as the biggest set of falls is touted as the most photographed waterfall in the whole state. Our local paper, The Bulletin, had a great piece a few years ago on visiting Proxy Falls from Bend, complete with handy directions. You can check that out here.
Another good choice for the waterfall chasers, Steelhead Falls has the added bonus of being handy to combine with a visit to Smith Rock State Park, since both are near Terrebonne about 20 miles north of Bend on Highway 97.
This is a relatively short but scenic hike, and another one like Alder Springs that highlights more of Central Oregon’s desert landscape. The hike from the trailhead to the main waterfall is a little over a mile that winds down a gorge dotted with sagebrush and ancient juniper. In summer months, the trail can be packed with people looking to swim in the peaceful waters just downstream from the falls.
I prefer doing this one in the springtime when most of the folks you’ll encounter are fishing quietly along the riverbank. Tread carefully if you go when there’s still a threat of ice or snow. Once you reach the waterfall, spread out a blanket for a picnic, and give the kids a chance to chuck rocks into the foaming, churning water.
For terrific, detailed driving details, check out the hike description from Cascade Hiking Adventures.
Smith Rock State Park
This one is nice to combine with the aforementioned Steelhead Falls hike to make it a full day of hiking in two different areas, or you can do it all by itself for a shorter day.
Smith Rock State Park is regarded as one of the seven wonders of Oregon, and for good reason. Towering basalt cliffs, gorgeous river views, and jaw-dropping landscapes will leave even the not-easily-impressed members of your family staring in wonder at the incredible views.
There are lots of spots to hike around this 651-acre state park, so you can choose whatever fits your family’s skill level. If you want to keep it simple, opt for an easy 2.5 mile stroll on flat ground along the River Trail from the park bridge to Monkey Face (which really does look like a monkey’s face!)
If you’re feeling more ambitious, hike up the Misery Ridge Trail (elevation 3,360 feet) for killer views of the entire Central Oregon Cascade mountain range.
You’ll find longer and shorter hikes, and even the opportunity to try a little sport climbing if you book with a skilled climbing guide (many of whom are happy to work with families of all ages).
And no matter which hike or climb you choose, make sure to stop along the way and stare at the river for a few minutes. Odds are good you’ll be rewarded by views of river otters frolicking in the cool water.
One of Central Oregon’s quintessential Bend experiences, Tumalo Falls has the added bonus of being close to town. Depending on how far you choose to hike, you can cross this one off your bucket list in just a couple hours (including drive time and hiking time).
That’s assuming you go in the late-spring through early-fall when FS Road 4603 isn’t closed. If you show up before the road opens for the season, you’ll need to add another couple miles of hiking, which isn’t the worst thing in the world considering how beautiful this area is.
But assuming you show up at a time of year when you can park right at the trailhead, you’ve got a whopping hike of about 200 yards to reach the first waterfall viewpoint. That’s stunning, and maybe it’s plenty if you’ve got a young baby or you’re tired out from other hikes.
But if you have a bit more energy, it’s only a five-minute hike to the top of the falls, which offers another awesome viewpoint of this shimmering 89-foot curtain of rushing water. Want to keep going? Hoof it for another mile or two before turning back, or head all the way to Happy Valley for a four-mile out-and-back hike you won’t forget.
If you’re hiking in springtime, keep in mind the snow can take a while to melt, so wear hiking boots instead of Tevas if you’re here in May or even June. But for the most part, there’s not much elevation gain to this hike, so it’s a good one for families who don’t want to do lots of climbing.