Updated February 17, 2022
When Visit Bend’s data geeks track our most popular posts, the ones spotlighting Central Oregon waterfalls top every list. If you’ve seen some of these beauties up close, you’re not surprised.
Bend adventurers of all ages, backgrounds, genders, fitness levels, and interests adore the sight of water rushing over towering cliffs and rocky flumes. From tall, splashy splendors to more subdued chutes, Here’s a roundup of favorite hiking trails with the best waterfalls in Bend and Central Oregon.
Bend’s most popular waterfall tops the list for lots of reasons, not the least of which is its proximity to Bend. You can reach the trailhead by driving less than 30 minutes from Downtown, leaving lots of time in your day for other adventures.
At nearly 100 feet tall, this splendor along Tumalo Creek adorns the cover of countless guide books and magazines. In warmer months, the viewpoint to see the main waterfall is only a few steps from where you’ll park. Hoof it to the viewpoint for a quick snapshot, then keep walking along the trail to see the falls from several different vantage points. It’s a bit tougher to reach in winter months when the road is closed about two miles from the normal parking area, but it’s a pleasant enough hike and well worth a little extra effort to reach it.
Want to keep going past the first viewpoint? As you hike upstream, you’ll encounter several smaller waterfalls along the trail. It can be dicey in the winter months, and snowshoes are a good idea if the snowpack is high. When summer rolls around, you can walk four miles to Happy Valley before retracing your steps for a second look at all the majestic beauty.
Tumalo Falls is easy to reach if you follow Galveston Avenue through the roundabout until it turns into Skyliner Road. Cruise for a little over 10 miles until you see Forest Service Road 4601 on your right. The season and the snowfall will determine how far you can get on the gravel road from there, but it ends in 2.5 miles just 50 feet from the waterfall.
Some might argue Wizard Falls on the Metolius River Trail isn’t a waterfall in the strictest sense of the word. It’s a chute-style falls that looks more like a set of rapids descending over a ledge in the river. But what a set of rapids! The greenish-turquoise hue of the water here looks otherworldly, and yep – that’s truly its color and not a trick of Photoshop.
Besides the falls, there’s plenty to see along this stretch of the Metolius, from the Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery to the stunning spot where the river springs out from beneath a mossy hillside at the base of Black Butte. Start here and snap a few photos of this magical phenomenon before continuing on toward the West Metolius Trailhead. From there, take a two-mile hike scoping out gushing springs, towering ponderosa pines, and killer river views.
Keep going until you reach the Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery where you can peer into the open-air concrete ponds and even buy a handful of fish food to feed them. Close by is where you’ll spot Wizard Falls itself, so save time in your day’s agenda for snapping pics or savoring a picnic with some of the most epic views around.
Benham, Dillon, and Lava Island Falls
Bend’s mighty Deschutes River boasts three major waterfalls in fairly close proximity to one another, and each one is special in its own way.
The best-known and largest of the three is Benham Falls. Here, the river stair-steps over rocks and ledges as it chugs along through a rocky gorge. The short hike to access it takes you through a lovely pine forest where you’ll enjoy the twitter of birds and the rush of whitewater. Don’t expect the sort of tall, cascading waterfall you’ll see at Tumalo Falls, but do expect a glorious stretch of churning whitewater and lovely views.
The second most popular waterfall along the Deschutes River Trail is Dillon Falls. Like Benham, it’s a more gradual drop of churning whitewater, as opposed to a lengthy cascade plummeting over a cliff. You’ll see a lot more lava features here, and some pretty spectacular views of the surrounding gorge. The sunsets here can be amazing, so bring your camera if you’re visiting near the end of the day.
Lava Island Falls is the least-known of the three, and it’s tricky to access due to steep, dangerous trails and a bunch of private homes lining the edges of the river. That said, it may be the most scenic of the bunch, with a two-stepped cascade dropping about 15 feet and a second channel that’s a little smaller.
The Deschutes River Trail System is probably your easiest access point for these waterfalls. Start at Meadow Camp, which you’ll reach by driving out Century Drive like you’re headed toward Mt. Bachelor. Hang a left on Forest Service Road 41 and follow the signs to reach the waterfall of your choice.
This waterfall is technically closer to Terrebonne than it is to Bend, but it’s well worth a short drive to reach it. (Bonus: You can combine this with a visit to Smith Rock State Park, which is a must-see when you’re in Central Oregon).
The hike from the trailhead to the main waterfall takes you a little over a mile through a winding gorge dotted with sagebrush and ancient juniper. In the summer months, it’s bustling with people looking to swim in the peaceful waters just downstream from the falls. During chillier months, you’ll still see a lot of anglers casting a line in the water and reeling in some pretty impressive fish.
This waterfall is one of my personal faves, and when my kiddos were young, the spent hours standing at the top chucking rocks into churning water. Tread with caution if it’s icy or snowy, but it’s an easy hike most of the year. If you have time, bring a picnic lunch and look for a flat spot to spread your blanket.
To get there, head north on Highway 97 and drive a little over 20 miles until you reach the town of Terrebonne. Turn left on Lower Bridge Way and follow it 2.1 miles before turning right onto NW 43rd. After 1.7 miles, go left on Chinook Drive until you see Badger Road on your left about a mile up. You should see a sign at this point directing you to Steelhead Falls, which requires another mile on Quail Road and a mile or so on River Road.
This is another waterfall that’s a bit tougher to get to in the winter months, but it’s totally worth it if you’re up for a couple extra miles of hiking. Paulina Falls is 80-feet tall and surrounded by dramatic volcanic cliffs created from sheets of hot ash and pumice formed during eruptions more than 75,000 years ago.
One thing I love about this waterfall is that you can check it out from the upper viewpoint, which is less than ¼ mile from the parking lot. Once you’ve had enough of that, hoof it down the trail to see what it looks like from below.
Paulina Falls is part of the Newberry Crater, a national volcanic monument, which would be worth a day of exploration even if there were no waterfall at all.
To get there in the summertime, just follow Highway 97 about 20 miles south of Bend to Paulina Lake Road (you’ll see signs for the national monument). Follow Paulina Lake Road a little over 12 miles until you see signs on the left for Paulina Falls. The viewpoint is only a couple hundred feet from where you’ll park your car.
If you’re visiting in the wintertime, you’ll discover the road is closed a couple miles west of the parking area. Don’t worry! Just park your car and hoof it along the highway (which is pretty easy, since there won’t be any cars). Bring snowshoes just in case, though you won’t likely need them in a light snow year.
Whychus Falls– fondly known by locals as “Chush Falls”–is a fairly easy 1-mile hike to…well, a viewpoint that seems somewhat disappointing. Sure, you’ll catch an obscured glimpse of Whychus Falls, and it’s a spot worth snapping some pics.
But if you’re willing to work a bit, keep going to the right and scramble down the path about 200 feet to the creek itself. It can get slippery, so BE CAREFUL! Here’s where the 60-foot falls fans out in a churning, foaming sea of mossy madness with water billowing everywhere. It’s a sight to behold, and worth the extra effort to reach it.
Full disclosure: It’s been a few years since I last visited, and rumor has it windstorms and forest fire have done a number on the place with downed logs making trails and roads impassible. Check posts from recent hikers on AllTrails for up-to-date details on trail conditions before heading out, and be prepared to turn around if things look sketch. This one’s best saved for summertime when there’s no snow and trails are likelier to be maintained.
While some waterfalls on this list are best seen in summer when roads are clear, Cline Falls looks most stunning in springtime when there’s enough water flowing to make it mesmerizing. Just 30 minutes from Bend (and much less from Redmond), it makes a great stop on your way to or from Steelhead Falls if you’re jonesing to hit two in one day.
Start at Cline Falls State Park and don’t be surprised there’s no waterfall in sight. You have to earn this one with a 1.2 mile out-and-back trek beneath the bridge and downstream through Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land that’s, admittedly, not well marked. But it’s a fairly easy hike, with not a ton of altitude gain or tricky spots to navigate. Watch your footing here, as there are no guardrails and things can get slippery in rain or ice.
Prepare to be dazzled when you reach the spot where the Deschutes River braids out into dozens of spilling chutes. Find a flat rock to sit and study the streams, enjoy a picnic, or simply savor the view of the basalt gorge. There’s something about the contrast of rugged desert terrain and splashy water that makes Cline Falls one of my most magical happy spots on this list. Leave time for a long sit-and-savor if you share my fondness for Central Oregon’s starker landscapes.
A bit of a drive from Bend, the roughly 1.5 hours it takes to reach Proxy Falls from Bend is well worth it as a day trip for those with extra time to kill. It’s a treat for families in particular, with winding, woodsy trails and the bonus of seeing two epic waterfalls in one hike. This one’s best tackled from late-spring to early-fall, as snow can make trails tricky in colder months (not to mention seasonal closures of the McKenzie Pass). It’s best tackled in summer when access gets easier from a Bend starting point.
You’ll find the trailhead about 13 miles past the crest of the McKenzie Pass, about 30 miles from Sisters on State Highway 242. Pull into the easy-to-spot parking area and make sure you’re outfitted with sturdy shoes and plenty of water for your 1.6 mile loop hike that’ll feel a bit longer due to scrambling and switchbacks.
I’m partial to tackling the loop trail in a counterclockwise direction, heading up from the road and over a rugged lava trail. From there it flows into soft dirt and ponderosa pine needles and eventually, Lower Proxy Falls. You’ve got several viewpoints to pick from here, so leave yourself plenty of time to savor the mossy rocks and trickle of creek streams splashing around you. There’s a bit of a scramble to reach this one, so keep that in mind (I once did it with a young’un who had a cast on her arm, which proved challenging).
From there, head back down to the main path and make your way to Upper Proxy Falls. This one’s more dramatic, with churning whitewater splashing into a deep pool at the bottom. While there’s an almost fairy-like quality to Lower Proxy Falls, this one’s more showy with a roaring river stream and a mystery about where the heck the water goes from the pool at the bottom.
Salt Creek Falls
Another waterfall adventure that’s more of a day trip, leave yourself 1.5 hours each way to reach the Salt Creek Falls trailhead. It’s worth the trek to see Oregon’s second highest single drop waterfall (right behind Multnomah Falls) at 286-feet. This tributary of the Willamette River plunges into a gaping canyon and into a deep pool in a display you’ll spend hours admiring from various vantage-points.
Start at the main observation platform at the top, which is just 50 yards from the parking lot and even has a wheelchair-accessible platform. Once you’ve snapped roughly 2,876,054 photos (give or take) head down the steep trail to the waterfall’s base. There’s a spot at the midpoint that’s perfect for photos, but my kiddos loved trekking down to the bottom and getting misted by splashing water.
Parents of young’uns–come prepared with a change of clothes if you opt to let the kids venture close to the water, particularly if you plan to do the lengthier 5.4 mile loop to Diamond Creek Falls. We did this one in the dead of winter and the grownups wound up shedding our extra layers to put dry clothes on the kids. #LiveAndLearn