Updated April 28, 2022
From a curious 5-year-old, to a surly pre-teen, to a phone-obsessed 15-year-old, to an outdoor-loving 18-year-old, I’ve hiked with all kinds of kids in Central Oregon. Since those kids I just described are all the same two, it’s proof that hiking in Bend is a family activity to carry you through all stages of your kids’ lives.
Over the years, our family has explored dusty desert trails, splashy waterfalls, and jaw-dropping lake vistas near Bend. Here are some of our favorite family hikes.
Alder Springs Trail
This one was a favorite for my kiddos when they were 14 and 10, and can we all take a sec to appreciate how cute and little they were in these accompanying pics from six years ago?
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.
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’d bring a container of bubbles to blow in all directions so they could chase them as they floated along the wind. Now that they’re older, they’ll sometimes drive themselves to the trailhead for a solo sunrise hike. Can I just say how much this warms my stepmom heart?
Deschutes River Trail
The Deschutes River Trail 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.
Riley Ranch Nature Reserve
Since dogs aren’t allowed at Riley Ranch Nature Reserve, this hike makes an excellent pick for families with dog-phobic kids or those who just feel like leaving Fido behind for a change.
Given the park’s proximity to the center of Bend, it’s an excellent pick for anyone seeking scenic views, diverse terrain, and relatively easy hiking paths for kids less thrilled about long, steep trails.
This 184-acre trail system at the northwest edge of Bend offers miles of stunning rimrock cliffs ambling along the Deschutes River. From grassy meadows to ancient junipers to pine forests, you’ll find every sort of landscape you can imagine.
Trails are well-marked and you’ll even find paved stretches to make trekking a breeze. Follow the lava flows on your quest to scope out native plant species, migratory birds, and other wildlife, plus historic sites connected to Bend’s oldest homestead.
Big Tree Loop
Loop hikes make a nice pick with kids, since they keep you from having to backtrack over the same terrain. For a fairly simple trek with big views, try Big Tree Loop trail in La Pine State Park.
Just under a mile, it’s a fairly flat trail with a section that follows Fall River. As the name suggests, the trail passes by a stately ponderosa that was once the world’s largest of its species (at least until it lost 40 feet off the top in 2016).
But back to hiking. If you’re feeling more ambitious, La Pine State Park offers several other loop hikes, including Cougar Woods Loop and Deschutes Loop. Study the map and see what floats your boat!
Waterfall hikes are a big hit with kids, and this one is a favorite for my family. The lower elevation of Steelhead Falls makes it a good year-round choice, since its lower elevation makes it easily to access in months when those high-elevation falls are tougher to reach. You can get there in less than 30 minutes from Bend with an easy drive north 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.
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 allure of the water, what makes this hike fun for kiddos of all ages is the Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery. Purchase fistfuls of fish food for a quarter, then watch your kids’ eyes light up as they toss it into open cement pools teeming with trout.
There’s plenty more to see along this stretch of the Metolius, including 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, which is adjacent to the spot where you’ll see those spellbinding falls. Hike or as much or as little as you like, depending on which route you take and how much stamina your young’uns have that day.
For older kids with a bit more stamina to tackle steeper terrain, you’ll find the trek to Chimney Rock makes a magical family excursion. The Crooked River Gorge boasts some of the most stunning landscapes you’ll see in Central Oregon, and the top of this trail is an excellent vantage-point to scope them out.
It’s a 2.7-mile out-and-back hike with breathtaking views from the top. The elevation gain is made tolerable by a series of switchbacks that ease you up rugged ridges. Stop often for water, and remember to bring your own (in a reusable water bottle, of course) since there aren’t facilities at the trailhead.
Leave lots of time for snapping photos at the top, and don’t forget to nab some pics from the bottom, too. The rock formations out here are a sight to behold, and Chimney Rock itself looks lovely from all angles.