Smith Rock. Photo credit: Camille Gullickson
It was the world-class downhill skiing that first drew my family to explore beautiful Bend in Central Oregon decades ago. But in the years since, we’ve discovered there’s much more than skiing to enjoy in this year-round recreational paradise.
Of course, Seattle families have their share of gorgeous alpine experiences closer to home, but many families choose Bend because they prefer its high-desert climate. Compared to its often socked-in neighbors to the north, Bend gets less than 12 inches of precipitation per year and has the highest number of sunny days in the state. Combine that with Central Oregon’s recreational opportunities, jaw-dropping mountains, great restaurants and a family-friendly vibe, and you have the perfect excuse to plan a trip.
Try a new winter sport at Mt. Bachelor or nearby Hoodoo.
Mt. Bachelor Mountain Resort was recently ranked one of the best ski resorts in North America, but if skiing or snowboarding are not for you, there are other winter activities to try here. For an unusual family experience, take a wild ride with an Oregon Trail of Dreams sled dog team along snowy trails, staying cozy and warm in your sled while the pups happily do the work. If snowshoeing is more your speed, U.S. Forest Service naturalists offer free 90-minute interpretive tours from mid-December to late March, and they even provide the snowshoes. (Ages 8 and older; no infants in packs or dogs permitted.) Hoodoo Ski Area, about an hour’s drive northwest of Bend, is a smaller, more economical ski area featuring the Autobahn tubing park as well as Alpine (downhill) and Nordic (cross-country) skiing, and snowboarding.
Experience the Northwest’s biggest winter festival in the Old Mill District.
If you’re heading to Bend over Presidents’ Day weekend (Feb. 16–18, 2024), be sure to check out the Northwest’s biggest winter festival, a celebration of the season’s magic at WinterFest. The enchanting event features loads of fun for the whole family, including live music, art, food, shopping and entertainment for all ages. The event also features a Kids Mini Marshmallow Run on Saturday, Feb. 17 at noon; a family play zone; a Ferris wheel offering spectacular views of the Cascades Mountains; and much more.
Take a peaceful stroll at iconic Smith Rock State Park.
Smith Rock State Park — with its towering spires, deep river canyons and golden red rock — is one of the most popular of Oregon’s Seven Wonders to visit. We’ve been going for years. I prefer to hike there in the off-season, when it is less crowded and the temperatures are cooler. The vast 650-acre park has many trails to choose from, but families especially enjoy the flat, protected 2.5-mile River Trail. Keep a lookout for wildlife, such as river otters, mule deer, waterfowl and raptors, along the way. The Oregon State Parks Pass or a $5 day-use parking permit is required, and leashed dogs are welcome.
Saddle up for the horseback adventure of a lifetime at Brasada Ranch.
If you think that horseback rides are for summer only, think again. At Brasada Ranch you can take part in the special seasonal Winter Trails and Treats ride through February. The three-hour experience is available at the ranch from Friday through Sunday, noon–3 p.m., for groups of up to six riders, ages 10 and older. It includes riding to a scenic vantage point at Spirit Rock, followed by hot cocoa and s’mores seared over an open fire. Guided trail rides for riders of all abilities (ages 8 and older) are offered year-round, and younger cow folk (ages 5 and older) can take a pony ride around the pen or simply meet the gentle steeds. Advanced reservations are required for all rides.
Hike or snowshoe to a magical frozen waterfall.
Beautiful Tumalo Falls, just a short drive from downtown Bend, is one of the tallest and most spectacular waterfalls in Oregon, and it’s open year-round. In the winter, the ungroomed road to the trailhead may be closed, but with your snowshoes or Nordic (cross-country) skis, you can make the short, 2.5-mile trek down the road to see the falls. More ambitious adventurers can keep going up to Tumalo Falls via Tumalo Creek Trail for miles. A Northwest Forest Pass or a $5-day use fee is required, and dogs are welcome on many of the trails (and can be off-leash in certain areas).
Soothe your sore muscles and let the kids blow off steam at indoor water parks.
After all your outdoor activities, a swim or a soak might feel nice, and there are several good public options to choose from. In Bend, Juniper Swim and Fitness Center is a popular spot for budget-conscious families. Here, locals and out-of-towners alike can access the Olympic-size pool, a regular pool with rope swing, an indoor coed hot tub and more for a modest price. For a more relaxing vibe, check out the soaking pool at McMenamins Old St. Francis School in downtown Bend. One of the features of a unique historic building, the pool has an open ceiling and distinct mosaics that make it a stand-out option. Well worth the drive is the Madras Aquatic Center, about an hour’s drive north of Bend. The center offers beautiful views of the Cascades to the west, a 100-foot slide, a leisure pool and lazy river, and a regular pool with a rope swing. Families have their fair share of swim options in the area.
Glide along glistening ice at an area skating rink.
Seventh Mountain Resort features Central Oregon’s oldest outdoor rink, and it’s popular with locals and visitors alike because of its festively lit outdoor setting in the trees. At The Pavilion in Bend, Central Oregon’s only NHL-size ice rink, you can also enjoy open skating, ice hockey, curling and roller skating (from spring through early fall). The Village at Sunriver’s rink, which is covered during the winter months, is another great option. And for those on a tighter budget, try the portable outdoor skating rink in downtown Redmond. Admission is only $6 per person, including rentals, and free skate times are offered if you bring your skates.
If the weather outside becomes too frightful, check out indoor activities for everyone.
When the winter weather heads south in Bend, there are a few indoor activities you can try, including those at Mountain Air Trampoline Park. Mountain Air is open seven days a week, with all-ages fun, such as “Toddler Time” for kids younger than 5, and an interactive trampoline-game platform for tweens and teens. Visit Pickleball Zone Bend (PZB) to play indoor pickleball. Free Spirit Bend offers yoga, fitness and ninja warrior classes; plus, there is open play at its indoor play space. Sun Mountain Fun Center features bowling, bumper cars, laser tag, a virtual reality attraction and more. And Vector Volcano is a blast from the past with the best classic video arcade and pinball games from the 1980s and 1990s.
If you go …
Getting there: Bend is about a six-hour drive south of Seattle, and it is also accessible by bus, train and air. Portland makes a great culinary stop to break up the long drive.
Where to eat: Family-friendly dining in Bend can be more limited in the winter, but locals in the know recommend Jackson’s Corner (local, sustainable); Active Culture Cafe (near Drake Park; good vegan/vegetarian options and a “kids corner”); Deschutes Brewery Bend Public House (good kids menu); Cafe Yumm! (crowd-pleasing Yumm! Bowls); and Laughing Planet Cafe (kid favorites, healthier fare and loaner dinosaurs). For a sweet treat, check out The Sparrow Bakery (baked goods, house-made hot chocolate and more).
Local equipment rentals: Powder House (Nordic and Alpine skis, snowboards, snowshoes); Skjersaa’s ski shop (Nordic and Alpine skis, snowboards, snowshoes); Pine Mountain Sports (Nordic skis and snowshoes; Northwest Forest Passes are available for purchase here); and Sunnyside Sports (Nordic skis).