Dear Bend, Oregon:
We’re sorry we ever doubted your prowess as a magnet for the adventurer, the athlete, or the foodie. We apologize that during our previous prime-time summer visits, we found your city too laden with tourists, too inauthentic in the sameness of its neighborhoods, too flat in its diversity, too filled with traffic for a city that seems it ought to carry a small-town vibe. While everyone raved about your accessibility to stellar trails, mountain biking, skiing, running and paddling, we saw unfortunate city sprawl, master-planned subdivisions with copycat homes, and tourists. Lots of tourists. We had almost entirely written off Bend as an outdoor city on our short list of cool places to potentially live. But, initial impressions, while still steeped in truth, are still worth questioning.
You see, that is part of the joy of traveling full-time. We get to experience cities at any & every stage of their annual cycle. While others flock to certain places during their peak “season,” we tend to shy away when a city’s pot bubbles over with tourists. In the case of Bend, for instance, we found a perceptible difference between summer, when it is pulsing with non-residents, versus when the locals regain some command of their domain in late fall. When we revisited in between peak seasons, we pleasantly discovered some of the best food, people, beer and outdoor fun we’ve had anywhere in the country. Sure, those things existed during the summer, but they weren’t nearly as accessible, at least for us because we tend to avoid crowds. Since part of our travel intention is to find the next place to settle down, it has been quite the luxury to be able to revisit the same place at different times of the year so we can feel those subtle, yet perceptible, differences.
This trip exposed us to so many cool people who reached out to us after seeing our truck parked at Drake Park (don’t worry, we did get permission to do so from the city and they were more than accommodating). When we weren’t driveway-crashing new friends, we found ample street parking downtown (a near impossibility come summer). Thus, we were able to stay parked and walk pretty much everywhere except when we went out to the sno-parks. Since we walk even when it’s snowy & icy, we’ve found these snow-trax to be an absolute game-changer. They’re light, low-profile and you barely notice them, until you joyously discover you’re not slipping and sliding.
Among our favorite things about Bend were its high score for walkability (trails and paths could literally connect us from one end of the city to another with nary a worry about traffic), great access to the outdoors and friendly, athletic people. You may be fit, but around here, you don’t brag about it because it takes a lot more than that to be “Bend Fit.” Here, everybody’s a pro at something. Workout warriors across the age spectrum are known to play three ways a day, whether its climbing at Smith Rock, mountain biking, trail running or playing in powder. All are accessible, and all can be within about 15 minutes of city center. Not nearly all-encompassing, but here are a few things we enjoyed about an early winter in Bend:
About 80 miles outside of Bend, this 26-mile river trail is a pretty spectacular way to experience the waterfall-rich, vibrant green lushness of central Oregon before you head over the pass and into more desert-like environs. In late fall, there’s no crowds and even on Thanksgiving day, the McKenzie River Lodge offers shuttle service so you can mountain bike, hike or trail run whatever point-to-point distance you desire. As you ride, you cross over about a dozen small bridges over crystal clear water, and one of the highlights is Tamolich (Blue) Pool. It rained most of the day we were out there, and there was a little snow at the top, so conditions were muddy and several sections were too filled with sharp, slippery volcanic rock to ride. Just walk the sections that you’re not comfortable with, and continue to enjoy the views of the McKenzie River. It’s gorgeous. And, even though central Oregon is filled with cool trails like this, at this time of year this one’s great because you still get the convenience of shuttle service without the crowds.
Just about 20 minutes outside of downtown off of Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway en route to Mt. Bachelor are a number of easily accessible sno-parks. Managed and cared for by some very hardworking people of Bend’s Nordic community, use of the trails is well worth the season’s pass (which will set you back less than $30). The parks are not overly crowded, especially on a weekday, and with so many to choose from we rarely had to share the trail. Of the several sno-parks in the area, Swampy Lakes was our favorite because there are three warming shelters within 2-4 miles of the trailhead. Each day we’d either cross-country ski or snowshoe our way around the various trails and end at one of the well-constructed shelters, complete with wood stove, for a snack and some hot coffee. Bend had just recently gotten some of its first big snows for the year, so the park’s fresh powder was perfect for testing out our new winter equipment. (We’re running MSR Lightning Ascent men’s / women’s snowshoes and 2016 Rossignol Off-Track Cross Country Skis.
Bend currently has just one ice skating rink, and we were disappointed that the open skate hours were pretty limited. But just outside of town at Seventh Mountain Resort was a much better and cheaper alternative (with a lot fewer skaters). Open air and complete with an adjacent fire pit, this rink really sets the mood for a perfect winter skate session. There’s even an outdoor heated pool if you feel so inclined to take a dip. Even though it’s a resort, ice skating is open to the public. $12 per person for unlimited skating and skate rental for the afternoon. (12/2016)
There is a reason why Outside Magazine, Competitor and so many others cite Bend as the country’s favorite trail running community. With such gorgeous real estate along the Deschutes River made into perfect dirt running paths, there’s no excuse not to get outside any time of the year. You’ll be surrounded by all levels of athleticism (with a bend toward the ultra-fit). With our collective knee & hip issues, neither of us runs on pavement, so we found the access points for the dirt sections of the trail at Farewell Bend Park (makes a nice 3 mile loop) southwest of the Old Mill District and just north of downtown at First Street Rapids Park (which you can take for miles up to the DRT’s terminus west of Archie Briggs Canyon Open Space.
Another cool spot for a run are the soft pine needle-covered trails of Shevlin Park along Tumalo Creek. Loop up parts of either the Shevlin Trail or the Tumalo Creek Trail to create your own distance of around 3-6 miles.
The Lot’s A La Carte – The Lot is a food truck village about a mile from downtown and centered around a lovely heated pavilion with a killer fire table and beer garden. Our favorite spot was A La Carte for some of the best roasted veggie tacos we’ve ever consumed. Rich roasted veggies, pepitas, and some dynamite sauces make this food truck one to remember.
Big Ski’s Pierogi – Rich, aka ‘Big Ski’ created something special when he moved to Bend armed with his Polish grandmother’s pierogi recipe.
Martin was born in Poland and has an affinity for pierogi done right – and Big Ski nails it at his truck stationed by the firepit in back of the Good Life Brewery (great beers there, btw). Read our review here. Limited hours in the winter, so check his facebook page.
Pancake Wagon – Owned and operated by some of the sweetest young ladies you’ll ever meet, Pancake Wagon is a breakfast-based food truck with a whole lot of love. Everything about their location in the parking lot of Bend’s Mountain Supply store is warm and inviting. After a big snow, they started creation of a snow sofa so patrons could sit and enjoy the fire pit. Among other tasty and imaginative breakfast staples, they’ve cleverly concocted a pancake + muffin combo they affectionately refer to as the “Puffin.” Soooo good. Don’t leave without saying hello to their mascot, their adorable pet rabbit, Rue.
Next Level Burger – Vegan-friendly and full of whole-food, creative alternatives for those who crave the primal goodness of a burger, but choose not to get their protein from animals. With clever twists on the classic burger, Next Level offers something for everyone, including vegetarians like us who opt against consuming soy-based fako foods.
Market of Choice – Like New Seasons in Portland, Market of Choice is a high-end but locally conscious whole foods market off of Colorado. They have locations throughout Oregon. We found everything we needed here, and they have a great coffee bar, wine bar, and two-story fireplace seating.
Oregon Spirit Distillers – Great whiskeys and wonderful service. The whiskey flight tasting is delightful.
Cascade Lakes Brewery – Their limited seasonal Salted Caramel Porter will warm you right up when the weather outside is frightful.
10 Barrel – One of the things we liked best about Bend in winter was how eager businesses were to still get you to enjoy the outside, even when the weather was cold and snowy. 10 Barrel was one of our favorite places to sit outside and enjoy the crackling warmth of a huge and well-tended fire-pit (with great beer, of course).
Crow’s Feet Commons – Best indoor firepit. We could lounge away the morning working with a coffee, or toast up with a beer in the evening. Great service, great hygge (cozy) factor.
With all that and more, we got stuck in the ‘Bend vortex’ a little longer than we anticipated. (Can’t say Dakota at Traipsing About didn’t warn us…) What was supposed to be a couple of days there turned into a couple of weeks. For us, that kind of fluidity and fun is what it’s all about.
What’s your favorite part about central Oregon in the off-season or otherwise? We’d love to hear it.