Summertime in Central Oregon offers a ton of things to do, but unfortunately much of it doesn’t come cheap. So for the budget-conscious, I’ve compiled over the past couple of years a list of free (or nearly free) activities to be found.
- Climb Pilot Butte. Do it for the exercise and the scenery! The trailhead access is on the east side of the Butte, and there are two trails to choose from: the nature trail and the paved road. From the top of Pilot Butte the view of Bend and the surrounding area is spectacular.
- Float the river. Put in the water at just below the Bill Healy Bridge (Reed Market Road) at Farewell Bend Park and enjoy a leisurely trip through the Old Mill District and towards downtown. Be sure to avoid going under the Colorado Street bridge—there were several drownings there last year.
- The Bend Bulletin has a two-page PDF river floating guide (originally published last year) which is a great resource that you can print: page one and page two. With a rundown on float gear and lifejacket rules, and a great river map from Wickiup Reservoir to Lake Billy Chinook, it should not be missed.
- Be aware of the lifejacket rules: If you use any of the following nonpowered craft on Oregon waters, you must carry a wearable life jacket for each adult on board (throwable devices, such as rings or seat cushions, do not meet this requirement):
- Canoes, kayaks, multichamber inflatable rafts, inflatable kayaks, inflatable flat boats, multichamber tubes, paddleboards if used for transportation.
- If there are children 12 and younger on board, they must wear a life jacket while the craft is under way. This applies whether the craft is human-powered (oars, paddles, etc.) or powered by an electric or gas motor.
- Conversely, the following are exempt: float tubes, air mattresses, water toys and single-chambered inner tubes.
- This isn’t entirely free—you’ll need to shell out for an inner tube or other type of flotation device (if you don’t already have one). However, various flotation toys can be had at the box stores for relatively cheap, and Les Schwab sells a heavier-duty inner tube for $20. On the plus side, you can use this over and over throughout the summer, so it’s money well spent if you get out on the river a lot. You’ll still have to provide the air—or cough up a quarter or two at a gas station for it.
- Bicycling/mountain biking. C’mon, everyone has a bike, right? Bend is a really bike-friendly town: not only is it nice to ride around the town itself (downtown, "old town," and the westside in particular), but there’s a multitude of choices for trails and bike routes if you have a mountain bike. The Deschutes River Trail ($5 Day Pass), Phil’s Trail (free), and the Swampy Lakes Loop (free) are just a few examples. Want more local biking resources? Visit Bend has a cycling guide, and Trails.com has an interactive map of mountain bike trails.
- Go caving. Whether it’s the caves off of China Hat Road or the Lava River Cave, there will be a bit of driving for this activity.
- Lava River Cave: $5 for the Day Pass. Bring your own light (or pay an additional $3 to rent one). Perfect way to beat the summer heat—in fact, bring a jacket! It’s a constant 40-45 degrees inside the cave, which runs for over a mile underground. It’s located 12.5 miles south of Bend on Highway 97 (one mile past Lava Lands Visitor Center).
- China Hat Road Caves: These are closer to Bend than the Lava River Cave, and don’t require a Day Pass (ie, free). But they are harder to find and you absolutely have to bring your own light. Among the caves are Arnold Ice Cave, Boyd Cave, and Wind Cave, all located off China Hat/Forest Road 18 approximately six miles southeast of town. Skeleton Cave is inaccessible, however: in 2005 the Forest Service removed the staircase due to vandalism. Also be aware that these caves are bat habitats.
- Take the Heritage Walk. Ever been wandering around downtown and noticed the historical marker plaques for certain buildings and houses? Well, the Deschutes County Historical Society has a booklet they’ve published that lays out a self-guided walking tour of these historical sites. Each of the more than 40 historic sites is detailed in the booklet along with a map of their locations—plenty to space this out over several days or weeks, and enjoy seeing a fair amount of older Bend. The Heritage Walk booklet is available from the Society for $3, or you can try to check out the Library’s copy for free.
- Lava Lands. South of Bend on Highway 97 rises the unmistakable extinct cinder cone volcano of Lava Butte, which marks the Lava Lands Visitor Center. From the site:
The Lava Lands Visitor Center is the interpretive hub for Newberry National Volcanic Monument and is located just off U.S. Hwy. 97, 13 miles south of Bend. Lava Lands offers nature walks, interpretive programs, visitor information, displays on geology, volcanology and the cultural history of Central Oregon. A small book shop offers books on the Central Oregon area.
Behind the Visitor Center there are two self guided interpretive trails, to explore at your own pace. One, the Trail of Molten Land, meanders over the 7000 year-old lava flow from Lava Butte, the imposing cinder cone behind the Visitor Center. The other, Trail of the Whispering Pines, wanders through a young ponderosa pine forest.
Cost is $5 for a Forest Service Day Pass permit, but that’s all.
- Head to the Library. Visiting the Deschutes Public Library is a good way to beat the heat—plus they have a ton of other things going on, like free internet access, activities and storytimes for kids, classes, art exhibits, and, you know, books.
- Cheap movies at McMenamins. Okay, it’s not the free movies that some other programs offer, but the theater at the Old St. Francis School shows second-run movies for only $3 per person—and believe me, that beats the sticker-shock out of control prices at the regular movie theaters any day! Plus you can drink beer and order decent pub food (tater tots!) while watching the movie, and many of the seats are nice and comfortable.
- Pine Mountain Observatory. Almost 30 miles southeast of Bend, at an elevation of 6500 feet, is an observatory that is open to the public during the summer on Friday and Saturday evenings. The Observatory is run by the University of Oregon and is the real deal. A $3 donation is encouraged, but not required, and there is a free primitive campground nearby for overnighters (bring your own water).
- Deschutes Brewery Tour. During the summer their production brewery and Tasting Room are open all week, from 12 until 5, and the tours are free—as are the first four samples of beer. Let me say that again: free beer. Of course, the brewery tour itself is pretty cool also.
- Free Summer Sundays Concerts at the Les Schwab Amphitheater. Nearly every Sunday from June 14th through August 23rd, the Les Schwab Amphitheater hosts free concerts. Shows start at 2:30, gates open at 1:00. Their website sums it up nicely:
Bring your sweetheart, kids, puppies (on leashes), friends or just yourself and enjoy a sunny afternoon of world-class music. Bring your own picnic or stop by one of our great food vendors, or the Bend Brewing Company table for a cold cerveza. Enjoy the music!
- Regal Cinemas Free Family Film Festival: From mid-June through mid-August, Regal Cinemas at the Old Mill 16 theater shows two free family movies every Tuesday and Wednesday at 10am. These are always rated G and PG movies and you can see this year’s schedule at the link.
- Munch and Music. Every Thursday evening from mid-July through mid-August, head down to Drake Park to listen to free music. There’s also arts and craft vendors to check out and plenty of food booths (but ya gotta pay for that).
- Munch and Movies. Just like Munch and Music—only you see a free movie, it’s on Friday nights, and located in McKay Park. These run from mid-August through mid-September, picking up after Munch and Music winds down.
- Kids’ Summer Lunch Program / Lunch & Learn. The school district offers up free lunches for children under 18 on weekdays throughout the summer. (Parents can purchase a lunch for $3.) The "Lunch & Learn" program at certain locations is a book reading program encourages kids to read by offering Otter Pops for every 10 books read, and a free book for every 30, as long as they read during the L&L hour. It’s a great way to get out of the house, provide lunch for the kids and enjoy some outdoor time.
- MAGIC in the Parks. This is a great program for kids ages 4-10 that is entirely free. I wrote about it last year, but this year the details have changed:
- Mondays and Wednesdays from July 6 through August 12, it takes place at Orchard Park
- Tuesdays and Thursdays from July 7 through August 13, it takes place at Harmon Park
From 1pm until 3:30, kids can come and go as they wish, though kids under 8 must be accompanied by an adult.
- Fourth of July. There’s a ton of free fun to be had in Bend on July 4th!
- The Bend Pet Parade: Does free entertainment really get any better? At 10am the Pet Parade kicks off the festivities, where people bring all kinds of pets (mostly dogs) to march through downtown.
- Old Fashioned 4th of July Celebration: Immediately following the Pet Parade, Drake Park is filled with crafts, food, games, and live entertainment from 11 to 4. Lots of fun to visit and people-watch, even if you don’t spend any money.
- Deschutes Historical Museum Free Day & Ice Cream Social: Every Fourth of July the Deschutes Historical Museum is open free to the public and they give out free ice cream to visitors.
- Bend Library Book Sale: Every Fourth of July the "Friends of the Bend Library" hosts their summer book sale at the old Administration building. From 10am until 4pm, fantastic deals on books of all kinds, as well as audio and video materials. For just a few bucks you can walk out with enough reading for a month or two.
- Pilot Butte Fireworks: The fireworks show starts at 10pm and is always free (naturally). Bonus entertainment: they catch the Butte on fire.
- Bend Elks Baseball. Bend’s own baseball team plays on various days through the summer (you can find their schedule on the calendar), and games are only $5 for general admission tickets. Or better yet, Tuesday evenings are "$2 Tuesdays" where you can get in for only two bucks.
- Bend Summer Festival: On July 11 and 12, the long-running SummerFest takes place in Downtown Bend, a summertime favorite. It’s not all free, of course: food, beer, and wine are on hand for a price, and there’s plenty of craft shopping to do. But the music and entertainment is free, and Working Wonders Children’s Museum always has a great free kids area with lots of activities.
- Music on the Green. Redmond is just a stone’s throw away from Bend and they have their own free music concerts during the summer as well. Every other Wednesday from June 24th until September 2nd, from 6pm until 7:30, you can enjoy free music at Sam Johnson Park. There’s also food vendors, arts, and crafts to be found.
- Music in the Canyon. Promoted as complementary to Music on the Green, Music in the Canyon also offers free music every other Wednesday, this one from June 17th through September 9th at the new American Legion Park. The event runs from 5:30pm until 8, and also offers food and art as well as the free concert.