Summertime in Central Oregon offers a ton of things to do, but unfortunately it doesn’t always come cheap. So for those of us who are budget-conscious, here is a list of free (or nearly free) activities to be found. Updated for 2017!
Do you know of any other free (or cheap) activities that should be on here? Let me know!
- 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 at the new Whitewater Park unless you’re ready for a bit of rapids.
- Visit Bend has a two-page PDF river floating safety guide which is a great resource that you can print. It includes a map of where to access and where to portage for the Colorado spillway if you don’t want to run through the rapids. Also look here on the Parks & Rec site for details the shuttle service and life jacket rentals.
- 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 $5 to rent a lantern). 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). Hours are 9am to 5pm (and the gate closes at 4).
- 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 and other caves have since been closed as well. 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 an iPhone app and an Android app that takes you on a self-guided walking tour of these historical sites. Each of the more than 40 historic sites is detailed 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.
- 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:
Lava Lands Visitor Center is the interpretive hub of Newberry National Volcanic Monument. Friendly rangers will help orient you to the Monument using our new 3D topographic map. Visit our state of the art interpretive exhibit on area geologic and cultural history, shop in the Discover Your Northwest Bookstore, view a variety of films scheduled daily, walk the Trail of the Molten Lands (closed through June 30) and the Trail of the Whispering Pines, picnic under the pines, attend a ranger talk on the patio, drive to the top of Lava Butte for a spectacular view of Central Oregon (Butte parking limited to 10 spaces, so FREE 30 minute time passes are issued on a first come, first served basis at the Center’s Welcome Station. Please note on busy summer days there may be delays in your being able to access Lava Butte).
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 $4 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).
- Geocaching! This is a fun, all-ages activity that really only requires a GPS-enabled phone or similar device. What is Geocaching? “Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache (container) hidden at that location.” Sign up for an account and explore around the area for the many caches you can uncover.
- 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.
- Of course if the free beer piques your interest, every Friday Newport Avenue Market hosts free beer tastings, and other venues in town including the Platypus Pub, Broken Top Bottle Shop, the Growler Guys, and Whole Foods do occasional tasting events as well. Keep an eye on the calendar to see when those might be going on!
- And don’t forget the Bend Ale Trail! All you have to do is pick up the atlas and passport from the Visit Bend downtown, visit a bunch of breweries to get the stamps (be sure to read the rules first!), and you can earn a special Silipint as a prize. You don’t have to finish the Ale Trail in one day—you can space out as long as you like. Traveling to breweries and tasting beer (optional)—what’s not to like?
- Free Summer Sundays Concerts at the Les Schwab Amphitheater. Nearly every Sunday from June through early August, the Les Schwab Amphitheater hosts free concerts. Shows start at 2:30, gates open at noon. Food vendors and beer are available, or you can bring in your own.
- Regal Cinemas Summer Movie Express: From the first day of Summer through mid-August, Regal Cinemas at the Old Mill 16 theater shows two family movies every Tuesday and Wednesday at 10am for $1. These are always rated G or 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). Oh, and no dogs are allowed. Here’s this year’s schedule:
- July 6: Arrival From Sweden
- July 13: Cowboy Junkies
- July 20: Ozomatli
- July 27: The Brothers Comatose
- August 3: Too Slim and The Taildraggers
- August 10: Pigs on the Wing
- Munch and Movies. Just like Munch and Music—only you see a free movie, it’s on Friday nights, and located at Compass Park in Northwest Crossing. These run from mid-August through mid-September, picking up after Munch and Music winds down. The evening starts at 6pm with free live music, and the movies start at sundown. Here is the schedule:
- August 18: TBD
- August 25: TBD
- September 1: TBD
- September 8: TBD
- Kids’ Free Summer Meals / Lunch & Learn. The school district offers up free lunches for children under 18 on weekdays throughout the summer, from June 26 to August 25 (excluding July 3-4). (Parents can purchase a lunch for $4.) 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.
- The Bite of Bend. June 23rd through 25th sees Downtown Bend offer up the annual Bite of Bend festival “devoted to Central Oregon’s food and drink scene, celebrating the “Bite” of restauranteurs from all over the region.” It’s free to attend, and there will be live music and other things to see and do that will cost you little to nothing. Of course, if you want to partake in any of the “bites” or drinks, you’ll need to fork over a bit of cash.
- Fourth of July.There’s a ton of free fun to be had in Bend on July 4th! It’s one of the best days of the summer for (nearly) free entertainment!
- The Bend Pet Parade: Does free entertainment really get any better? At 10am the Pet Parade kicks off the festivities in downtown Bend, 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 Des Chutes 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 11am 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 almost always 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 their calendar), and games are only $6 for general admission tickets. Or better yet, Tuesday evenings are “$2 Tuesdays” where you can get in for only two bucks.
- Bend Summer Festival: July 7th through 9th, 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 there is always a good free kids area with lots of activities.
- Bend Roots Revival. In late September between the Art Station and Deschutes Brewery’s warehouse field below their production plant, this grassroots “celebration of our local performing arts community” will feature many local musical acts and workshops spread out across various performance areas. The entire event is completely free to the public, and any donations made are tax deductible.
- 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 29th until September 7th, 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. The 2016 schedule:
- June 28: Todd Haaby & Solo Via
- July 12: Countryfied
- July 26: Notables Swing Band
- August 9: Mango Stew
- August 23: Precious Byrd
- September 6: Hokulea Dancers
- Music in the Canyon. Promoted as complementary to Music on the Green, Music in the Canyon also offers free music every other Wednesday (and some Fridays), through the end of August at the American Legion Park. The event runs from 5:30pm until 8, and also offers food and art as well as the free concert. The 2016 schedule:
- July 5: Jive Coulis
- July 19: Cindy Lou Banks
- August 2: Desert Howlers
- August 16: Fernando. Led by Fernando Viciconte
- August 30: Too Slim & the Taildraggers