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.
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—every year there are drownings of folks that do.
- The Bend Bulletin has a two-page PDF river floating guide (originally published in 2008) 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 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 a booklet they’ve published that lays out a self-guided walking tour of these historical sites, and an MP3 audio version of the walk that you can download for free. 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 (or grab the MP3 for the audio tour).
- 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).
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 10th through August 12th, the Les Schwab Amphitheater hosts free concerts. Shows start at 2:30, gates open at 1:00. 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 through Thursday at 10am for $1. 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). Oh, and no dogs are allowed. Here’s this year’s schedule:
- July 12, Live Wyya, Reggae
- July 19, Modern English, English pop/rock
- July 26, Igor & Red Elvises, Retro rock
- August 2, The Quick and Easy Boys, Funkytonk
- August 9, The Fixx, Rock
- August 16, Tommy Castro, Blues
- Alive After Five: The Old Mill District’s own free music series, running each Wednesday from July 18th through August 8th. From 5 until 8pm each week you can enjoy the music and there is also food, beer, wine, and spirits available. Here’s their schedule:
- July 18: Toots & the Maytals, Reggae
- July 25: Laila Biali, Jazz
- August 1: Johnny Clegg, Afro-pop
- August 8: Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Jazz
- Munch and Movies. Just like Munch and Music—only you see a free movie, it’s on Friday nights, and located at Compass Parkin 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. The schedule:
- August 16: The Lorax (PG)
- August 24: School of Rock (PG-13)
- August 31: Kung Fu Panda II (PG)
- September 7: Hugo (PG)
- Kids’ Summer Lunch Program / Lunch & Learn. The school district offers up free lunches for children under 18 on weekdays throughout the summer, from June 18 to August 24 (excluding July 4). (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 Park. For children ages 4-10: “We will be providing children in our community the opportunity to enjoy great recreational activities at no cost. MAGIC is not a daycare program and should not be used as such. Each child under the age of 8 must be accompanied by an adult over the age of 16. This program does not require registration. Children may come and go as they wish. Because of the popularity of this program, take home activities will be available on a first-come, first-served basis and limited to one per child. Note: This program may be canceled without prior notice due to bad weather.”
On Mondays and Wednesdays from June 25 through August 15 (except July 4), the program operates at the Orchard Park. On Tuesdays and Thursdays from June 26 through August 16, the program is located at Harmon Park. Al Moody Park hosts the program on Fridays. The program runs from 1 to 3:30 in the afternoons.
- The Bite of Bend. June 23rd and 24th sees Downtown Bend offer up the annual Bite of Bend festival that celebrates and “highlights the foods of our 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. The Bite also features the Northwest Spirits and Mixology Show on Saturday, which will cost $15 but offers up over 75 varieties of liquor to sample.
- 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, 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 their 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: July 14th and 15th, 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. From September 21st through 23rd at the Century Center on Bend’s west side, this grassroots “celebration of our local performing arts community” will feature some 100 local musical acts and workshops spread out across various performance areas, with Parilla Grill and the Victorian Cafe splitting the food and drink duties. The entire event, a project of 106.7 KPOV Bend Community Radio, 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 27th until September 5th, 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 2012 schedule:
- June 27: The Creek (Unique country music)
- July 11: Kelly Thibodeaux and The Etouffe Band (Swamp rock)
- July 25: Soul Benders (R&B, soul, funk & dance)
- August 8: Deco Moon (Blues and classic Motown)
- August 22: The Notables (Big Band, Latin, blues and rock-n-roll)
- September 5: Hokulea Dancers (Traditional Hawaiian dancing and drumming)
- 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 September 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 2011 schedule:
- June 20: Countryfied
- July 4: Red, White and Redmond Blues Festival
- July 6: (Friday) Larry and His Flask
- July 18: Leroy Newport
- July 20: (Friday) Voodoo Highway
- August 1: Downhill Ryder
- August 15: John Shipe Band
- August 29: Jazz Under the Stars