Stargazing in Bend and beyond, including the world’s largest dark sky sanctuary


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Stargazing in Bend and beyond, including the world’s largest dark sky sanctuary

What’s more magical than a sea of stars stretching as far as your eye can see? 

I can answer that! It’s seeing those stars from a stunning high desert town known for epic mountain views, wide open spaces, and minimal light pollution. A happy bonus? Bend’s the best gateway to access the Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary, which is the largest in the whole freakin’ world. If stargazing in Bend tops your list of fun things to do in Central Oregon, here are seven spots to get your star fix in Bend and Central Oregon.

Dark sky at Fort Rock near Bend, Oregon.

The Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary

Let me kick this off by acknowledging the Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary is not technically in Bend. This 2.5 million acre swath of stargazing paradise sits roughly an hour and a half from us in the jaw-droppingly beautiful middle of nowhere. That’s precisely why Bend makes the perfect gateway for exploring the world’s largest dark sky sanctuary: You get all the Bend restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, and shops like Expedition Club filled with stargazing gear, plus an easy home base for exploring some of the world’s best stargazing. 

One of the first overnight trips I took with my now-husband was a getaway to Summer Lake Hot Springs in the Oregon Outback. We nearly hit a cow as we were driving on a dark and desolate stretch of highway (sidenote: watch for critters in this pitch-black part of the state!) but we eventually stood in a field staring open-mouthed and awestruck at a night sky unlike any we’d seen before. A photo from that night now hangs on our bedroom wall with a view of the night sky that pales in comparison to what it felt like seeing it with our naked eyes. Nearly thirteen years later, I still sometimes wonder if it was really as mesmerizing as I remember (and since we’ve been back bunches of times, I have the answer: YES!)

About 90% of the Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary sits on public lands, so there’s a wonderland of accessible stargazing right at your fingertips. If you’re heading out for a star party or romantic stargazing experience, plan ahead by charting where you’ll buy fuel and supplies and acknowledging this rural part of Oregon is wonderfully wild and remote. Don’t count on cell coverage, and be prepared for flat tires and other unplanned hiccups.While viewing the night sky with virtually no light pollution means extraordinary stargazing and wildlife protection, it also means being more mindful of your impact on the environment. Bring all the supplies you need and practice Leave No Trace principles when visiting this wild and wonderful stargazing paradise. Watch for critters on the road, and be respectful of farms and ranches in this rural stretch of the state.

Pine Mountain Observatory

A bit closer to Bend sits one of the most epic spots for Central Oregon stargazing. The Pine Mountain Observatory is located 34 miles southeast of Bend at an elevation of 6,300. To put that into perspective, Bend is at 3,600 feet, so even during the warmest months of summer, you’ll want to pack a few extra layers to avoid freezing your butt off.

But oh what a view you’ll have once you get there! Since this observatory is part of the University of Oregon Physics Department, they have the biggest and best equipment you could possibly imagine. You can try out a telescope of aperture 24- or 32-inches, or just wander around staring up at the sky with your naked eyes.

The facility is open to the public from late spring to early fall for limited hours and special viewing times. Dogs are not allowed, and there aren’t a lot of facilities out here, so bring what you need from Bend. Go here for schedule info, directions, and more useful details.

The Oregon Observatory at the Sunriver Nature Center

The stargazing in Central Oregon is so awesome, we have not one, but two observatories within 45 minutes of Bend!

Like Pine Mountain, the Oregon Observatory at the Sunriver Nature Center (which you’ll also see referenced as the Sunriver Observatory) requires a little drive time to reach. Located at the Sunriver Nature Center, the Observatory is about 19 miles southwest of Bend. They boast the largest collection of telescopes for public use in the entire country, which is pretty impressive. There are too many to describe them all, but you can go here to see a complete list of both lunar and solar telescopes.

The Oregon Observatory at the Sunriver Nature Center also boasts a nice, long season, with a schedule that spans from spring through fall and even offers some occasional wintertime hours. Their website has up-to-date info on everything from scheduled hours to private parties to school programs and more.

Bonus: Daytime viewings and solar telescopes give you a chance to scan the skies long before the sun sets. 

Nighttime adventures with Wanderlust Tours

Looking for a way to combine outdoor adventure with a chance to be dazzled by the night sky? Wanderlust Tours has you covered whether it’s the height of summer or the chilly days of winter!

During the summer months, head out on one of the high Cascade Lakes with an epic Starlight or Moonlight Canoe Tour (the difference being the phase of the moon, of course). Your naturalist guide will point out constellations and planets, and pack your brain full of awesome information about everything from trees to animals to the geology of Central Oregon.

In the wintertime, take your pick between the Moonlight or Starlight Snowshoe Tours, or their ever-popular Bonfire on the Snow snowshoe tour. Both are a terrific way to revel in glittery fields of snow underfoot and glittery blankets of stars overhead.

No telescopes are needed, but they do provide all the gear you’ll need for canoeing or snowshoeing, plus snacks, transportation, and the best education you could possibly ask for on Bend’s natural wonders.

High Desert Museum

While there’s no planetarium or permanent exhibit devoted to the stars, you’ll frequently find programs and temporary exhibits celebrating the night sky at the High Desert Museum.

Pay special attention to their event calendar for things like kids’ camps and other special attractions centered around stellar wonders. 

The High Desert Museum also earns bonus points for being part of the Lights Out Bend initiative, a volunteer-operated education and advocacy program that seeks to highlight the issue of light pollution and inspire the community to reduce it. 

Stargazing in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness
View of the aurora borealis from the Oregon Badlands Wilderness.

Set out on your own

Prefer to have a little privacy for your stargazing adventures? There are lots of spots to throw down your blanket and gaze heavenward for a clear view of the night sky.

If you want to stick close to the center of Bend, just seek out spots a bit removed from the bright lights of downtown or surrounding neighborhoods. Sprawl out on a soccer field at Pine Nursery Park, or don your headlamp for a sunset hike up Pilot Butte (uh, you’ll want to switch off that light for the best star views!)

Willing to drive a bit? The Oregon Badlands Wilderness just east of town is a nice wide-open area away from the city lights. Keep in mind you’re venturing into a wilderness area at night, so be smart about staying on the trails and sticking close to your vehicle.

Other primo spots for solo stargazing include the Dee Wright Observatory, anyplace east of Horse Butte, and any campsite up at the high Cascade Lakes.

Bend is the Hopservatory at Worthy Brewing.

Want a beer with those stars?

One of the most unique stargazing opportunities you’ll find in Bend is the Hopservatory at Worthy Brewing.

Their 16-inch, research-grade telescope lets you scope out planets and distant galaxies, not to mention the stars. Night sky viewing is offered on a first-come, first-serve basis with no reservation required (though do check their website for hours and availability, as those can vary widely, depending on conditions and time of year). 

They also do private tours, in case you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind stellar experience for family, friends, or random strangers you gather together to gaze at the heavens. 

Worthy’s mobile Hydrogen Alpha telescope also allows for solar viewing activities, and the telescope’s filters keep you safe when scoping out things like solar flares and sunspots.

While you’re welcome to swill suds throughout the rest of Worthy Brewing’s campus, you’re not allowed to bring beer into the Hopservatory. Make an evening of your Worthy stargazing experience by enjoying dinner and some brews downstairs, then head for the Hopservatory and prepare to be dazzled!