Loop hikes worth a look in Bend this fall


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Loop hikes worth a look in Bend this fall

Sometimes, you want to walk in circles. I don’t mean twirling ‘til you’re dizzy (though if that’s your jam, rock on with your spinny self). I’m talking about loop hikes, or the circuitous routes that save you from backtracking on trails.

Not that Bend’s outdoor beauty doesn’t deserve a second glance. But if you’re looking for loops that bring you back to the trailhead with minimal retracing of steps, here are ten options worth trying.

Be sure you check Bend weather before heading out, and watch for winter road closures that take some of these off the table as fall turns to winter. But there’s always next year, so bookmark this post and let’s get hiking!

Blogger Tawna on the shore of Suttle Lake, one of her favorite loop hikes.

Suttle Lake

A relatively flat 3.6-mile circuit, the trail around Suttle Lake offers sparkling views from your first steps to your last. While winter can coat the trail with snow, its lower elevation leaves it accessible long after the Cascade Lake Highway trails close for the season. 

Start at the Lodge and hike counter-clockwise to get warmed up on flatter, less ice-prone sections of trail before you hit shadier stuff. Leave lots of time for photo stops, then cap it off with lunch at Suttle Lake Lodge. Both the lodge and the trail are dog-friendly, so Rover’s welcome to join as long as you pick up after him.

Blogger Tawna's dog on the Tam a Lau Trail.
Views from the top of the Plateau on Tam a Lau Trail are breathtaking.

Tam-a-Lau Trail

Not to be confused with Tamolitch, the Tam-a-Lau Trail is in Cove Palisades State Park. The first mile requires a steep ascent up to a lava plateau, and it’s the lone section where you’ll need to backtrack on your return.

But once you’re up top, prepare for jaw-dropping views for the whole four-mile loop around the rim. You’ll see both the Crooked River and Deschutes River arms of Lake Billy Chinook, along with epic glimpses of The Island, a smaller plateau off-limits to hikers.

The lake gets packed in summer months, so try fall, winter, or spring for your adventure. Watch for ice on the steep part, and pack plenty of water and snacks to savor with your views.

Pilot Butte State Park in Bend, Oregon.
The view from atop Pilot Butte is a great way to orient yourself to Bend.

Pilot Butte

The cinder cone in the center of Bend makes us one of the only towns in the U.S. with a dormant volcano in the city limits. Pilot Butte also makes an excellent spot to get oriented to the town, with 360-degree views of Bend and beyond.

While not quite a loop, the trek to the top and down can be done with minimal backtracking. To make it a circuit, hang a left on the initial paved path and make your way on the asphalt trail the roadway. You’ll have the road to yourself in cooler months when it’s closed to motorized traffic, but stick with the shoulder from late spring to early fall when you’re sharing with cars. 

Once you’ve snapped photos from the peak, head down on the dirt path as it twists around the butte and eventually meets the asphalt path near the bottom. You can do the same route in reverse if you’d rather go up via dirt path and down via road, but I’m partial to the other route to make for a more gradual ascent. 

Jumping on the shore of Paulina Lake in Newberry National Volcanic Monument near Bend, OR
The view from one of the highest spots along the loop around Paulina Lake.

Paulina Lake

One of my favorite hikes in the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, the loop around Paulina Lake spans 7.5 miles of rolling terrain and some of the most spellbinding scenery anywhere. Stop midway through to soak your feet in the hot springs, then continue on for lunch at the lodge. Pack a picnic if it’s spring or fall and they’re not slinging burgers like they do in summer months.

This one’s not accessible when winter shuts down the main road, so it’s best tackled in late spring or early fall when both snow and crowds are at a minimum. Bring plenty of water and snacks, and keep your eyes peeled for eagles and sparkling obsidian along the trail.

Shevlin Park makes a great spot to see fall color.

Shevlin Park

One of Bend’s most beloved gems, Shevlin Park boasts miles of trails through old-growth forest and sage-covered desert spanning nearly 1,000 acres. It’s especially popular when autumn’s chill turns its aspens to bright beacons of gold glinting on ripples in Tumalo Creek.

The popular six-mile loop trail follows the canyon rim through an ocean of Ponderosa pines. It crosses Tumalo Creek twice and includes a few short, steep hills to keep it interesting. Check the trail map to see how to shorten it to a two-mile loop if you’re pressed for time.

There are also mountain bike trails if you prefer rolling over strolling. Dogs must be leashed, and the rule is strictly enforced. 

Gray Butte

A nice alternative to bustling crowds at nearby Smith Rock, Gray Butte offers sweeping views and some challenging altitude gain for fit hikers. The 6.4 mile lightly-trafficked trail loop offers excellent views of the Crooked River National Grasslands and the Cascade mountains. 

The trail begins in juniper forest and slowly climbs up the side of Gray Butte. You’ll share the trail with horseback riders and mountain bikers, so be mindful where you’re walking. The ascent gets steep in some spots, with sections of loose rock. 

You can hike this one clockwise or counterclockwise, and if you head out in springtime, you’ll see plenty of wildflowers as a prize for bagging this butte.

Blogger Tawna and her dogs on the Ancient Juniper Loop in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness.
Blogger Tawna on the Ancient Juniper Loop in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness.

Ancient Juniper Loop

This lovely loop in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness is my happy place. When I want to feel centered and let the pups run off-leash, this is where I head.

The 3.1 mile circuit is accessed from the Flatiron Rock trailhead off Highway 20 east of Bend. You won’t find frills like restrooms, paved parking lots, or aquatic eye candy like lakes or rivers. What you will find is tranquility served with a taste of Bend’s high desert landscape. Volcanic rock and ancient juniper trees line the dusty route you can follow clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on mood. 

Plenty of times I’ve been there without another soul in sight. The trail is mostly flat, but if you need more challenge, tack on the in-and-out trek to Flatiron Rock. Bring your own water, and be prepared to pack everything out with you, as there are no trash cans on site.

Ray Atkeson loop trail on Sparks Lake near Bend, Oregon.
Scenes from the Ray Atkeson loop trail on Sparks Lake.

Ray Atkeson Memorial Trail

Summer months bring big crowds to Sparks Lake, and winter brings enough snow to take this popular loop hike off the table. But during the sweet spots in spring and fall, few trails offer such sparkling high lake vistas or dizzying views of the Cascade Mountains.

The well-maintained trailhead has restrooms and an interpretive display explaining the hydrology and geology of Sparks Lake. Hike into a lodgepole pine forest and come to a junction. Heading right on a paved trail will take you through a fissured lava flow where you’ll get your first glimpses of South Sister and Broken Top. Stop here for photos, then keep going for a zillion more viewpoints that’ll have you whipping out the camera.

The entire loop is roughly 2.6 miles with some moderate elevation gain. Parts of it are paved, but most is dirt. Dogs are welcome, but should be on leash. Once the Cascade Lakes Highway closes for winter, getting here means having to snowmobile or ski in under your own power. 

Horse Butte Loop

While somewhat less scenic than others on this list, the Horse Butte Trailhead is the gateway to a 10-mile loop ambling past unique high desert landmarks like Boyd Cave. It’s popular with trail runners and mountain bikers, and you’ll score lovely views from the eastern side of the loop looking west toward the mountains. 

Pack plenty of water and take a potty break beforehand, since you won’t find any amenities out here. But you will find some solitude, particularly if you visit on a weekday morning. This one’s a good pick in winter months when its lower elevation keeps it mostly frost-free.

Big Pine in LaPine State Park
The Big Tree loop hike in La Pine State Park.

Big Pine Loop

If you’re taking it easy, Big Pine Loop trail in LaPine State Park is a perfect pick. Just under a mile, it’s a fairly flat trail with a section that follows Fall River. As the name suggests, the trail passes by a stately ponderosa that was once the world’s largest of its species (at least until it lost 40 feet off the top in 2016). 

But back to hiking. If you’re feeling more ambitious, LaPine State Park offers several other loop hikes, including Cougar Woods Loop and Deschutes Loop. Study the map and see what floats your boat!