The best spring experiences in Bend, Oregon
February 21, 20249 minute read
Fresh mountain air, diverse geography, and a vibrant culture of running enthusiasts make Bend, Oregon, a world-class destination for trail running. Bend was even awarded the title of “America’s Best Trail Running Town” by Outside Magazine. The community has hosted dozens of high-caliber trail running events. These include the USA Track & Field Trail Half Marathon, the 50K and the Mountain Running National Championships, and the XTERRA National Trail Running Championship. The number of incredible options for trail runners right here in town or within a short one-hour drive can be difficult to comprehend.
To help you decide, many of these routes vary by season because of Central Oregon’s diverse landscape. Positioned in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains, Bend features some fantastic mountain and forest runs west of town. The air is cool and fresh, even on the hottest summer day. When the snow flies, many of these trails to the west of town become ski or snowshoe routes. But there are still plenty of fantastic trail running options, whether in town or to the east on the edge of the High Desert.
Although there are far too many great local trails to list, here are a few of our favorites for different seasons and interests:
Riley Ranch Nature Preserve sits on an 184-acre parcel of land along the Deschutes River canyon in NW Bend. It provides easy, protected access to a section of the Deschutes that has historically been private land. Riley Ranch offers hikers and runners a little under 3 miles of unpaved trail. You can also extend the run along the eastern bank of the Deschutes River to Tumalo State Park. This 7-mile out-and-back option passes the Deschutes River and Tumalo Creek confluence. Next, it passes over a bridge and offers plenty of river access points for a refreshing mid-run dip in the water. Be aware that Riley Ranch is closed to dogs and bikes.
One thousand acres of parkland make up the historic Shevlin Park on the NW edge of Bend. It features the rushing Tumalo Creek and some of the most diversely forested terrain you’re likely to find in the area. A handful of incredible trails through and around this park make it a fantastic option for anyone with a pair of running shoes. You can opt for the 5-mile Tumalo Creek Trail or the 6-mile Shevlin Loop Trail. Both are out and back and offer minimal elevation gain, around 190 and 290 feet.
Tumalo Creek Trail meanders along the creekside and mainly comprises a soft, raised gravel trailbed. Although it’s pretty wide, this trail is super popular all year round, so you’ll likely bump into fellow trail users quite often. Shevlin Loop Trail sticks predominantly to the hillsides surrounding the heart of the canyon, with bridge crossings on either end. The eastern part of the trail meanders through sagebrush on the edge of the fully recovered, yet fully exposed, burn zone from the 1990 Awbrey Hall fire.
The vegetation turns into a lush riparian zone after dipping down into the canyon for the creek crossing at either end. It showcases quaking aspen, western larch, and even a mix of evergreen. Above the canyon to the west, the trail meanders through ponderosa pines groves on the edge of the foothills of the Cascades. Parking, bathrooms, and even drinking water are available at the north end of the loop. For longer runs, check out the many connecting trails that lead through the park and beyond, like Mrazek, Miller’s, and Outback.
Located on the east side of Bend, Pilot Butte is a true landmark of this region. Although it’s not even a mile in distance, the singletrack trail that winds up this cinder cone gains about 500 feet of elevation. This makes it a rather spicy hill climb. The view from the top is well worth the effort! One lap is enough for most, but this is an excellent option if you’re looking for a longer workout with extended hill repeats. Amenities feature bathrooms at both the bottom and top of the butte, with a large parking area and trailhead on the SE side.
The heart of this town, the Deschutes River, can be pretty confusing to navigate by foot. Much of this river has paved or unpaved trails alongside its shore as it winds its way north through town. However, there are several sections that require more navigation than just following the river. Although the city is working hard to develop a more continuous, clear route, for now, the trail more or less has three primary segments.
The 4.5-mile north segment runs from the Riley Ranch Nature Preserve (see above) to the town of Tumalo, just north of Tumalo State Park.
The roughly 12-mile central segment begins as a wide gravel path. It winds along the top of the river canyon from the north end of Awbrey Butte. Wrapping around the butte to its west, the trail continues upriver towards Downtown Bend. It does so via a network of bridge crossings and paved sections as it works its way south toward the Old Mill District. This urban interface can be enjoyable to navigate, but expect heavy trail user traffic midday. As the trail reaches Farewell Park, it becomes singletrack dirt and loops around the South Canyon Bridge. It then returns on the other side of the river and loops back to the Old Mill.
The 18+ mile south segment is far wilder as it’s separated from the city by several miles of private land. But it still gets plenty of use. The northernmost access point is via the Rimrock Trailhead and requires a short traverse over the bluff to get to the river. From here, the trail weaves its way upstream through various trailheads with pit toilets and parking areas. It eventually ties in with the Sunriver trail network at Benham Falls East Trailhead. Waterfalls, vast lava flows, and mountain views define this wild riparian corridor and create a phenomenal trail experience.
For those looking for more freedom in their running options, the sprawling 29,000-acre Oregon Badlands Wilderness offers rugged desolation just east of Bend. True high desert, this exposed land can get extremely hot and dry during the summer months. But it generally creates a great snow-free trail running experience in the cooler months. Plan accordingly. Three different trailheads offer access to a dozen different trails of varying lengths in the Badlands. Each option features a sea of sagebrush, minimal elevation gain, and some unique rock formations to keep it interesting. If you’re looking for some separation from the masses and a great place to run with dogs, look no further.
Just try this one without getting TLC’s “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls” stuck in your head. It begins and ends at the base of one of Bend’s most iconic natural features, Tumalo Falls. This route follows the tumultuous Tumalo Creek along the base of the Bend watershed, passing at least seven waterfalls and weaving through densely forested terrain. North Fork covers 3.9 miles of reasonably technical trail. It involves a 1,134-foot elevation gain, spanning from its base to the serene meadows of Happy Valley at its high point. From here, you can return via North Fork, extending the loop to 9.7 miles. Stay right at the junction with Metolius Windigo and return via the Farewell trail. Or loop back to the south via Bridge Creek Trail. No dogs or bikes are permitted.
North Fork is maintained by Central Oregon Running Klub. The trail is off-limits to downhill bike traffic to limit accidents between trail users on one of the busiest trail segments in the Bend area. Plan on a 20-minute drive from the westside of Bend to get to the parking area. Pit toilets await, and a parking permit is required. Daily permits are available on-site. Anticipate snow at the higher elevations on this trail until at least mid-June.
The highest option on our list, Green Lakes Trail begins and ends at a permitted parking lot just off of Cascade Lakes Highway, about a 30 minute drive west of Bend. For those who do not hold the annual Northwest Forest Pass, daily permits are available on site (cards only, no cash). The out-and-back trail features 9.1 miles and 1,174 feet of elevation gain. It meanders along Fall Creek and then follows along the flank of a large lava flow before arriving at the beautiful alpine lakes. The scenery throughout is absolutely magnificent.
Note that most trailheads that access the Three Sisters Wilderness require a Northwest Forest pass for parking, as well as a Central Cascades Wilderness permit for all overnight stays and for day-use at some trailheads. Get more information about the permits here.
One of Travel Oregon’s “7 Wonders of Oregon”, we’re incredibly fortunate to be so close to Smith Rock State Park. A quick 40 minute drive separates Bend from some of the most unique recreation in the region, on and around the iconic Smith Rock. Several incredible trail run options from the main parking area include options for beginner to advanced runners. Either option begins and ends with a steep paved trail connecting the parking area to the bridge over the Crooked River.
The tamest option at Smith Rock is the 2.5-mile River Trail. Along the river bank, it’s mostly flat except for the access to the parking area via “The Chute.” The 3.7-mile Misery Ridge Loop is an excellent option for those wanting a little more elevation gain (a little over 1500 feet). It still begins or ends with the River Trail but loops up over the top of the rock formation via a steep section of technical trail. The third primary option, the Summit Loop, is the longest of the three by far, coming in at almost 7.5 miles from the main parking area. This route doesn’t have much more elevation gain than the Misery Ridge Loop (1664 feet). But, most of that gain is concentrated in the northeast corner of the loop, specifically on Burma Road.
Wherever you end up exploring, a good running shop is always handy to keep in your back pocket for new gear, advice, or running-specific nutrition. Our pick is easy. FootZone Bend has been a locally owned stalwart in this community since 1995, located in the heart of downtown Bend.
Stick to the routes west of town or in-town during the summer months. The routes east and north of town can be incredibly hot and dry, but low snow fall in these areas makes them a great option for the colder months.