Explore the lakes near Bend
November 7, 20238 minute read
Ah, the Deschutes River. The pride and joy of Bend. Flowing 252 miles from its headwaters at Little Lava Lake high up in the Cascades to the mighty Columbia River, it’s Central Oregon’s lifeblood. A river that provides vital water for local farms and ranches, important wildlife habitat for otters, beaver, trout, eagles, osprey, and countless other species, and—why we particularly love it—abundant recreational activities.
Time spent canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding, tubing, rafting, or surfing our beautiful Deschutes River is always time spent well. Bend is a haven for river recreation. Grab your watercraft of choice and get ready to experience Bend from a whole new perspective.
The Bend Whitewater Park rolls out big wave excitement right in town. Located near the Old Mill District, the Deschutes River surges through these playful and innovative man-made waves. Owned and managed by Bend Parks and Recreation District, the whitewater park features three distinct channels: the Habitat Channel, the Whitewater Channel, and the Fish Ladder Channel.
Designed to protect and enhance river health and provide essential habitat for local and migratory wildlife, the Habitat Channel isn’t for people or pets. While you can’t access this ecologically sensitive area, you can enjoy observing the wildlife here from the east side of the Deschutes River Trail.
For a whitewater challenge, the center Whitewater Channel features an exciting set of waves for adrenaline junkies. Kayakers, paddleboarders, and surfers will find four wave features, from Eddy’s Wave, which is designed for and should only be attempted by expert river riders, to Jason’s Wave, a beginner to intermediate wave suitable for play boats, SUPs, and boogie boards. It’s best for those learning whitewater sports or refining their skills.
The Fish Ladder Channel is the perfect option if you want to toss in a few beginner-friendly rapids on your float. This channel offers a mellower experience ideal for families with a series of exciting, small rapids navigable for tubes.
Not keen on floating down any rapids? No problem! Simply follow the signage and take out on the far left just before the rapids begin. You can walk around the rapids and return to the water at the bottom of McKay Park to float another 30 minutes or so to the Tubing Takeout at Drake Park. In the summer months, Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe rents tubes from the launch area at Riverbend Park and Cascades East Transit runs a Ride the River shuttle service that takes you from Drake Park back to Riverbend Park.
Because of its proximity to downtown Bend, it’s no surprise the Deschutes River is incredibly popular. On a hot July day, the section of river through the Old Mill District becomes a sea of colorful tubes, especially by the afternoon. Plan to get an early start if you want a little more space to stretch your river legs.
With its shallow water, the section of the Deschutes River that flows through Tumalo State Park just north of Bend is great for tubing. Narrow and rocky, you’ll float by boulders, a dramatic high desert shoreline, and some small rapids. For an hour float, take out in Tumalo. For a 2.5-3 hour voyage, continue north through open grasslands, sagebrush fields, and a few more rapids to Twin Bridges. Do not continue past Twin Bridges. A dangerous waterfall lies ahead that is not suitable for tubing.
For a fun, bird’s-eye view, catch the action from the pedestrian bridge at McKay Park, where you’ll spot surfers lined up for their chance to ride the Green Wave.
As its name implies, the Green Wave is a green, glassy-faced wave ideal for short board river surfing, SUP surfing, and flat bottom kayak surfing. Surfing this river wave is nothing like surfing ocean waves—it’s best suited for experienced river users. Even on a chilly winter day, a handful of adventurous surfers are out riding the wave decked out in head-to-toe thick neoprene. Because the whitewater park’s waves and flow are controlled, it’s possible to surf and kayak here year-round.
Looking for thrills but prefer them with an expert guide? Book a whitewater rafting trip with Sun Country Tours. Test your nerves on the infamous Big Eddy Thriller, a three-mile stretch of the Deschutes River between Bend and Sunriver that includes a series of four Class III rapids and several Class II rapids. Don’t expect to leave this experience dry!
For longer guided trips, Ouzel Outfitters offers several options for rafting trips on the Lower Deschutes, from single day floats to multi-day rafting and camping adventures.
If a mellow paddle is more your pace, opt to kayak, canoe, or SUP the Deschutes River right through the heart of town (rentals are available from Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe). Popular routes include Brooks Park to Miller’s Landing Park, Riverbend Park to McKay Park, McKay Park to Drake Park, or for a longer paddle, Riverbend Park to Drake Park. Unless you have whitewater skills, you’ll definitely want to use that river takeout and walk around the rapids if you’re using a kayak, canoe, or standup paddleboard. We’ve seen a few broken paddleboard fins and sad faces on those who didn’t (note: a tube is really the watercraft of choice if you’re inexperienced and want to float these rapids).
Feeling inspired to learn how to whitewater kayak? Bend Kayak School offers lessons teaching you how to be proficient in river running skills, safety, and risk management while having fun on the water. Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe offers beginner, intermediate, and advanced whitewater classes as well as a bi-weekly Whitewater Skills Builder clinic to provide individualized instruction for those who already have a whitewater kayaking foundation or have taken Tumalo Creek’s Full Immersion course. These evening clinics are ideal for those seeking to gain experience in between courses.
Just south of Bend, the Dillon Falls Trailhead/Slough Day Use Area offers calmer water perfect for tubing, kayaking, canoeing, or standup paddleboarding. You’ll head out on the Cascade Lakes Highway and turn left onto Dillon Falls Road across from the Cascade Lakes Welcome Station. It’s a short 15 to 20-minute drive from town.
If you don’t want to paddle upstream (or if you’re tubing), put in at Slough Day Use Area. This is also a great spot to enjoy a picnic before or after your time on the river. You’ll meander along on the Deschutes River surrounded by ponderosa forest, marshland, lava fields, and aspen stands. You’ll pass an osprey nest and end your float with views of Broken Top and Mt. Bachelor before taking out at Dillon Falls Trailhead. Here, you’ve got two options: 1) Stash your gear and hike the 1.8 miles back to Slough Day Use Area. 2) Plan for a car shuttle back to Slough Day Use Area. If you’re down to paddle upstream, simply put in at Dillon Falls Trailhead paddle up to Slough, then enjoy an easy downstream return.
Another lovely spot to float on the Deschutes River is through Sunriver. There are a few options depending on how much time you have. For a half-day trip, put in at Harper Bridge just upstream of Sunriver Resort. You’ll get a fun perspective of the resort from the water as you float past the stables and marina (note: only guests of Sunriver Resort are allowed to use the marina for river access).
For much of your journey, you won’t spot any development along the riverbanks, just the striking beauty of our Central Oregon landscape. You can paddle or float all the way to the Sunriver Canoe Takeout just before Benham Falls. Depending on how quickly the Deschutes is flowing, this can take around 4 hours with a canoe, kayak, or paddleboard. If you’re on a tube, expect a 5-6 hour float. To cut the time in half, take out at Besson Picnic Area just before the marina. Either way, your route is downstream so you’ll need a car shuttle for this section.
Drive a little further south to LaPine State Park, home of Oregon’s largest ponderosa pine. With a circumference of 326 inches and a height of 191 feet, this impressive tree is estimated to be over 500 years old. After you’ve marveled at this Goliath, head the the park’s boat ramp and float your way to Big River Campground. This wide, forested section of the Deschutes features serene, calm waters. Plan for a 2.5-hour journey and a car shuttle.
Want to give back to the river that gives us so much? Consider volunteering at a river stewardship day or making a donation to local nonprofits like the Deschutes River Conservancy and Upper Deschutes Watershed Council. Our river will continue to be healthy if we treat it with care and respect. It’s an honor and a privilege to enjoy it.
Please make sure you follow the rules of the river while enjoying your time on the water—they exist to keep you safe! Kids 12 years and under are required by state law to wear a life jacket. The use of alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco are not allowed in the parks, parking lots, or on the river.