Photograph by Gerald Smith, My Shot
This 83-mile (134-kilometer) route—running from Bend, Oregon, to Sunriver on Oregon 372 and County Roads 46 and 42—can be driven in three hours, but take your time and enjoy the unparalleled Cascades scenery.
It's been 1,300 years since lava oozed out of the peaks of the Cascade mountain range, but the volcanic landscape of central Oregon's high desert plain still conjures up prehistoric visions of bubbling calderas, exploding mountain tops, and rivers of molten lava. Yet just 20 miles (32 kilometers) away is a contrasting land of thick forests—mostly Douglas fir and hemlock—and glistening lakes full of native rainbow trout and kokanee salmon. Weaving through a classic Cascades landscape, the Scenic Byway passes massive volcanoes, murmuring streams, forests of awesome evergreens, lava flows, glittering lakes, and meadows full of wildflowers.
Start in Bend
Head southwest out of Bend on Oreg. 372, following the signs to Cascade Lakes and Mount Bachelor. Almost immediately, you start climbing into ponderosa pine forests characteristic of the drier east side of the Cascades as you cross into the Deschutes National Forest (tel. 1 541 383 5300; www.fs.fed.us/r6/deschutes/welcome.html). After five miles (eight kilometers), you'll see an immense swath of the eastern Cascades, including some extensive lava flows.
As you continue climbing, the forest becomes a dense mix of pine, fir, hemlock, and spruce. About seven miles (11 kilometers) past the information kiosk, you round a bend and Mount Bachelor suddenly fills the horizon. After about five miles (eight kilometers) a turnoff leads up to the Mount Bachelor Ski and Summer Resort (tel. 800 829 2442); a chairlift ascends to the 9,065-foot (2,763-meter) summit of this volcano (fee). On clear days, the view here takes in the surrounding peaks.
Back on the drive, now called Cty. Rd. 46, you have more dramatic views of other volcanoes and mountains, with Broken Top hulking in the foreground. A side road a mile or so past the ski-area turnoff leads a half mile to a short trail with great views of Todd Lake and the snow-crowned mountains that rear above it. Fringed by spruce and fir forests, Todd Lake is favored by American dippers, which dive into it with abandon. This is the first of many beautiful mountain lakes along the drive; most were formed when ancient lava flows dammed or redirected rivers.
Forging on between Mount Bachelor and Broken Top, the road skirts the marshy north end of Sparks Lake. Stretch your legs along a short trail rimmed with summer wildflowers—Western columbine, larkspur, elderberry—where pumice, basalt, and volcanic ash all mix in forested lava fields.
Continuing on, the road curves around Devils Hill, a jumble of dark lava boulders. You can get a close-up look at this fascinating area by parking at Devils Lake and walking back along the highway to Devils Hill. At its base lie a lovely little pond and a meadow that is sprinkled with wildflowers during the summer.
Three Sisters Wilderness
As Cty. Rd. 46 swings south, it edges the 283,402-acre (114,689-hectare) Three Sisters Wilderness (hiking permits available at most trailheads). Here, you pass more lakes and lava formations and more views of Mount Bachelor and other towering Cascades giants. Opportunities for hiking, fishing, boating, and picnicking abound, particularly if you make a stop at Elk Lake, where there's even a sandy beach.
Six or seven miles (10 or 11 kilometers) past this lake, the highway pulls alongside the Deschutes River. From its source in nearby Little Lava Lake, it begins its journey to the Columbia River. For the next few miles you follow the river, only 25 feet (eight meters) wide at this stage. After river and road part company, you continue for several miles along a wild natural boulevard lined with pines, firs, and hemlocks; watch the forest edge for deer.
Crane Prairie Reservoir
For more wildlife, turn off at the Osprey Point and Crane Prairie Reservoir. Here, a short trail through the forest opens onto the reservoir, where dead trees cradle the nests of a variety of birds, including ospreys. From Osprey Point itself, you may also spot geese, ducks, river otters, great blue herons, and sandhill cranes. About three miles past Osprey Point, this route separates from the America's Byway official Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway and turns east onto Cty. Rd. 42 where it passes groves of ponderosa pines. About three miles (five kilometers) from the junction, the Deschutes River reappears. If you stop at the observation platform overlooking the river, you may spot kokanee, a landlocked species of salmon.
For the next 15 miles (24 kilometers) or so the drive leads through a mix of pristine and cut-over pine forests. Soon houses begin to reappear, heralding a return to civilization and the end of the drive in the town of Sunriver, a resort community catering to summer vacationers and winter skiers. Catch the sunset at the Trout House restaurant, known for its chinook salmon smoked on-site and also for inspiring views of the Deschutes River. To visit Sunriver, turn left on South Century Drive.
The best time to drive this route is summer through fall. Portions of the route are closed in winter. Both the High Desert Museum and Newberry National Volcanic Monument, a few miles south of Bend on U.S. 97, tell the story of the rugged landscape and the flora and fauna unique to the area. For general information, see the Bend visitors bureau website, www.visitbend.org; also see www.fs.fed.us/r6/centraloregon. For local weather conditions, see www.weather.com.
—Text by Mel White, adapted from National Geographic Guide to Scenic Highways & Byways (Third Edition)