Hidden Gems of Central Oregon: 3-Day Itinerary

Oregon is a beautiful place, especially if you know where to go!  Everyone typically thinks of Multnomah Falls or Timberline Lodge or Cannon Beach or Crater Lake…  While those are undeniably stunning, and everyone should see them at least once, there are some hidden gems far less frequented.  If you have a few days to spare, check out these unique sites in Central Oregon.

View of the Oregon Painted Hills in the winter

Day 1

Day 1 of our trip to Central Oregon comprised mostly of the four-hour drive from Portland to get out there.  If you’re coming from out of state, you may also chose to simply fly straight into Bend, which would conveniently place you close to these Central Oregon destinations.  We also visited in the winter, as it greatly diminishes crowds, and scenes are more photogenic bedecked in snow.

Smith Rock State Park

Aaron on the edge of a cliff in Smith Rock State Park in Central Oregon

Smith Rock proper is a tuff ridge that rises about 600 feet above the Crooked River, and it’s wildly popular among rock climbers.  Photographically, the area is scenic, with the river, lofty vantages, plentiful wildlife, and the rock climbers, themselves.  It is also an attractive spot for hikers, as it offers several trails to circumnavigate the main ridge, as well as scramble up and over it (and even through it).  We have visited a few times, and we always find plenty to keep us entertained.

Looking out at Smith Rock from within a rocky alcove
Looking out at Smith Rock from within a rocky alcove

Our Experience

Once in the area, we spent the afternoon scrambling around the park, taking photos, and wandering the ridge.  We initially started clockwise around the ridge (most go counter-clockwise up Misery Ridge and around the backside), to find the spot where we knew we could clamber through some boulders and pop out on the far side.  I wouldn’t advise this route for those who aren’t comfortable with some moderate bouldering and some tight spaces, but it’s a good way to mix up the standard hike.

Unfortunately, this proved too much for most of our group (a lot of us had large camera bags, and one pair had a little one in tow), so we backtracked and opted instead for the more typical Misery Ridge.

The icy patch on the Misery Ridge trail at Smith Rock

This section of the trail is aptly named, as it ascends without mercy.  From afar, it doesn’t appear too intimidating, but once we crested what looked to be the top, more trail stretched above us.  Huffing and puffing, we reached the final stretch, only to be greeted by a patch of ice.  Many of us had packed microspikes, but they were sadly back in the car, as we didn’t suspect ice from our initial impression of the conditions.

Ice on a dirt trail, with a several-hundred-foot drop next to you, is just a touch nerve-wracking.  However, we somehow persevered, keeping to the snow-packed edges.  We were rewarded with an even larger patch of ice, but we were so close to the top, we figured this had to be the last bit.

By this point, half of our group had already bailed again, destined for the parking lot.  I wouldn’t give up (I’m incurably tenacious), and I was proud to finally reach the true summit.

Monkey Face rock formation in Smith Rock State Park in Central Oregon

We made our way toward the Monkey Face rock formation on the far side… only to be met with yet more ice.  Disappointed we didn’t leave the ice behind, we made a decision.  Ahead, the amount of treacherous ice to face was unknown.  Behind, we really didn’t relish the idea of traversing those patches yet again, but at least the amount and severity were known.  Besides, sunset was fast approaching, and we really didn’t want to come down off a cliff in the dark.

After a few more shots of Monkey Face, we turned back.

Sun hitting just the upper edge of the far ridge in Smith Rock State Park

Coming back down Misery Ridge was miserable for a different reason; it was easier crossing the ice on the uphill.  But at least once we were past the two spots, we knew we were home-free.

Then the sun poked through the clouds, illuminating the far ridge beautifully, and we raced down to catch sunset falling over the Crooked River.  It treated us with bands of gold and orange in the sky.

Sunset behind Smith Rock in Oregon

We then also tried to sneak a peek of the resident bald eagle, but by then it was too dark.  We retired to our hotel in Redmond to prepare for the next day.

If You Go

You can clearly visit this site any time of the year. If you’re there in the summertime, prepare for crowds and a lot of sun. Dress appropriately and bring plenty of water. I’d also recommend you start your hike as early in the day as possible. Besides, you might have a better chance at spotting wildlife then.

If you’re there in the winter, bundle up, but dress in layers so you can strip down as you warm up. Still pack in the water, and bring those crampons!

Optional Add-ons

If you have more time, consider exploring Bend.  It’s a quaint town with a brewery “Ale Trail,” cinder cone parks, and skiing on Mount Bachelor.  There are also several lava tubes and caves to explore and abundant hiking opportunities. We love visiting Bend; it’s a cute desert town.

Day 2

Painted Hills

Aaron photographing the Painted Hills from the driver's seat of the car

Day 2 saw us up bright and early to make the hour-plus drive out to the Painted Hills.  These hills are a fascinating wonder of Oregon, formed by ancient river deposits that painted layers of history.  Now, bands of reds and yellows and greys delight the senses and are a marvel to witness.

A view of the snowy Painted Hills from above in Central Oregon

Our Experience

We stopped at the main overlook to take in the scene below, and the recent moisture and light dollops of white snow enhanced the rich colors on the hillside.  I couldn’t photograph them enough, and I stood just staring at them for countless minutes.

View of the Oregon Painted Hills in the winter

We hiked along the short trails to see them from all angles, and they occasionally treated us to a brief burst of sunlight through the cloud cover.  But mostly, I was at peace with the gentle sound of new snowflakes alighting on my jacket.

We also wandered the boardwalk of the Painted Cove Trail – a splendid way to observe the mysterious hills up close.  The beauty of the soil never ceased to amaze me, and it fascinated me to discover the hills are rather soft.  Like multi-colored sands poured in adjacent piles instead of solid rock or colored by vegetation.  The sight was stunning.

If You Go

The Painted Hills are rather beautiful, but it’s a fairly small site. You can see them within a few hours, though it never feels like enough time for me. Crowds can get bad in the summer; even in the winter we saw a few others coming and going. If you love taking pictures of colorful landscapes, you’re in for a treat here. Be sure to pack your tripod for the best shots.

Blue Basin

One could likely spend the entire day exploring the Painted Hills, but we only had a long weekend to play, so we continued onto Blue Basin.  Formed by volcanic ash and home to countless fossil discoveries, this area is breathtaking to behold.

Our Experience

I didn’t really know what to expect with Blue Basin.  I was in this mostly for the Painted Hills, and I had gotten that much.  The rest was just frosting.  With Blue Basin, I had pictured a single butte with soil that, in certain lighting, took on a bluish hue.  Sure, that could be cool; let’s check it out!

A milky green creek flowing into a small pool at the Blue Basin in Central Oregon

The Blue Basin area has both a spear and a loop hike.  The former is obviously much shorter, so we opted for that to pop in, have a look, and then turn back.  I raced ahead right away, knowing I’d likely be slower with the pictures, so I wound up alone in front of everyone else.

The first thing I noticed was a highly unusual milky green stream trickling alongside the trail.  I resolved to ask the others about it when they caught up; what minerals could cause the water to turn that color?

The trail wound its way up between two walls of rock, periodically crossing the stream on metal grate bridges.  Then I came around a bend, and the view stopped me short.  The entire wall ahead of me was the most bizarre alien green!  I’ve never seen rocks that color; there was definitely an audible “wow!”

Green water flowing through Oregon's Blue Basin
Green water flowing through Oregon’s Blue Basin

As I continued, I ascended into more green walls, until it was everywhere I looked.  It took my breath away; it was unlike anything I had witnessed before.  More metal bridges crisscrossed the green creek (and now I knew why it was green) and led to the end of the spear, which dead-ended in a bowl of green.

I’m not quite sure why it’s called Blue Basin, as the hue is an unmistakable green, but it was a complete shock.  Who knew this was right here in Oregon?

Green walls of Oregon's Blue Basin
Green walls of Oregon’s Blue Basin

Enough excitement for one day, we headed back to Redmond, another day successfully achieved.

If You Go

Definitely bring that camera! If you’re anything like me, this spot will completely blow you away, and you won’t be able to take too many pictures. The trails are really easy, with only a gentle climb, so it’s suitable for just about anyone. I imagine this means it could become packed with families in the summer, but we had the place all to ourselves in February.

Optional Add-ons

Still up for more?  Consider exploring the full Blue Basin loop (3 miles), that affords expansive views of the entire John Day River Valley below.  You should also stop by one of the many viewpoints or trails to appreciate the nearby Sheep Rock, stop into the Paleontology Center, or hike the Flood of Fire Trail in the Foree Area.

Day 3

Day 3 was primarily about checking out and heading home, but not before we squeezed in a few more adventures.

The hydroelectric power plant downstream from White River Falls
The hydroelectric power plant downstream from White River Falls


Clarno is an interesting area to explore, featuring more unusual geological formations and fossilized plants.  There are a few trails to explore here, including one to a natural bridge that is likely to erode away in a few years.  We could also see ancient fossilized trees within the cliff walls.  A jagged ridge – the Palisades – are also here, offering yet more to tantalize the eyes.

Due to snow, we couldn’t actually make it out to Clarno during our visit, but it’s on our list for next time!

White River Falls State Park

White River Falls from above in Central Oregon
White River Falls from above

Instead of going due west to get back to Portland from Redmond, we opted to go north.  This took us through Maupin and on to the little-known White River Falls State Park.  The park is clearly focused on the falls, and a single trail leads down to the river past the old hydroelectric plant.  The lower pool makes for a good dipping spot, and the 90-foot cascade is beautiful to photograph.

Our Experience

The park is officially closed in the winter, but that didn’t stop us from parking outside the gate and hiking in.

Snowy White River Falls from the front

Near the main entrance, the road leads to an overlook of the falls.  Here, we marveled at the beauty from atop and took a few pictures.  Then, because I can never say no to an adventure, we descended the path toward the base of the falls.  The entire landscape was blanketed in snow, so we carefully followed previous footprints to a small overlook in front of the old plant.  There, we could see the falls in all their glory, the tiers gracefully hugged by the snowy walls.

On a warmer day, I would have liked to continue down the trail along the riverbank, but it was questionable in the snow.  This marked the end to our trip, with nothing but the rest of the drive ahead of us.

If You Go

Plan to make a picnic out of this stop! With a wonderful overlook and an adjacent park, it’s the perfect resting spot. Also, bringing your hiking boots if you want to explore the full trail along the riverbank. The path isn’t all very well defined, and it can get muddy close to the water.

Sheep Rock under clouds in Central Oregon

Optional Add-ons

Check out the Shaniko ghost town if you have some extra time in the area.  We tried, but an incoming snowstorm turned us around.  If the weather is warm, you might also consider rafting in or hiking around the Deschutes River.  There are many put-ins near Maupin and various rafting tour companies to lead your way.

Final Thoughts

We’ve lived in Oregon for many years now, and we’re still finding new gems to awe us. Central Oregon is a bit less explored than many other more popular regions, but it certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. Amazing places are hidden all over!

Have you ever been to Central Oregon?  What would you do with three days there?

Psst… do you love reading about Oregon?  You might also enjoy these:

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5 thoughts on “Hidden Gems of Central Oregon: 3-Day Itinerary

  1. Great post. I’ve only done Oregon via the coast road, but I know there’s still so much of that state I have to get back and see. Thanks for the ideas. I’m going to save this post for future reference.

    1. So glad we could give you some ideas! Oregon is just packed with so many beautiful places – mountains, lakes, the coast, waterfalls, incredible geological structures – it’s difficult to get bored! When you get out to Central Oregon, you should also certainly check out Crater Lake. It’s Oregon’s only national park, and she’s a beaut! 🙂

  2. A great read. It’s definitely a state I want to see more of. The Blue Basin looks stunning so that’s certainly going on my list 🙂

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Jason! I’m glad you liked the article. Oregon really is a beautiful place! We’ve been living here for over a decade (and Aaron was born and raised), and we’re still discovering new wonders such as these. Definitely visit in person; it’s even better than the photos!

      1. Yeah, I can imagine there are plenty of unvisited places for you. Plenty of incentive to keep looking though 🙂

        Hopefully I’ll make it back to Oregon soon.

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