Photograph in Central Oregon
Most people think of Oregon as a land of endless forests, rivers and rain. This is true in the
regions west of the cascade mountains but more and more people are traveling to the
mountainous high desert areas of Central Oregon as they hold some of the most beautiful and
adventurous outdoor areas in the Pacific Northwest – with little the rain.
Located on the eastern edge of the Cascade Range along the Deschutes river, the town of
Bend has become a gateway for outdoor enthusiasts and adventurous travelers. The town sits
at 3,623 ft elevation and is located in what meteorologists call a “rain shadow” where the
mountains are so close that weather coming from the western coast of the state is blocked and
pushed up over the area before heading out into the open flatlands of juniper and sagebrush to
the east. This makes for beautiful weather that is often perfect for landscape photography with
mountain peaks reflected in stunning lakes, rivers, waterfalls and crystal clear skies for night
time images of the Milky Way.
Bend’s climate is comprised mainly of cool nights and sunny days. The estimated total of sunny
days is around 358 days per year. Annual precipitation is 11 inches of rain and 24 inches of
snow with temperatures averaging 31 degrees in December and 75 degrees in July. Being right
up against the Cascade Range though temperatures can vary widely with upper 90’s and
thunderstorms in the summers and heavy snowstorms in the winter. Again this makes for some
outstanding conditions for landscape photography whether your in town, up in the mountains or
out in the high desert. Fall is an especially beautiful time of year here as Bend is known for its
Indian summers and colorful fall foliage.
Things To Do
Tourism is one of Bend’s largest economic sectors and it’s no wonder with nearby Mount
Bachelor ski resort, the Cascade Lakes Highway and recreational activities that includes skiing,
hiking, biking, kayaking, rafting, golfing, rock climbing, camping, picnicking, fishing and
photography. The area hosts many outdoor activities tours , photography tours and workshops.
The Deschutes River winds its way through town making it a popular waterway for floating,
kayaking and fly fishing. Bend is also home to the 8th largest craft brewery in the US
(Deschutes Brewery) with over 20 additional microbreweries in the area. Brewing culture is
celebrated with events like the Bend Brewfest, The Little Woody (barrel aged beer and whiskey
fest), Oktoberfest, and Central Oregon Beer Week just to name a few. Beer fans can also visit
many of the breweries along the Bend Ale Trail by either picking up a map downtown at
visitbend or by booking one of several brewery tours such as the Cycle Pub or the Bend Brew
Old Mill River Walk – Water park surfers
The Old Mill District is marked by three smoke stacks towering over an outdoor shopping center
along the Deschutes river. These smoke stacks are the remnants of two lumber mills, the
Shevlin-Hixon Co. and the Brooks-Scanlon plant, both of which opened in 1916. This area along
the river is also where the town of Bend originated.
The bridge crossing the river in the Old Mill district, known as the “flag bridge”, is the remnant of
the first bridge built across the Deschutes river in the early 1880’s. This is where, in 1877, John
Y. Todd bought the old “Farewell Bend” ranch for $60 dollars and two horses. This pioneer
ranch became a place for travelers headed west to cross the Deschutes and the name Farewell
Bend stuck as pioneers were a bit sad to leave this beautiful area. The name was shortened to
Bend by the postal service and became an incorporated town in 1905.
By the 1920’s two lumber mills were built here becoming the largest wood milling complex in the
world at that time. Logs were floated down the river to here, cut into lumber and shipped out by
train. The last of these two mills closed in the 1980’s until 1996… when the complex was
converted into the Old Mill District Shopping Center. The Les Schwab Outdoor Amphitheater on
the other side of the river across from the Old Mill District hosts concerts from spring thru fall
with well known bands from across the nation and world.
Today a river trail, starting just above the Old Mill District in the river canyon running southwest
of town, follows the Deschutes river into downtown Bend and beyond.
Just past the the shopping and restaurant complex of the Old Mill towards downtown is the
Colorado Street spillway which was converted in 2017 into a whitewater park featuring a float
through channel and a surfing wave channel. Surfing here has become popular with the ability
to step off the bank and onto a waist high continuously flowing wave. The snow melted waters
of the Deschutes are cold year round and most surfers wear wetsuits even on hot days.
Floating the river from Farewell Bend Park—— to Mirror Pond downtown is popular in the
summer months and on a hot high desert day thousands can be seen in the river with every
kind of floating device imaginable! All this includes plenty of wildlife along the river such as
geese, ducks, beavers, Osprey, Eagles and even the occasional otter make this area a fantastic
place for photography!
Drake Park & Mirror Pond
Sunset and Downtown Street Photography
The Deschutes river runs through the town of Bend from its origins high in the Cascade
Mountains to the west of town. One of the town’s first structures was a hunting lodge
overlooking today’s Drake Park at what is today Crow’s Feet Commons. The lodge was built by
midwest capitalist Alexander M Drake who arrived in 1900. He founded the Pilot Butte
Development Company and soon the town, with his help, would become incorporated by vote in
The dam that forms Mirror Pond was constructed in 1910, providing the town with its first source
of electricity which resulted in the building of the neighborhood adjacent to Drake Park. 200
homes were powered by the dam and it continues to provide clean renewable electricity to
those homes today.
Drake Park has become a cultural gathering place for the community. This expansive park
includes a stage where thousands gather in the summer for free events such as the weekly
Munch & Music series as well as running and cycling events, community fundraising events and
multiple festivals throughout the summer. Mirror Pond is actually a damned portion of the
Deschutes River and the nearby Cascade Mountains can be seen and photographed from
strategic locations around the pond.
The neighborhood of Old Bend across from Drake Park is a wonderful place to stroll through
while photographing many historic styles of homes from the early 1900’s.From old Cape Cod
designs to large Craftsman style buildings and everything in between, they are often large and
well maintained. Many of the homes have historical plaques describing the design, year built
and original owners, many of whom worked for the lumber mill.
All these things combine to make downtown Bend and Drake Park an excellent place to explore
and photograph. Add in the abundance of world class restaurants, shops and seemingly
constant summer events, there is always something interesting to do and see year around in
In the pioneer days wagon trains traveling through the area where able to find the Deschutes
river crossing by spotting the nearly 500 ft high round top butte in the middle of town from miles
away. This butte became known as Pilot Butte, a landmark for wagon train captains who were
also known as pilots. The butte is an ancient volcanic cinder cone, part of the nearby Newberry
Volcano system which is the largest volcano in the Cascade Range. Pilot Butte overlooks the
city of Bend and the entire area.
The 360 degree view atop Pilot Butte encompasses nine snow capped peaks including Mt Hood
which stands over 130 miles away. The first car drove to the top of Pilot Butte was in 1922 and
since then this butte has become a popular scenic stop for visitors. The road to the top closes in
the winter with the first snowfall and re-opens in the spring but the road is a popular year round
walking route for an estimated 1000 locals each day! It’s the perfect place to photograph the
mountains to the west, lava buttes to the south, and high desert landscapes and clouds to the
Deschutes River Trail – Benham & Dillon Falls
Just outside of Bend is an unassuming forest service road (Forest Road 41) that leads into the
Deschutes National Forest. A day pass of $5 dollars is required and a ticket can be purchased
at the forest road entrance. Along this road there are multiple dirt road turnouts that lead to the
river. If you continue on this somewhat narrow paved road it will lead you to Sunriver, a resort
and residential area about —– miles from Bend. These turnouts are part of the access to the
Deschutes River Trail system that follows the river some 13 miles all the way into Bend.
Two of the most photogenic turnouts along this road are Benham Falls and Dillon Falls. They
are not so much traditional kinds of waterfalls in that they are more of an abrupt drop in the
This stop along the Deschutes River Trail has a parking lot, bathrooms and maps of the trail
system. It’s a short hike down an easy switchback trail to the overlook. The whitewater boils as
the river drops through a narrow canyon in front of the overlook. Using a tripod and slow shutter
speed here adds a misty effect to the canyon walls and river boulders.
There is a bit more going on at this location as it also has a small boat ramp for non-motorized
recreation and a day use area. Heading upstream along the trail leads to open meadows along
a wide bend in the river. There are sweeping views to photograph here with wildflowers and
wildlife in the adjacent restored wetland habitat.
Heading downstream from the day use area the river narrows into a lava walled canyon and
during spring and summer this steep drop in the river has a cascading waterfall about 20 ft high.
The roar of whitewater, the large logs lodged between boulders in the river and the surround
rocks and cliffs from which to perch make for great photos and an adventurous hike!
This area of the Cascade range was created thousands of years ago by volcanoes and glaciers
carving the landscape into what you see today. The forests of pine, fir hemlock and cedar are
stunted from the relentless snow that make nearby Mt Bachelor one of the top ski destinations
in the Pacific Northwest. Located along the Cascade Lakes Highway, Sparks Lake is one of
many along this —– mile route and is about 40 minutes from Bend. The lake is over 700 acres
of combined wetland, marsh and open water areas. The real photographic stunner here is that
the views are dominated by three mountain peaks, South Sisters (10,358 ft elevation), Broken
Top (9,175 ft) and Mt Bachelor (9,065 ft).
Sparks Lake is the first lake you’ll see along the Cascade Lakes Highway and was a favorite of
acclaimed Oregon photographer Ray Atkeson, who created multiple photo books of Oregon
from the 1950’s to the 1980’s.
Ray Atkeson is memorialized at several scenic locations around the lake. If you know where to
go along the 10 miles of shoreline photographers can capture multiple mountain peaks perfectly
reflected in the lake.
For photographing these mountains at the perfect time and place it may be best to take a
private photo tour or workshop . Sunsets, sunrises and night sky photos at Sparks Lake are
some of the most memorable photo journeys you’re likely to experience – ever!
Located just outside of the tiny town of Terrebonne about 40 minutes from Bend, Smith Rock
State Park is a stunning 30 million year old volcanic remnant of a collapsed volcanic caldera.
Basalt and ash filled the caldera’s lava chamber were it would become compressed over the
next 30 million years into a relatively soft rock called “tuff”.
Around half a million years ago the Crooked River began to cut its way through the layers of tuff
creating what is today towering cliff faces stretching some 600 ft above the river banks. The 125
mile long Crooked River winds its way to the Deschutes River and empties into the Columbia
River some 132 miles away.
Smith Rock is considered the birthplace of American sport climbing and by the 1950’s routes
had been established and climbers from Portland and Seattle began climbing here. Today every
kind of climbing technique is applied at Smith Rock. From fixed anchored “aid-climbing” to free
climbing to bouldering, it is enjoyed year around and known as a great family friendly location
for the sport.
It is an outstanding place for landscape photography with spectacular sunrises and colorful
sunsets. The wildlife, including Bald eagles, along with climbers on the rock walls, make for a
great chance to hone your action photography skills.
Lava Lands and Lava Butte
Located about 15 minutes south of Bend, the Lava Lands Visitor Center is the interpretive hub
of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument encompassing hiking trails, a colossal cave
system, a distinctive lava cast forest,, a 500 ft+ high lava cinder cone, two lakes, waterfalls, a
lava glass flow (obsidian) and over a 100 miles of hiking and biking trails.
Stark black Lava Butte, which sits next to Highway 97, is surrounded by miles of jagged lava
rock formed only (in geological terms) 7000 years ago. The area was used in the 1960’s to train
NASA astronauts for moonwalks.
The expanse of the lava flow is not really visible from the highway but is best seen from the Trail
of Molten Lands, a paved path which leads from the visitor center into the lava fields and up the
butte. Sweeping views of the Cascade Mountains to the west makes for some great landscape
photography at sunset or even at night from this location.
Visitors can hike a trail or take a shuttle bus to the top of Lava Butte. The 1.5 mile long road
stretches from the visitor center to the fire lookout building on top of the butte. Once at the top
there is a ¼ mile long rim trail gives a commanding view for photographing the Cascade Range
to the west and Newberry National Volcanic Monument to the south. From here it’s easy to see
the immense lava flow that erupted from this cinder cone some 7000 years ago.
Lava River Cave
Not far from Lava Butte is the longest underground lava tube in Oregon. Lava River Cave is a
cavernous 1 mile long cave with an extensive stairway system inside that makes for a fairly easy
stroll. The cave and path does narrow a bit in places but for the most part the roof of the cave is
several stories high. Bring a good headlamp, an extra flashlight and a tripod for the needed long
exposures. Otherworldly images are possible here as the light from visitors headlamps
illuminates the cave with artistic streaks and glowing rock formations. A colony of bats live in this
42 degree (year around) cave that is open in the summer months. Admission is a $5 day pass
and flashlight rentals are available.
Lava Cast Forest
A short distance south of Lava Butte is Lava Cast Forest. A 1 mile interpretive trail winds its way
past a ghostly landscape of basalt lava. Trees, logs and lakes stand in their basalt casts that
this lava flow left them in some 7000 years ago. A wide angle lens is ideal here o capture these
unique lava creations.
Paulina Lakes Road
Just under an hour from Bend is one of Central Oregon’s most beautiful and diverse
landscapes. The Newberry National Volcanic Monument was dedicated in 1990 and is the
largest volcano found in the cascade range. The 50,000 acre monument hosts two lakes,
waterfalls, a nearly 8000 ft peak with stunning views and more than 110 miles of hiking, biking
and horseback riding trails.
Newberry Caldera – Paulina Lake and East Lake
The main feature here is the Newberry Caldera and it’s two lakes which are separated by a
central pumice cone. Paulina Lake is the largest with smaller East Lake on the other side of the
pumice cone. Together they make up a caldera which is 20 miles in diameter. This caldera, the
Cascades’ largest volcano, sits atop a magma chamber that erupted about 6,100 years ago
and remains seismically and geothermally active today.
Lodging , campgrounds and viewpoints line the shores of both lakes as water recreationists
enjoy fishing, sailing and motor boating the clear waters of this 6,340 ft elevation lake. Hot
springs are also found along the shores of Paulina Lake. A 7.8 mile loop trail circles the lake
where you’ll find a hot spring slightly built out with logs. At around 95 degrees it’s not super
heated, but it’s comfortable with minimal sulfur odors. Farther down the trail are other hot spots
enjoyed by digging into the beach to create your own personal hot tub.
The crowds at the lakes are in the medium range most of theseason but can get busy during
summer holidays and weekends. The Forest Service does a great job of caring for these
facilities and offer interpretive talks and hikes throughout the summer.
It’s easy to get around the Paulina area as there is only one road in and out. All the different
areas to explore are clearly marked with plenty of parking. Paulina Falls is just off the road near
East Lake and a short walk brings you to an overlook above the falls. A longer switchback trail
heads down to the bottom of this unique pair of waterfalls cascading over an 80 ft high
sweeping crescent moon shaped cliff face.
The cliffs the waterfalls flow over are actually the rim of the Newberry Caldera and it’s obvious
the water has been wearing down and blasting apart the basalt rock for centuries, as the jumble
of large boulders below the falls attest to. The water lands above these boulders and filters
through them down the steep embankment to a small pond and outflowing creek below. Bring a
tripod to get those dreamy, misty waterfall images.
Another turn off along the main road where visitors can drive to the top of Paulina Peak. From
here the entire cladera and lakes can be seen as well as nine peaks in the nearby Cascade
Mountain Range to the west. It the highest point in the monument at 7,984 ft. Photographing
sunrise or sunset from here is a spectacular event!
Big Obsidian Flow
Obsidian is volcanic glass and was highly prized in ancient times by northwest indian tribes for
tools and arrowheads. The edges chipped away by hand on this volcanic glass is said to be
sharper than a metal razor or scalpel. Obsidian is formed during volcanic eruptions and the 700
acre obsidian flow at Newberry volcano would have been a gold mine in ancient times.
The obsidian flow here is just 1,300 years old and trace chemicals in the obsidian is unique.
This chemical makeup has allowed archeologist to trace obsidian tools found throughout
Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Alberta and Alaska as being from here. Archeologist
have also discovered the oldest known human settlements in America here in Central Oregon.
A recent dig near Burns (2 hours east of Bend) discovered stone tools below a layer of volcanic
ash dated some 16,000 years ago, predating the eruption of Newberry Volcano!
Following the obsidian flow trail leads to a steep stairway that climbs the face of the flow and
into the jumbled and jagged shards of black glass that stretch in every direction, with some
being as big as a car! Overlooks, interpretive signs and resting benches are found along the 1
mile trail that winds through the flow. The views at the top are amazing and a macro capable
lens will let you capture the endless shapes and colors of these beautiful obsidian rocks and
Well there you have it. Keep in mind this is a condensed list of the most popular places to
photograph in the Bend area. If you’d like to book a private photo tour or group workshop while
visiting Bend check out our website HERE
Thanks for taking the time to learn about Central Oregon and the Bend Area!
Aloha – Douglas Bowser