High Desert Hiking in Oregon: 5 Perfect Picks for Fall

One of the most-photographed locations in Smith Rock State Park is Monkey Face, a rocky outcrop that also challenges adventurous rock-climbers. Mount Jefferson and Oregon's high desert are visible from the viewpoint.
One of the most-photographed locations in Smith Rock State Park is Monkey Face, a rocky outcrop that also challenges adventurous rock-climbers. Mount Jefferson and Oregon's high desert are visible from the viewpoint. Thomas Shahan
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Fall may have officially arrived last month, but don’t tell Mother Nature. High temperatures still routinely top 70 degrees around Portland, extending our already protracted summer well into the early days of fall.

Yet when temperatures start to fall, as they always do, hikers can squeeze the last few treks out of summer by heading to the high desert in Central Oregon. There, high temperatures will top 70 (and occasionally 80) degrees through the end of October—just before plummeting in November. (Don’t take our word for it: According to U.S. climate data, the average temperature in Bend drops 15 degrees between October and November. It’s the largest month-to-month change of the year.)

The last gasp of warm weather is a boon to hikers, who can enjoy a region that’s home to a mix of high desert, alpine scenery, thick forests, languid rivers, and massive mountain peaks. Here, five great picks for high desert hiking in Oregon, an ideal way to savor the final few weeks of these summer-like temperatures.

1. Jefferson Park

The Jefferson Park trail straddles the Oregon Cascades between the western and eastern parts of the state. tjk

Granted, Jefferson Park isn’t part of Oregon’s high desert. But the hike offers an instructive look at the Oregon Cascades (the dividing line between the western and central regions of the state) and delivers unprecedented views of the state’s second-highest peak, Mount Jefferson. And, not for nothing: It’s among the premier hikes on one of the two most common routes between Portland and Central Oregon.

Three options cater to beginner and more seasoned hikers; no matter which route you take, you’ll be treated to colorful shrubbery, expansive meadows, lush forests, and serene (yet frigid) alpine lakes.

2. Smith Rock State Park

Smith Rock State Park offers a mix of rock-climbing routes, and hiking and equestrian trails. Tom Beans

It’s no surprise that Travel Oregon, the state’s official travel and tourism agency, named Smith Rock State Park one of the “7 Wonders of Oregon” in 2013. The impressive park hosts equestrian and hiking trails, a variety of well-known and much-beloved rock-climbing routes, deep canyons, walks along the Crooked River, and wide-open views of the surrounding region, including Mount Jefferson.

A network of trails crisscrosses the park, but hikers looking to experience Smith Rock’s high-desert appeal would do well to start by ascending the appropriately named Misery Ridge Trail, which gains roughly 1,000 feet in the first mile. The steep trail challenges hikers with occasional rock scrambles but rewards them with breathtaking views of the surrounding desert and canyon area. It’s all downhill from there (almost literally) as hikers walk to the far side of the ridge, where additional views of the desert and Oregon Cascades await, descend to the shores of the Crooked River, and walk back along the riverside.

3. Deschutes River Trail

The hiking trail along the Deschutes River near Bend offers beautiful river views and lush forests in (and near) the popular town. Robert Ashworth

The Deschutes River is synonymous with Central Oregon. Its rapids near the tiny town of Maupin attract white-water enthusiasts from throughout the region; it offers some of the best fishing in the state; and it’s a source of endless recreation in Bend proper (stand-up paddleboarding, floating, kayaking, and canoeing are popular with locals and tourists alike).

It’s only natural, then, that a trail running along the river would entice hikers and give visitors the chance to see, up-close, the connection between the Deschutes and the region around it. The section that runs through Bend is especially unique, accessible and convenient to downtown, just a few blocks away, yet offering a feeling of solitude. It’s a short walk from the trendy Old Mill District in southern Bend to the thick pine forests and tan canyon walls that line much of the river. Elsewhere along the trail, hikers pass through numerous bucolic parks, including Farewell Bend Park, Riverbend Park, McKay Park, and Miller’s Landing Park.

Numerous short stretches can be done in spurts or linked together for a longer outing.

4. Broken Top

Broken Top is a popular hike in Central Oregon, known for its challenging ascent and breathtaking views. Rick Bergstrom

Broken Top, an extinct volcano in the Oregon Cascades, stands apart from its brethren in the Three Sisters Wilderness for its craggy summit; from a distance, the Broken Top summit looks less like a sloped mountaintop than an EKG gone haywire.

Hikers can take in views of numerous nearby peaks—including Broken Top, the Three Sisters, and Mount Bachelor—and enjoy scenery that includes alpine lakes and open meadows.

Over the years, hikers have forged a new, unofficial path to a glistening alpine lake in Broken Top’s crater. It’s not an official trail, but the secret is nevertheless out about this well-worn path. Hike at your own risk.

5. Black Butte

Black Butte is one of the many iconic peaks in Central Oregon. Jon Nelson

It’s hard not to notice Black Butte from Highway 20. The extinct volcano might lack the grandeur of other peaks in the Oregon Cascades, but it more than makes up for the lack of stature with an almost comically symmetrical shape.

The unusual shape is well worth the two-mile ascent it demands of hikers. The Black Butte hike winds through glades of wildflowers and lush, Ponderosa pine forests (with occasional, and astonishing, views of the Three Sisters, Mount Washington, and Broken Top along the way), before arriving at a still-active fire lookout at its summit.

Views of the Cascade range are almost unparalleled on a clear day, which is more common than you might think: Nearby Bend receives an average of roughly 300 days of sunshine every year. 

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