Travel: The rocky road to heaven in Oregon's great outdoors

In Bend, Central Oregon, the outdoors is an inspiring playground you may never want to leave, writes Sophie Nicholson

Bend offers outdoor pursuits from climbing to mountain biking
Bend offers outdoor pursuits from climbing to mountain biking

I stare out across the wilderness, my heart returning to its normal pace as my awareness simultaneously comes into focus. The two mile run up to the top of Pilot Butte may have been short, but the pace through the forest was intense and now I can enjoy the reward – 360 degrees of truly mind blowing scenery guaranteed to excite anyone with a passion for activity and the outdoors.

To the west, five mountains in the Cascade range – the Three Sisters, Mt Bachelor and Broken Top – their craggy volcanic summits highlighted against a sky turned pink by the setting sun. To the north and east, the iconic Mt Hood and legendary rock climbing destination, Smith Rock. With each turn, an endless playground reveals itself – a compass of hills, rivers, forests and desert all begging to be explored.

It’s the last night of my three week stay in paradise – aka Bend, Oregon and I don’t want any of it to end, but I have to stay on the schedule. The setting sun dictates that it is time to head down to the twinkling streetlights below and join the dusty herd of Bendites who have made this lifestyle their routine. The rules are simple here - ‘Recreate, Rinse, Repeat’. For those of you, myself included, who may feel slightly uncomfortable using the word “recreate” as a verb, let me break it down a little. “Recreating” for Americans means doing active stuff in the outdoors and in Bend specifically it means enjoying any or all of the world-class trail running, hiking, fishing, climbing, biking, kayaking, motor biking or stand up paddle boarding that Central Oregon has to offer.

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    World-class athletes and weekend warriors seem to co-exist with an almost Buddhist-like ease

    The opportunities to play here truly are the adventurer’s version of the American Dream and I can honestly say after three weeks of intense recreating in Bend, I barely scratched the surface of possibility. From mountain biking the flowing single track trails at Phil’s trailhead to running the 12 mile Soda Creek/Green Lakes trail, from hiking to the summit of the 50,000 year old, 3,157m South Sister to leading 5.10a sport climbing routes at Smith Rock, from learning to fly fish on the Deschutes River to off-road motorcycling in the Badlands – the 21 days spent here have been an extraordinary immersion in a brave new activity world.

    Periods of intense recreating lead almost inevitably to the second part of the Bend formula – the Rinse. “Rinsing” essentially involves nightly activity-induced thirst quenching at any one of the 27 craft breweries that have grown up in this unbelievably special place. Beer and Bend are synonymous with each other and the passion for brews here underpins the entire community. An evening spent supping beer at the likes of the Crux Fermentation Project or 10 Barrel Brewing Co is an altogether different experience from that found in many other towns and cities where a certain type of drinking establishment draws a particular crowd. In Bend, beer bonds people. Old and young, foodie or activity nut, big bearded mountain man or slim blonde Lycra wearing soccer mom, pounding pints is practically compulsory here and newsflash – hardly anyone is fat.

    This is in no small part down to the third part of the equation – “Repeat”. Marijuana may be legal here but for the majority of people of Bend, daily activity is the drug of choice. This is a community genuinely engaged with adventure and for the right reason – ie because they love the outdoors. Quick fixes, fad diets and the “20 minutes of exercise, three times a week” approach will never gain any real traction in this community. Similarly, making excuses for lack of activity would be equally unacceptable because in Bend, people make time for exercise. It appears to be entirely normal to get up at 5am to road bike for an hour in the dark before work in the summer and when winter hits, to don your head torch for a pre-dawn skin up a local hill before skiing back down to make it to your desk for 8am. With all this access to the outdoors and commitment to activity – combined with the fact that Bend experiences 300 days of sunshine per year on average – it will come as no surprise that Bend has produced some of the best athletes on the planet and attracted many more to upsticks and make it their permanent home. Pro snowboarder and Patagonia Ambassador Josh Dirksen, legendary alpinist Steve House and Hawaiian surfing legend Gerry Lopez are just three of the many elite sportspeople who have chosen to make their base camp in Bend.

    Sound a little intimidating? I’m sure it does but herein lies the part that really sets Bend apart – the people. During the time I spent in the area, recreating and rinsing to the best of my abilities, never once did I encounter anyone who was anything less than unbelievably friendly, kind, welcoming and open.

    Sophie Nicholson with a view of Broken Top mountain

    This is a place where world-class athletes and weekend warriors seem to co-exist with an almost Buddhist-like ease. Experience-based belittling does not seem to exist in Bend as people are genuinely nice to each other and the vibe on the trails, rock, mountains and rivers is one of mutual respect. This feeling of inclusivity embraces all ages and abilities and as a result, ego and aggro are glaringly absent. I’ve never been anywhere where I’ve felt so encouraged by others, particularly those far more accomplished than myself.

    Whether I was taking my time on the bike trail, struggling up a challenging route at Smith Rock, or chatting to a professional trail runner about things I knew very little about, the overriding feeling was one of support, belonging and that people wanted you to do well.

    Whether they’ve moved here from California, the East Coast of the States or further afield, Bendites are united by a simple common bond, the power of which should be bottled and immediately exported to the crowded crags and hills of the UK and Europe. What binds them so tightly together is an authentic love and appreciation of their environment that emanates from the ground up. There seems to be a genuine desire to protect, maintain and enjoy the wilderness as it is, rather than continually constructing roads and lifts to more easily consume the landscape. Whilst I’m sure tensions between various factions do exist here, there is enough space for everyone, both metaphorically and literally, which in turn creates a more harmonious atmosphere in the outdoors.

    Just like the volcanic landscape in which it is set, Bend is bubbling over with good stuff. If you are looking for an outdoor paradise where minds, hearts and potential are wide-open get yourself there as soon as you can. As the town’s slogan says, “Adventure Awaits.” See you at the bar. n

    World-class athletes and weekend warriors seem to co-exist with an almost Buddhist-like ease

    • Fly to Portland from Scotland with KLM direct flights from Amsterdam ( Bend is a 3½ hour drive from Portland.

    Visit Travel Oregon ( and Central Oregon Visitors Association ( for more information on where to stay and things to do in the area.

    Sophie Nicholson with a view of Broken Top mountain