Oregon's Best Road Trip for Eco-Lovers
A land of towering firs, crystal-clear lakes, and farmers markets, southern Oregon has long been ahead of the eco-friendly curve.
When my boyfriend, Alex, and I want to escape New York, we head north to the Catskill Mountains—we love the free-spiritedness of the towns, the artists' retreats hidden in the woods, and the tiny restaurants and cafés serving fresh foods from local farms. So when we started planning a trip out west, I had a feeling we'd flip for Oregon, a place that has practically perfected this way of life.
Friends who used to live in the state recommended that we start in Bend—if you want to immerse yourself in Oregon's crunchiness, they said, this outdoorsy city in the central part of the state is the place to be. After a three-hour drive southeast from Portland over the snowcapped Cascade Range, we get our first taste of Bend's character at theDeschutes Brewery, where nearly every item on the menu is organic. The burgers? Made with locally raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free elk and beef. The buns? Baked with the brewery's leftover grain. Even the mustard is homemade.
After lunch, Alex and I wander over to the WednesdayFarmers Market, set up on a hillside next to the Deschutes River. The stalls are filled with the most beautiful array of seasonal produce—radishes, snap peas, mushrooms of every stripe (maitake, lion's beard, shiitake)—as well as grass-fed elk short ribs and buffalo patties, and artisanal cheeses. We buy a carton of strawberries and sit on the grass to listen to a folk singer and watch a trio of toddlers take turns somersaulting down the hill. I read that Bend has become a center for young families—transplants from cities like Portland and Seattle—and I can see why: If I were a kid, there's nothing I'd rather do than roll around in the grass here on a sunny afternoon.
The town has a quirky side, too, and it's on full display at our hotel,McMenamins Old St. Francis School. The 1930s Catholic schoolhouse was converted into an inn in 2004, and the 19 guest rooms, each named after a former priest, teacher, student, or town character, are decorated with old class photos. In the hallway, a varsity football jersey and pine lockers line the walls. A woman with a cluster of star tattoos on her upper arm and a name tag that reads FREE STAR checks us in and gives us a map of the property. Next to the inn is a movie theater (built in the old parish hall), a restaurant and bar, and a Turkish bath. Alex and I grab our bathing suits and make a beeline for the blue-tiled pool to take a soak beneath the open-air ceiling.
McMenamins Old St. Francis School
700 NW Bond St., Bend, 877/661-4228, mcmenamins.com, from $114
Deschutes Brewery & Public House
1044 Bond St., Bend, 541/382-9242, deschutesbrewery.com, elk burger $12
Bend Farmers Market
Mirror Pond in Drake Park, Bend, 541/408-4998, bendfarmersmarket.us, Wed. 3 p.m.–7 p.m., June to mid-Oct.
In the morning, Free Star callsCrater Lake National Park to check road conditions in the southern Cascades, where we're heading. "Nobody's picking up," she says. "You should probably assume that the northern entrance isn't open yet." The lake, which sits at the top of a 12,000-foot-tall dormant volcano, gets an average of 533 inches of snow each year; apparently, the snow up there doesn't start melting until mid-June.
With North Entrance Road closed, we'll have to loop around to the park's southern entrance, which adds an extra 50 miles to the trip. As we drive south from Bend, we catch glimpses of purple mountains through the deep-green blur of the Douglas firs along the road. Then we start to climb in elevation, and the temperature drops from 70 degrees to the mid-30s in the span of just 20 minutes. Snow is packed five feet high on the sides of the road. We round the last bend before the summit, and Crater Lake comes into view. I don't think I've ever seen colors so dazzling in my life. The lake isn't just blue—it's a saturated, magnificent blue, the kind that looks doctored in photos. The surface is so still that it perfectly reflects the brilliant white snow and green pine trees on the peaks around it; it's as if nature created the world's largest mirror.
I wanted to stay at the 71-room Crater Lake Lodge, which sits right on the water's edge, but it was already booked up when I called in mid-spring. Instead, I reserved a cabin at theUnion Creek Resortin Rogue River National Forest, about 20 miles to the southwest, resigning myself to the fact that it probably wouldn't match the drama of staying atop the mountain. When we arrive at the 1930s lodge, though, I'm pleasantly surprised: The 23 cabins are spread out beneath 100-foot-tall Douglas firs, and ours has a private fire pit out front. The interior of our cabin, on the other hand—faux-wood-paneled walls, chintzy carpeting, and a polyester blanket on the bed—leaves us a little cold.