Bend, Ore., the city you’ll love to hate
By Nathan Borchelt,
I hate Bend, Ore.
I came to this realization standing outside Crux Fermentation Project, the city’s newest brewery. The setting sun painted the sky in brilliant reds, colors like the inside of a ripe blood orange, the horizon sliced by the sharp, snow-covered Three Sisters Mountains in the distance. My hand held a pint of Outcast IPA. Crafted with Australian hops, it’s the ideal to which every other India pale ale aspires. Hoppy and rich and crisp and complex. Perfect.
In the 72 hours leading up to this moment, I’d tasted 10 other craft beers. I’d climbed on 20-foot rocks off the Cascade Highway and dined at sunset on seared scallops at the top of Mount Bachelor. I’d felt the gush of air as the continent’s top cyclists raced by, navigating a tight course through Bend’s downtown streets. I’d mountain-biked for 30 miles on the breezy singletrack outside town, flowing through ponderosa pine with the ubiquitous views of the snow-capped Cascade Mountains flitting in and out of sight.
Then I’d hopped on a six-person Cycle Pub and pedaled from Good Life Brewery to Crux, where what should have been a quick stop evolved into a heady series of beer tastings as the sun turned the sky vermilion.
Soon, we’d remount the circular Cycle Pub (more on that later) and return to the city, cruising through Drake Park and across a bridge over the mellow Deschutes River, toasting everyone we passed. We’d find a place to eat, where the hardest choices would be between the crispy-skinned duck confit and the Columbia River salmon and whether to go with the Boneyard IPA or one of Oregon’s pinot noirs.
But right then, as I sipped the last of the Outcast and had it instantly refilled — that’s when I realized that I hated Bend.
No place should have it this good.
“Your vacation is our life.”
— A Bend bumper sticker
Of course, by Bend standards, all those activities I did in those first three days was hardly scratching the surface. The city — the largest in Central Oregon — boasts 71 parks and 48 miles of recreational trails. Less than an hour outside town, you’ll find 26 golf courses, whitewater rafting and fly-fishing in the Deschutes River, more than 1,000 climbing routes and 3,600 skiable acres at Mount Bachelor. Within two hours? More than 1,200 miles of narrow dirt mountain bike trails (or singletrack), which double as snowshoeing and Nordic skiing trails in the winter.
You can paddleboard on one of the 40 lakes in the region, hike and camp in the Three Sisters Wilderness, or summit Pilot Butte, a 479-foot-tall cinder cone in the center of town. Or just find something that floats — an inner tube, an inflatable mattress — and drift on a mellow stretch of Deschutes from Bend Park to the center of town; a $5 shuttle gets you back to your car.
Bend already hosts the annual BMC Cascade Classic bike race each July, the biggest staged race in North America. This month, it hosts the 2012 fly-fishing nationals and this winter, the 2013 snowshoe nationals.
And Dog Fancy magazine called Bend the most dog-friendly city in the country. It’s hard to say what the city doesn’t do perfectly.
“Paramount Studios’s mountain logo? That’s in Bend, too. Well, it’s actually the silhouette of both Washington and Jefferson mountains. But you can see both of those from Bend.”
— James Jaggard, general manager of Wanderlust Tours
Geography bears much of the responsibility for Bend’s embarrassment of riches. The city sits at 3,623 feet and boasts a high-desert environment that provides an average of 300 days of sunshine a year. Bend came into existence at the turn of the 20th century, largely because it was the easiest place at which to cross the Deschutes. Today the river serves as the city’s slow-moving artery as it meanders alongside downtown’s Drake Park, where families picnic and walk their dogs.
Head east and you enter the volcanic Eastern Cascade Mountains. The aforementioned presidential peaks lie to the northeast, while other iconic mountains, such as Broken Top and the Three Sisters, lie farther east.
Just below South Sister, 21 miles from downtown, stands Mount Bachelor. Here the ski season lasts eight months; Olympic athletes flock to the resort when the snow melts across the rest of the Northern Hemisphere. In the spring, you can spend the morning carving through fresh powder and the afternoon in town, tasting beer at an open-air brew pub.
Smith Rock State Park lies 25 miles north of Bend, a dramatic fissure in the high-desert floor carved by the Crooked River. Each spring and fall, climbers from all over the world flood into this climbing mecca with more than 1,000 established routes.
And by midsummer, when the high-desert sun makes it too hot to climb, the snow has melted on the roads leading to Bachelor, unveiling bouldering routes and literally hundreds of mountain-bike trails.
Or you could avoid the sun entirely by exploring subterranean Horse Lava Tube System or Skeleton Cave.
With all those options, outdoor enthusiasts with ADD should expect paralysis.
“Depression can be fixed in those hills.”
— Victoria Smith, owner of Alpenglow Vacation Rentals
But for some, mountain biking wins. You don’t get the hard-core, gravity-fed theatrics you’ll find in British Columbia, where cyclists wear body armor and cross narrow logs 20 feet off the forest floor. Instead, you get mellow routes that roller-coaster through the forest, carving through ponderosa pine, junipers and sagebrush.
Bend local Victoria Smith shares my passion for cycling. She moved from San Diego to Bend in 1994 and worked as a hairdresser until a fortuitous series of events led her to help a friend rent out their home to tourists. Four years later, she owns a vacation rental company with two part-time assistants and 19 properties. She still cuts hair, but only by appointment.
And she loves mountain biking.
Storm King served as her gateway drug; it’s eight miles of chill singletrack that sweeps up and down a north-south ridge. She first rode it alone, in late spring, and caught the perfect collage of Central Oregon weather: brisk temps and bright sunshine interrupted by bursts of fairytale snow flurries.
Victoria took me on Storm King, as well as Swampy Lake and the Ridge Trail, which offered panoramic views of the region’s snow-tipped volcanic peaks. We pedaled across Skyliner and ELV, the latter decorated by locals with garden gnomes and plastic toys.
But Phil’s Trail stands out. Not because it’s extreme. Quite the opposite. Each turn and elevation change felt wonderfully intuitive as I glided around the trees and rocks, leaving plumes of volcanic ash in my wake. It was over in an instant, and yet it felt as if it had lasted forever, and mid-ride I returned to my juvenile state, back when biking wasn’t about exercise or technicality or endurance. Back to when it was just plain fun.
Transplant Phil’s to any place in the country, put people on a bike, and you’ll have a nation of mountain bikers.
“There’s no Ethiopian food, and no Ikea.”
— Melanie Fisher, co-owner of Cog Wild Cycling
Even locals admit that Bend doesn’t have everything. You won’t find the ethnic food options of larger cities, and there’s a lack of cultural diversity compared with the likes of San Francisco, New York or Washington.
Downtown has some great retail — furniture made out of polished slabs of reclaimed wood, or handmade soap. But if you need to outfit a house on the cheap, you’ll have to hit the highway.
The city provides a fair degree of culture, including weekly summer outdoor concerts, a few downtown art galleries, sculptures at traffic circles and along the trails. But if you want banner cultural events or big-name art retrospectives, Portland lies 175 miles to the northwest.
And for all the epic outdoor variety, Bend doesn’t boast the best-in-class designation you’ll find elsewhere. Bachelor’s skiing is consistently steady and smooth, but it can’t compete with the daredevil possibilities of Jackson Hole or Alta. Some bike trails, such as Pirate’s Cove and Funner, will humble the more extreme mountain bikers, but they don’t compare with the sheer variety of white-knuckle riding elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest. And though Smith Rock will always rank as one of the best climbing spots in the States, you will roast in the middle of the high-desert summer.
Make no mistake. You can exhaust yourself in Bend. But it’s not downright hedonistic compared with some of the other outdoor hotspots in the country.
At least, not until you factor in the beer.
“Beer can be an orchestra. Or it can be a trumpet, blaring out at you, which is fine, so long as it’s not playing taps.”
— Larry Sidor, brew master at Crux Fermentation Project
Now, back to that Cycle Pub. The one I rode wasn’t the first one in Bend. That one is powered by 12 people (along with the driver and two non-pedalers).
The other one is circular, a six-person model (seven counting the driver). Originally called the ConferenceBike, it was conceived as a team-building device; Google has several on its Mountain View, Calif., campus. Bend’s version has six cupholders mounted in a rounded mahogany bar top, and an ice well to stash your growler, a two-liter glass bottle that’s refilled at each brewery on the three-stop tour.
The cycle pubs are the least efficient and most entertaining way to see Bend’s breweries. Other options include the Bend Brew Bus, a horse-drawn Cowboy Carriage, or walking along the Bend Ale Trail, a free smartphone app from Visit Bend that guides you to 10 breweries. Except that only covers some of the breweries; the official number is now 14, not counting the home-brew spots, where $5 gets you a seat, a plate of food and all the beer you can drink till it runs out. The Shell station near Costco even has a growler filling station, with eight taps and plans for 21.
This meteoric rise in craft breweries dates to 1988, when the Deschutes Brewery, Bend’s first, opened. It’s now the fifth-largest craft brewery in the country; its distribution map looks like an invading army heading east across the United States. The King Kong in the Bend brewing scene, Deschutes now has two properties in town — the main factory and a pub downtown. Other breweries have their own niche, from live entertainment at Silver Moon, to Bend Brewing Co.’s beer-centric menu, to the convivial open-air scene at 10 Barrel.
Last summer alone, an estimated 30 percent of visitors came for the beer.
Oh, and about the beer. The IPA and pale ales once stood as the flagpole of Bend brewing, but since then the beer here has expanded into all genres and tastes, from porters, stouts and pilsners to Belgian strongs and an award-winning seasonal sour made with pomegranate and hibiscus. That’s a lot of beer for a population of 80,000.
“It’s a mutual appreciation society,” Larry Sidor told me — and he should know. He’s the man behind some of Deschutes Brewery’s most successful beers and is now the brew master/co-owner of Crux Fermentation Project, which opened in June 2012.
At Crux, the curtain is pulled back. Walk through the open garage doors and turn left and you’ll see rows of silver fermentation tanks, a stone’s throw from the brew pub’s bar and communal tables.
The deep-red floors still carry marks from when the building operated as an AAMCO station. The curved, hand-crafted wooden ceilings are held over from the place’s first incarnation as a mill supply store — locally reclaimed wood has been used throughout.
On one wall, portraits of everyone involved in making the brewery a reality have been playfully painted on small wooden blocks. On tap, Crux’s own brew (three beers when I was there, with more unveiled every month) along with kegs from Belgium, Northern California, and — of course — Bend.
It may seem counterintuitive for Crux to sell beer from other local breweries. But the beer scene here, just like the climbers who established the first routes at Smith Rock or the mountain bikers who created trails like Phil’s, is a community of like-minded enthusiasts.
After all, they all share the secret: Bend is the place.
And if you don’t happen to live there, you’ll end up hating it, too.
Borchelt is a Washington-based travel writer and photographer.