Just a few miles of driving from the busy visitor’s center at Newberry National Volcanic Monument, you can hike a short trail and see the largest waterfall on the Deschutes River — a claim that makes it sound a bit more exciting than it actually is.
At the time, I didn’t know about the option to park at the falls — I only knew about the trail that begins a few miles west of the Lava Lands center. So, that’s the one I’m describing here. It’s only about a half-mile hike, one way, and it’s mostly smooth and level, so there’s no reason for me to complain about not taking a shorter option.
The hike itself is very pleasant. You’ll start off on the southeast side of the Deschutes River. Before long, you’ll need to cross — not on this old cable-car apparatus, though. Unfortunately, it’s locked down and marked “keep off”. You’ll have to walk a bit further…
… to a footbridge, which will take you over the Deschutes. Notice the big log-jam on the left. Plenty of debris has gathered here, over the years.
After the bridge, the path is rather uneventful, until you start to hear the water rushing.
A short distance before the falls, you’ll get a nice view looking downstream, towards the narrow chute, through which the river passes. The “waterfall” is not very impressive from this angle…
… and the truth is, it’s not very impressive from the other side, either. Benham Falls is, in reality, a long, narrow chute of whitewater rapids. I’ve read that, somewhere in that jumble of foamy water, there’s a legitimate, 25-foot drop. The Northwest Waterfall Survey says that the ‘biggest waterfall’ title, which I mentioned earlier, refers to the river’s drop of 95 vertical feet, over a linear half-mile. It’s not quite as exciting when you say it that way, is it?
As I mentioned earlier, the alternate parking lot is right here. If you’re bound and determined to see Benham Falls, and you don’t want to hike (or can’t), you can take the long way around from Bend and park here, see it, and then be on your way.
The Bottom Line
I would not suggest you go out of your way to see Benham Falls. The half-mile hike is pleasant, but there isn’t much of a reward at the end. The falls just look like whitewater rapids. Newberry National Volcanic Monument has more exciting attractions which should be your priority.
From Bend, Oregon, take US 97 south to the Lava Lands visitor center, adjacent to Lava Butte, an easily recognizable volcanic cone at the side of the road. Once you’ve reached the visitor’s center, follow Forest Road 9702 west. The road ends at the Deschutes River, upstream from the waterfall.
As an alternative, from Bend, you can take Century Drive (the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway) to Conklin Road (Forest 41), then, after about 3.8 miles, turn left on a dirt road, and follow it to the end. This approach is preferable for disabled visitors, since the parking area is just a short distance from the falls, with little or no hiking necessary.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive to the top of Lava Butte and out to Benham Falls: