You don’t have to spend much time in central Oregon before you discover that there are plenty of volcanic cones to climb. But there’s only one that gives you a great view of Bend, Oregon and the surrounding mountains. Pilot Butte is conveniently located in the middle of town, and you can hike or drive to the top, for free.
As you’re driving east on US 20, Pilot Butte definitely is in the middle of things. I captured this image from my Drivelapse camera. The video (down the page) will show you the fun corkscrew drive up to the top.
Once you’ve reached the summit of this old cinder cone, you’ll have an excellent view in every direction. Directly below, you can see US 20 and the cross street, US 97, slices through the middle of the picture. On the other side, angled slightly to the left, you can see downtown Bend.
Unfortunately, I was visiting Bend during some very unfavorable weather. Before driving to the top of Pilot Butte, I had driven most of the scenic Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway. I didn’t see any mountain peaks on that drive, and I still couldn’t see any from here. In fact, during my entire visit to the area, I never saw any of the famous mountains like the Three Sisters or Mount Bachelor.
The only evidence I could find that these mountains actually exist, was located at the center of the brick-paved platform atop Pilot Butte. There’s a big brass disk…
… with the names of all of the mountains which, under better conditions, you’d be able to see from up here.
Since I couldn’t see much of Bend’s natural splendor, I decided to check out its manmade features instead. I headed towards downtown Bend, and then walked around for a bit.
Bend’s Tower Theatre is, perhaps, the town’s most recognizable building. The art-deco theater was renovated in 2004, and now features 460 seats. The theater has a full schedule of live performances. Check out the Drivelapse video below for a complete tour of downtown Bend.
You’ll also want to check out Bend’s Old Mill District. It’s located along the Deschutes River, just a few blocks south of downtown. You can’t miss it, thanks to the towering smokestacks from the old Brooks-Scanlon timber mill “A” — one of three lumber mills that fueled the local economy for the first half of the 20th century. Mill “A” was built in 1916, closed in 1983, and nearly crumbled, before being restored in the early 1990’s.
The old mill now houses an REI sporting goods store. Even if you don’t need any outdoor recreation supplies, it’s still fun to go inside REI, just to admire the parts of the old mill that survived, and are still in place underneath the huge smokestacks.
If the weather had been better, I might have taken a walk on Bend’s urban hiking trail system. Numerous trails run alongside the Deschutes River and elsewhere around town. These walks can be short or long, and can easily make a loop. You can pick up a printed map of the trails inside REI.
The Bottom Line
Bend is a great town with plenty of recreation opportunities nearby. My visit to Bend wasn’t as spectacular as it could have been, mostly due to the poor weather conditions. I’ll certainly try to go back when I can see the mountains from Pilot Butte, and walk around downtown without getting soggy.
Pilot Butte Scenic Viewpoint is located along US Highway 20, just a few blocks east of US 97, in Bend, Oregon. In fact, US 20 has to curve south, to go around the base of the hill.
If you’d like to drive up Pilot Butte, watch for the entrance off US 20, on the southwest side of the hill. If you’d prefer to hike to the top, you’ll find a parking area with restrooms and a playground on the southeast side of the hill — turn on Arnett Way, then Linnea Drive.
From Pilot Butte to downtown Bend, take US 20 west, and cross over/under US 97 and US 97 Business. From downtown to the Mill District, follow Bond Street south.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive around Bend, Oregon: