Maupin On the Deschutes
Drive time: 2 hours
A dusty ranchers’ outpost most of the year, Maupin becomes the state’s unofficial rafting capital as soon as the snows start to melt (May) thanks to the tiny high-desert town’s prime placement along Central Oregon’s 252-mile-long aorta: the Deschutes River. More than a dozen fly-fishing and white-water guide outfits and rental companies line the riverbanks and Wild West streets. Many offer half-day and one-day trips that require little more than showing up with a smile. Those with more mettle (and time) can book a longer float, like the popular three-day, 45-mile expedition from Trout Creek to Sandy Beach.
With a huge lawn opening straight onto the river, the 25-room Imperial River Company plants you in the middle of the aquatic action. From $89
Locals love the cozy Stonebridge Bar & Grill’s micro-heavy lineup and the piled-high pulled-pork sandwich that sometimes shows up on the specials board.
In addition to booking rentals and guided trips, River Trails Deschutes leads basic skills workshops that will keep you from getting too close to the river.
Camp Sherman On the Metolius
Drive time: 3 hours
Founded by ranchers trying to beat summer heat, this woodsy compound of resorts, cabins, and campgrounds along the Metolius near Sisters may be the most family-friendly of Central Oregon’s forest getaways. Among the aromatic pines and cedars (prime fort-building territory), on the banks of a sparkling—and perennially frigid—fly fisher’s dream, you’re free of high-speed roads, close to easy hiking trails, yet never far from an espresso. And with hundreds of families descending here each summer, your little ones will find plenty of fellow hide-and-seekers within stone-skipping distance.
The Metolius River Resort’s seven kid-friendly cabins provide all you need—TV, Monopoly sets, Adirondack chairs—to please the crew. From $245
Splurge on a grown-up meal at the Boathouse Restaurant at nearby Suttle Lake Lodge.
If you don’t feel like testing the 46-degree water, the Metolius River Trail’s 6.5-mile loop takes you along its rocky banks—close enough to feel the mist, no waders required.
H2O IQ: The Mystery of the Metolius
The Metolius River is a bit of orphan. It bursts from the ground near Camp Sherman at about 50 feet, a river born practically whole. But from where? Decades of poking, prodding, and precise measuring still haven’t determined the exact source of this Central Oregon jewel. Former University of Oregon professor Michael Manga (now at Berkeley) has come close. In 1996, Manga and his team began measuring the levels of oxygen and hydrogen in the water and comparing them to the chemical structure of nearby snowpacks, looking for similarities. After more than 100 samples of snow and spring, Manga and his team christened snowmelt in the Santiam Pass, more than 30 miles from the spring itself, as the birthplace of the Metolius.
Walla Walla On Mill Creek
Drive time: 4 hours
With dozens of underground springs, creeks, and ponds pooling at the base of the Blue Mountains, Walla Walla is, as its Cayuse name translates, the land of “many waters.” Indeed, stand still in town and you can often hear the soft rush of Mill Creek beneath the sidewalk … or stroll down Rose Street to see this city-splitting tributary of the Walla Walla River. The waters support more than 1,200 acres of vineyards (warm-weather friendly cabs and syrahs are the region’s pride), and this month more than 100 wineries celebrate Spring Release—an opportunity for you to sample the blissful marriage of local fruit and agua firsthand.
The six high-ceilinged rooms above Walla Faces’ downtown winery are within walking distance of 20 other tasting rooms. From $125
Plunge into a juicy flank steak torta at sandwich shrine Graze.
Bold architecture and wine combine at Basel Cellars, where you’ll taste fruit-forward syrah in a converted mansion straddling two meandering streams on a 50-foot man-made bluff.
Middle Owyhee River
Drive time: 7 hours
If you haven’t already planned your summer trip to this remote southeastern Oregon tributary of the Snake, you’re almost too late: The Middle Owyhee’s notoriously unpredictable flow tends to peak in May, after which the river’s roiling Class V (read: expert only) rapids dwindle to a shallow unnavigable stream. Of course, there are more terrestrial ways (read: hiking) to experience this rare beauty. And catching sight of the Owyhee slicing its way through jaw-dropping rhyolite canyon walls, dotted with pristine hot springs, might be all the motivation you need to get your butt in gear early for next year’s white-water trip.
If rafting doesn’t float your boat, head north to the sprawling McCormack campground just beyond the Owyhee Dam, where you’ll have access to the 53-mile reservoir and one-of-a-kind fly-fishing.
You eat what you bring (or catch). So hold up in Burns, at Pine Room Café, for your last meal before civilization ends.
While experienced rafters can manage the Lower Owyhee’s Class III rapids, consider a guide for the Middle Owyhee, like Momentum River Expeditions, which runs four-day trips.