FORGET SPACE MOUNTAIN; the Deschutes River boasts 252 miles of endorphin-inducing adventure (and no mildly disturbing man-size mice). With a litany of paddling, fishing, and hiking options, the river—one of the most rafted in Oregon—is about as close as you can come to an outdoor amusement park without actually paying for admission. Its quality white water and reliably hot desert temperatures mean that the river teems with rafts all summer long, while its legendary spring salmonfly hatch draws fishermen from across the country. And it’s little wonder why: rising just east of the Three Sisters Wilderness, the river rumbles over ponderosa-studded flats toward Sunriver, then weaves through islands and ramparts of hard black rock from six-thousand-year-old lava flows. Only the most skilled boaters attempt to plumb the falls created by these natural dams, but between the cataracts are placid sections lined by luxurious meadows—the result of silt dropped into the slow water above the falls. The real ride, though, comes just below Warm Springs, where for fifty-three miles, the free-flowing river carves its way toward the Columbia River through a rugged, nine-hundred-foot-deep desert canyon full of sagebrush, plentiful beaches, and rollicking white water. Now that’s our idea of a magic kingdom.
HIKE/BIKE An easy introduction to mountain biking in Central Oregon, the Deschutes River Trail traces the river’s west bank for fifteen miles—from downtown Bend, through a lunar landscape of jagged lava flows, and finally to Sunriver. You’ll share the trail with hikers, but the only real traffic jam comes at Benham Falls, where the half-mile-long stair-step cascade will remind you of how the Deschutes (French for “of falls”) got its name. If you don’t have your own ride, Hutch’s Bicycles in Bend rents mountain bikes for the day (hutchsbicycles.com; $30). Way, way downstream, the Lower Deschutes River Trail—an abandoned railroad grade converted into a moderate fat-tire route (see “Railroad Wars”)—follows the river for eighteen miles, from the Deschutes River State Scenic Area (oregonstateparks.org) to the flat water behind the Dalles Dam, where it quietly merges with the Columbia.
PADDLE Sun Country Raft Tours’ Raft and Brew trip (suncountrytours.com; $57) tackles the short but splashy Big Eddy section, where much of the 1980s frat-house comedy Up the Creek was filmed. Once the rush of the Class III white water wears off, you’ll experience a different kind of buzz from a tour of Cascade Lakes Brewing Company’s beer-making facility, which ends with a sampling of six different brews. Sun Country also runs daylong tours ($106) on the very popular Maupin segment downstream of Bend, a thirteen-mile run rife with Class II and III rapids, like the stomach-dropping Surf City and Oak Springs, where the frothy water regularly soaks river riders. Those in the mood for more solitude and a little desert stargazing might opt for Ouzel Outfitters’ three-day trip on the roadless Wild and Scenic section of the Deschutes, upstream between Warm Springs and Sherars Falls (oregonrafting.com; $535).
FISH To beat the crowds during the fall steelhead run, some enterprising fishermen traverse the Lower Deschutes River Trail on bicycles to head off the big fish as they wiggle upstream from the ocean to spawn. If you’re not completely comfortable in your waders yet, try a guided day trip with Deschutes Angler, which specializes in instruction in the two-handed Spey casting technique for steelhead (deschutesangler.com; $560). Or for a more luxurious experience, book the fully catered, three-day-long float trip on the twenty-five-mile section of the river below Sherars Falls ($2,745 for one or two people).