Bend, Oregon is only a few hours southeast of Portland, but feels like a completely different world. While Portland lies only a few hundred feet above sea level, Bend sits at a few thousand feet in elevation. The fire watch tower pictured above was at over 5000 feet. This higher elevation, combined with the rain shadow effect of being east of the Cascade Mountain range, means that Bend receives a fraction of the rain we experienced in Portland and the Willamette Valley. However, the higher elevation also means that the area receives far more snow than Portland. For many, the warm dry summers followed by snowy winters make for an outdoor adventure paradise. You can kayak the Deschutes River all summer and snowboard on Mount Bachelor all winter.
This area is also full of volcanic activity. Lava rock litters the ground and ancient lava tubes are open for exploring. We actually purchased the Alpha 1 in Bend and came here twice during that process, though we never stayed for more than a few hours. But as the second fastest growing area in Oregon (behind Portland), we thought Bend deserved a bit more of our time. As an added bonus, an old friend of ours had recently relocated to Bend from Texas and was hosting another old friend at her house! It was like a mini highschool reunion!
I met Krissy when we were little kids and she played on the same soccer team as my older brother. Brandon met Krissy freshmen year of high school in drama class. They both became friends with Blaze that same year.
We lost touch over the years but reconnected with Krissy through Facebook when she moved to Bend with her husband Steve and young daughters Odyn (age 1) and Keeley (age 3). Krissy and Steve had downsized into a “tiny house” on wheels, which they towed from El Paso, Texas all the way to Bend. Their transition to tiny house living was an effort to simplify their lives while also saving money toward their long-term goal of purchasing a sailboat and sailing around the world. Currently, they are loving life in Bend, where Krissy works as a dietitian and Steve goes to school to become a helicopter pilot. While Krissy, Steve, and the kids don’t use their mobile house to travel in the same way that we do, there are lots of similarities in our lifestyles simply because we all chose to live in houses under 400 sq. feet.
I first saw one of these tiny houses online back in 2009. I always thought they were fascinating but had never had the opportunity to see one in person. They are similar to travel trailers in many respects, but are designed to look more like a traditional house and less like an RV. They are often built out of wood and incorporate home-like elements such as real windows, full size doors, peaked roofs, and in this case, a wood stove for heating. I think that these elements often make them more aesthetically pleasing than RVs. To be honest, I think most modern RVs are seriously lacking in the design department and could take some inspiration from the tiny house movement.
However, some of these same design elements are what make tiny houses less adapted to frequent travel. The break-down and set-up process is slightly more complicated than a traditional travel trailer. For example, the front porch on Krissy and Steve’s house folds up against the side of the house for travel. Unfortunately, this also blocks the front door, making it difficult to get inside the house during transit. In any case, it seems that tiny house living is treating this young family very well.
If you want to learn more about tiny homes, and Steve and Krissy’s house in particular, visit www.rockymountaintinyhouses.com. The designer and builder is a college friend of Steve’s. All houses are custom-built to order! Very cool stuff.
The photo below is from the day Steve and Krissy arrived in Bend with their tiny home.
This photo was taken after they were a bit more established. The roof over the porch is a recent addition and will need to be disassembled for moving.
I asked Krissy for a photo of their family “just being themselves”. She sent me this gem.
We spent our first day in Bend just catching up with Krissy and Blaze. We had dinner and beer at the Sun River Brewing Company. Everything was delicious but I particularly recommend the macaroni and cheese. Omg, so good. After dinner we all went back to the RV where we enjoyed some Irish Car Bomb cupcakes (thanks Krissy!). For those that have never had them, these are boozy cupcakes and are seriously amazing. The recipe is modeled after a bar drink of the same name which involves dropping a shot of Jameson and a shot of Bailey’s into a pint of Guinness. For the cupcakes, the batter is made from Guinness and chocolate, filled with a chocolate whiskey ganache, and topped with Bailey’s frosting. It’s a calorie bomb that is totally worth it.
The next day we were feeling super lazy and decided to spend the day at home. I read an entire book in one sitting while Brandon wrote his second ever blog post! See Pounding the Pavement! Which, by the way, has been our most popular blog post ever. Seriously, that post has had more views than anything I’ve ever posted, including our wedding photos!
The next day we decided that we had better leave the house and see what Bend has to offer. Our first stop was the Lave Tube Caves, located between our Thousand Trails campground in Sun River and the city of Bend.
This entire area is full of evidence of volcanic activity. These tubes were formed thousands of years ago by ancient lava flow during a volcanic eruption. The tubes were originally entirely underground but overtime a section of one of the tubes collapsed, creating an entrance to the underground tube system.
The main tube is open for hiking (and free if you have a National Parks Pass!). The hike is about a mile and a half long and very dark. Unlike some of the more developed cave systems, e.g., Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and Interspace Caverns in Texas, these lava tubes have absolutely no added artificial lighting.
We brought two flashlights and our solar-powered inflatable lantern. In retrospect, we should have brought a much more powerful flashlight (or rented one of the lights available at the entrance). Everyone we came across had one of the rented lights and they seemed to cut through the darkness much better.
Although visibility was slim to none, walking was relatively easy because the path was flat and straight with a soft sandy floor. The sand is not original to the lava tubes, it slowly seeps in from the desert above through minute cracks in the ceiling.
The path is also one long tube that eventually dead-ends, so it is impossible to get lost.
We didn’t quite make it to the end. Confession, I’m a wee bit scared of the dark. And of small confined spaces, like caves. I can generally just tough it out, and probably would have been fine had we brought a more powerful flashlight, but towards the end of the lava tube I was feeling a little bit panicked.
The photo below was taken right before we turned back. I’m not sure what I thought was going to jump out of the darkness, but when Brandon asked if I wanted to turn around I immediately said yes. Looking at the map, we were probably just a few minutes from the end of the tube. However, I’ve been told we didn’t miss much by turning around early. The tube apparently just ends with no great fan-fare, further travel simply closed off by an area of collapsed earth.
I was immensely happy to finally see the light. Secondary to my fear of dark, tight spaces was the fact that I had been suffering from severe allergies ever since we arrived in Bend. My eyes were swollen and red, I was going through boxes and boxes of tissues, and sneezing constantly. Apparently, I’m allergic to the whole area.
Before going into the lava tubes I packed a gallon Ziploc bag with a toilet paper roll and another for the spent tissues. Every 10 minutes or so I was asking Brandon to get into my backpack so I could dispose of the tissues I was holding and grab a new bunch. For some reason, the air in the cave made my allergic reaction worse, not better (as I had hoped).
By the time we arrived at Krissy and Steve’s place I was ready to try the unconventional (but effective) allergy cure of strong beer.
The next day we made our way to the Newberry Volcanic National Monument. We had stopped here the day before but the Visitors Center had closed at 4 pm. Our plan was to drive the twisting lava-rock road up to the top of Lava Butte. The road winds up to the top of the butte to an old, but still active, fire-lookout tower.
The roads were an amazing shade of red due to the lava rock used in the paving process. Brandon says that in his very unofficial survey of the best roads in America, this road is (so far) winning in the category of “most impressive material used for paving.”
More impressive than the road was the watch tower at the end of the road. The Lava Butte watch tower has been in operation since the early 1900’s and is still imperative to the maintenance of the forest. This watch tower works in conjunction with other watch towers to notify the necessary authorities of potentially dangerous fire activity. For my fellow Lord of the Rings fans, this system works much like the fires of Gondor. Each tower can survey a particular area and is in communication distance of the next tower.
From the tower you can see all of the nearby mountains, including Mt. Bachelor, Mt. Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack, the Three Sisters, and Mount Hood (on a clear day).
The view point can only accommodate about eight cars, so during the busy season you may experience a wait. We didn’t experience any problems.
The upper section of the watch tower (with the wrap around porch) is off-limits to tourists, as it is still occupied by an on-duty fire watchman.
Lava Butte was made by an ancient cinder cone, part of the volcano that dominated the area.
Beyond the watch tower you can take a short trail around the cinder cone. This trail provides fabulous views of the obsidian flow below. There is another trail that goes right through the obsidian flow (accessible from the Visitor Center parking lot) but we did not hike it. However, from our viewpoint above it looked like an interesting hike.
Overall, we really enjoyed our stay in Bend (despite my allergies), though the real highlight was getting time to visit with friends. For so much of this adventure it is just Brandon and I, so the opportunities we get spend time with friends (new and old) are very special to us.
For anyone planning a trip to Bend themselves, I would recommend visiting either during the height of summer or during the winter. We were there during the shoulder season when it was a bit too chilly to enjoy the river but not yet cold enough for snow. However, if you’re visiting Bend for the world-class beer, any time of year is a good time!
Up next we’re continuing our route south, stopping at Crater Lake National Park, a place we’ve been wanting to see ever since we moved to Portland almost six years ago!