The Beauty of Our Own Backyard

This Spring Break, explore something new with these fascinating daycations.

By Kim Cooper Findling

Spring break soon approaches, and with it, the old familiar questions:  How shall we keep the kids occupied for a week of no school? What is there new to do around here? And what on earth will the weather be like? A new travel book released last fall, “Bend, Oregon Daycations: Day Trips for Curious Families,” by Kim Cooper Findling, details fun, one-day itineraries for families in a one- to two-hour radius of Bend. Here we excerpt two chapters of the book, which both visit a destination that should be weather- and family-friendly for Spring Break.

Camp Sherman

Camp Sherman is a small, forested community at the base of Black Butte only 40 miles northwest of Bend but reliably delivering a peaceful, nature-infused, old-timey getaway. This excerpt begins at the headwaters of the Metolius River.

It’s not every day that you see a river spring literally from underground, or as it appears, from a rocky, fern-covered hillside in the woods. The Metolius forms from underground springs and appears near Camp Sherman, before running its short 29-mile course to terminate at Lake Billy Chinook. The headwaters are conveniently accessed by a short, paved quarter-mile trail that also boasts a killer view of Mt. Jefferson. Depending on the season, you might see many people or none, but chances are you’ll encounter a mighty band of yellow-pine chipmunks accustomed to dining on visitors’ treats. (The kids will love them.)

As you watch the water trickle from the earth, consider that no one seems quite sure of its source. The presumption is that the source of the Metolius Springs is a basin on the other side of Black Butte, and that the eruption of the butte itself is what buried the river’s more obvious origin. But when we visited here when my daughters were small, they always insisted that there were fairies in these woods. I like to think perhaps the Metolius is the work of those fairy kingdoms.

After your short hike to the magical beginnings of the Metolius, it’s time to go and see some fish. Just as the chipmunks at the headwaters are accustomed to bite-sized handouts, so too are the fish at the Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery. Directly north of the headwaters nearly 7 miles, the hatchery’s collection of green buildings and holding ponds is the birthplace of six varieties of fish; a total of 2.5 million fingerlings are distributed around the state from this location each year.

Grab your quarters from the car—25 cents buys a fistful of fish food dispensed from vending machines to the kid’s hands so that they can toss, sprinkle or hurl it into a long cement pool to the mouths of hundreds of various-sized trout. The rainbow trout, kokanee, and salmon will energetically leap and swipe at the scattered bits. It’s great entertainment for all ages.

Mitchell and the Painted Hills

Mitchell is a small outpost on the far side of the Ochoco Mountains, 82 miles north and east of Bend. This excerpt begins at the Painted Hills, near Mitchell, which is part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

A couple of years ago, I was invited to visit the Painted Hills with a group of Buddhist monks from Tibet. You can see a photo of them in their striking red robes with the Painted Hills behind them on my website (kimcooperfindling.com). The Painted Hills are a geological formation so beautiful that it’s difficult to give them justice in words. Gentle mounds of red, pink, bronze, tan and black ash and clay are layered in uneven stripes, surreal and lunar in appearance. This area was once a river flood plain—a lush forest with a warm tropical climate that was home to prehistoric horses, elephants, camels and saber tooth tigers. Over time, layers of sediment of varying colors collected to form these beautiful hills, like the flowing water was laying down a painting to last for all time.

Changes in the weather alter the appearance of the hills. The best time to be here is just after a rain, when the amazing varieties of colors really pop. Snow can also be incredibly dramatic, and in spring, small yellow wildflowers paint their own line drawings on these beautiful mounds of earth. In any season, the hills contrast with the wide-open Eastern Oregon sky, which is often clear blue and dotted with white cotton-ball clouds.

Drive to the main overlook trail, which is a great place to start as it allows you to take in the entire incredible scene from a bird’s-eye view vantage point. Take some photos, and then stay awhile. The Painted Hills are like other places of almost impossible unearthly beauty that, despite magnificence, can inspire a drive-by kind of visit. Visitors say “oo” and “ah” and “wow” and “I can’t believe I’ve never been here,” and take a few pictures, get back in their car and leave. I encourage you to linger. Do the “oo” and “ah,” and then hold still. Let the energy of the place start to seep in. Feel how the wind begins to clear out the other noise you brought with you. See how the kids react to so much open space and sky and natural visual splendor.

My holding-still visit was on that trip with the monks. Watching them wander slowly around, doing nothing in particular but simply being there, made me do the same, and I saw things I might not have. How stark it is. How blinding, the sky. How really crazy surreal it is that these hills exist at all. How quiet it is. At the end of their visit, the monks chanted and rang bells and blessed the hills. I drove home in a contented daze.

We can’t all visit the Painted Hills with monks, of course. But I think small children can be like little monks. If you’ve brought some with you, let them show you what is here. Maybe it’s a flower, maybe it’s a rock, maybe it’s a bird on the horizon, maybe it’s that they want to set up camp and never leave. It’ll be something, I promise.

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