Exploring Central Oregon’s Lava Lands (Part 1)

The internet forum Reddit recently asked users for their one-word perception of states across America. Oregon’s top 2 results? Portland and hippies.

Totally understandable, given that Portland is our largest city and the subject of a popular cable show, and…well…there are plenty of hippies here to go around.

But what many people might not know is that Oregon is a vast and varied place, both in culture and clime. Sure, people know it rains here, but do they also know we have 24,000 square miles of high desert? People may think of mountains when they think of Oregon, but do they think of volcanoes?

A few years ago, my daughters and I spent a weekend exploring Central Oregon’s Lava Lands in the Newberry Volcanic National Monument near Bend. It was adventurous and stunning. Let me show you a bit of Oregon you may have never seen before!

Exploring Central Oregon's Lava Lands
photo credit

Getting There

We live west of Portland, so had to head south on our journey; we took I5 to it’s junction with Highway 22 near Salem. Highway 22 (known as North Santiam Highway) connects with Highway 20 in the Cascade Mountains at Santiam Pass. The entire trek east is a gorgeous drive that takes you along the Santiam River, through much of the Willamette National Forest, and up over the mountains.

Portland to Bend

drive along hwy 20 22 Oregon

Santiam River

The Santiam River, Oregon

We stopped to take in vistas of Mount Washington and Three Fingered Jack (both volcanoes).

Mount Washington Oregon

Mount Washington, Oregon

Before dropping down in to Bend, my daughters and I stopped to enjoy an afternoon in the little town of Sisters, Oregon. With just over 2,000 residents, Sisters is charming and quaint, with wonderful antique shops, bookstores, restaurants, and more along their fabulous western-themed main street.

me and girls

The town is named for the three nearby volcanic peaks, called Three Sisters – North, Middle, and South Sister (or Faith, Hope, and Charity to some). They are the third, fourth, and fifth highest peaks in Oregon.

the Three Sisters volcanic peaks Oregon

 Staying in Bend

Once we arrived in Bend, we stayed at The Riverhouse Hotel & Convention Center. We got great rates online, and the location was perfect for setting up a “basecamp” from which to explore over the next few days.

Our room was large, with a fully-equipped kitchen, and just steps aways from the Deschutes River.

the Deschutes River along The Riverhouse hotel in Bend Oregon

Part of The Riverhouse property, along the Deschutes River in Oregon

A quick note: many online reviews mention that The Riverhouse is outdated. I would agree, but the facilities were clean, the rates, were reasonable, and four of us were very comfortable in our large room. It also had one of the most delicious buffet breakfasts I’ve had at a hotel, with a wide variety of food and generous portions. We would definitely stay there again!

Exploring the Lava Lands – Newberry National Volcanic Monument

Newberry National Volcanic Monument map Points of Interest


There is a fee to visit each recreational area within the Lava Lands. You can either pay per visit, which is typically $5 per car/per location, or you can simply buy the 3-Day Newberry National Volcanic Monument Pass for just $10, and you’ll be able to visit everything in the area.


The first stop in our adventure was the Lava River Caves. They are located 12 miles south of Bend on Hwy 97 and are open from May – September, from 9 or 10am to 5pm (check sites for more details).

mouth of the Lava River Cave

The self-guided tour is 2 miles round trip and takes roughly 1.5 hours to complete. It’s classified as “easy,” but do be warned that there are 150 stairs going down into the cave, and the ground can vary between rocks and sand, making it often uneven. They recommend you wear closed-toed shoes, and bring layers – the caves are cool and average 42 degrees.

rickety steps down in to Lava River Caves Oregon

If you’ve been to caves before, be aware that this is technically a lava tube, so there are no formations – you will not be seeing any stalagmightes or stalagtights. And we didn’t see one bat (or any wildlife, really). Still, it’s a very neat experience.

Important: bring light!! I *highly* recommend renting one of the $6 lanterns on-site, unless you have a few reliable flashlights with you (ps: your smartphone will not cut it). And if you’re in a group, have more than one source of light. The caves get dark, dark, dark, and one lamp for four people is just not sufficient. I was amazed at how many people came in to the cave without a source of light – they quickly had to scramble to make new friends who would be willing to help guide them through the 2-mile round trip.

inside Lava River Cave

us inside the Lava River Caves in Oregon

The adventure doesn’t end here! Visit Exploring Central Oregon’s Lava Lands (Part 2) to see what else we discovered in the Newberry National Volcanic Monument!