My (Failed) Attempt At Conquering The Bend Ale Trail

beerThere must be someone in Bend, Oregon, who drinks Coors or Bud Light. But I imagine that this mythical, mass produced beer loving android keeps a very low profile so as not to be shunned, like an alcoholic Amish swinger, in what must be America’s best craft beer town. Bend is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty and some 250 days of sunshine a year. There are so many opportunities to hike, kayak, go trail running, white water rafting, skiing or snowboarding that one doesn’t have to feel too guilty about throwing back a few craft beers at one of Bend’s 13 breweries.

With a population of just under 80,000, Bend apparently has the most per capita breweries in the nation. Inside the city limits, there are 10 brewpubs and three breweries (Boneyard has a tasting room open to the public, Below Grade Brewing isn’t open to the public and the Ale Apothecary is by appointment only). There are two more brewpubs in the neighboring towns of Sunriver and Sisters, and I’m told there is one more brewpub set to open later this summer called Riverside and another brewery called Rathole about to open any time now. Bend also has a Cycle Pub that gives drinkers and bike enthusiasts to combine their two favorite pastimes.

But it’s not just the quantity of microbrew offerings in Bend – locals know good beer and in a place with this many breweries, brewers know that their product had better be good. And it is.

On a four-day visit to Bend, my plan was to visit each of Bend’s brewpubs, plus another brewpub, Three Creeks Brewing Company, in nearby Sisters. Tourism officials have established an official Bend Ale Trail detailing where the brewpubs are and what they specialize in. Drinkers can download an app or pick up a passport; those who get stamps from every brewery are entitled to a free mug. The mug is worth no more than about $5, but securing it seemed like a worthy quest.

deschutes brewery beerI started at Bend’s oldest brewpub, founded in 1988, the Deschutes Brewery, which is named after the river that runs through town. I ordered Bachelor Bitter, named after the towering, snowcapped, 9,000-foot peak that’s just outside town, and my wife ordered a Trees of Doom Dunkel as we listened in on a couple who told our waitress they wanted to move to Bend. In the days to come, we’d realize that nearly every visitor in town seemed to be pondering a move to Bend. And by the time I started guzzling my second pint, a malty, sweet little number called a Free Ride Cream Ale, I was ready to move to Bend myself.

In the days that followed, I hit six more brewpubs in the area; below you’ll find some observations about each place.

Three Creeks Brewery– Three Creeks is located about 20 minutes northwest of Bend in Sisters, an interesting little town with a cool, Old West flavor to it. (There’s also a great independent bookstore in town called Paulina Springs Books.) It was a hot day, so we sat outside, facing a parking lot backed by some towering evergreens, and I ordered their lightest beer, a Knotty Blonde, which they advertised as being “as light as the hair of our pistol carrying honey.” It was good but not particularly memorable, though I liked the fact that they advertise all the beer’s stats – including its original gravity (OG) of 1.039, its final gravity (FG) of 1.008, its alcohol content (4.0%) and its International bittering units (IBU) total. (I had to Google these terms to find out that the OG and FG have to do with the beer’s sugar content and the IBU has to do with how hoppy the beer is.)

10 Barrel Brewing Company– As soon as I walked into this Westside brewpub, I wanted to buy the place, or, at the very least, become a regular. There’s an inviting fire pit with benches and tables built around it and half the bar stools are outside. I ordered a “Mike Saw a Sasquatch” Session Ale, a golden Summer Ale, made with Cascade and Sterling hops and honey and 2-row pale malts. It tasted a little hoppier than its low (26) IBU rating suggested but, once again, I loved how much information was provided about the beer.

Bend Brewing Company– This brewpub is right downtown with an obstructed view of the Deschutes River. I sat on the outdoor patio with my 5-year-old son, who made friends with a 4-year-old-girl at the table next to us while I enjoyed a Maibock on a warm spring day. It was a solid choice – clean, with a nice malty finish.

mcmenamins brewery bendMcMenamins Old St. Francis School Brewery– This place was converted from a school to a hotel and brewpub in 2004. It was Central Oregon’s first parochial school, opened in 1936, and it has an incredibly ornate 102 degree Fahrenheit soaking pool that looks like one of the fancy bathhouses in Budapest, not to mention a cinema, three cozy pubs and an outdoor fire pit to drink by.

This was my favorite brewpub in Bend, both in terms of atmosphere and quality of beer. I had a seasonal English Brown Ale that was nutty, a little smoky and deliciously creamy and smooth. Something like a beer milkshake, it was the best beer I’ve had in a very long time. Next time I return to Bend, I plan to stay in the hotel.

Old Mill Brew Werks– This is a neighborhood brewpub in the Old Mill District that serves good food and has some tasty beers. We sat outside and I had another English Brown Ale that was outstanding, though perhaps a notch below the version I drank at McMenamins and a bit pricey at $4 for a small 10 ounce glass. But our waitress was friendly and her story – she has a masters degree in Science but doesn’t mind working in a brewpub because she wants to live in Bend – reinforced my impression that this is a place worth rearranging one’s life for.

Crux Fermentation Project– Located in an industrial area adjacent to downtown Bend, this place is Bend’s newest brewpub, at just a year old. It was full of happy drinkers, many of them parents with their kids in tow, like us, on a warm, sunny, Tuesday afternoon. I sampled the Marzen and an On the Fence NW Pale Ale, and couldn’t decide which one I like more. They were both outstanding.

There was a large group gathered for a birthday party, and the birthday girl gave my sons her leftover cupcakes. Another couple, who were watching a game of horseshoes on the patio, told my wife that they moved to Bend from San Francisco eight years ago and haven’t regretted it for a moment since.

I asked our waiter why the place was called a project, rather than a brewpub, and I thought his answer was a perfect metaphor for the city itself.

“We call it a project because it is like a project,” he said. “We’re constantly tinkering, trying to make it better. The place will always be changing.”

Conclusion– I’m a little ashamed to say that I didn’t make it to several breweries that were on my to-do list, namely Cascade Lakes Brewing Company, GoodLife, Boneyard, Worthy Brewing Company, and Silver Moon, but I think that subconsciously I wanted to miss a few, so that I have a good excuse to come back to Bend.

Bend Ale Trail

Intoxicating Bend, Oregon

bend, oregonWho wants to move to Bend, Oregon, with me? Oh, I know what you’re thinking. I already have a perfectly good place to live. Why would I need to move to a small city in Central Oregon? If you’re asking yourself this question, you’ve probably never been to Bend, because it’s one of those places that gets under your skin. Drop by for four or five days, as I did earlier this month, and you can’t help but envy those who call this place home.

Bend makes it onto a lot of Best Places to Live lists, particularly the ones you see in Outside, Men’s Health and other publications that value recreational opportunities and craft beer, rather than career climbing. I was fully prepared to be disappointed by the place, but instead I was seduced. The weather was perfect with sunshine, temperatures in the 70s and clear blue skies and vistas of snowcapped mountains in every direction. And everyone we met, even those we encouraged to tell us something bad about Bend, told us the same thing: we love it here.

My first I-Want-to-Move-to-Bend moment came on a hike to Dillon Falls, just minutes outside of town. We were hiking on a path alongside the cool, rushing waters of the Deschutes River. The sun was out and it was perfectly quiet, save for the melodic rush of the powerful rapids. I watched the river flow and couldn’t help but view it as a metaphor for how quickly life goes by. It’s too short not to be in a place you love, right?

Before you quit your job and move to Bend based upon my half-baked advice, I should admit that it isn’t perfect. The unemployment rate is 11.3 percent and that number doesn’t even accurately reflect how bad the economic situation really is, because there are also lots of people who have only part-time work or full-time McJobs with wages so low that they are forced to drink mass produced beer. (Contrary to popular belief, you cannot use Food Stamps to buy craft beer in Bend, at least not yet.)

Bend experienced one of the country’s steepest boom and bust real estate swings, before and after the Great Recession, and though the price of homes has gone down, it’s still far from cheap. And although the climate is sunny and dry, it can get quite cold in winter. So there you go. Bend isn’t perfect. No place is. But even if you don’t want to move there, you at least have to visit. Here’s why.

The Great Outdoors

In Bend, you don’t even have to leave the city limits to enjoy nature. Whatever you like to do: ski, hike, cycle, kayak, rock-climb, white-water raft, you name it, and you can find it close to Bend. I’m into hiking and I highly recommend the Dillon Falls section of the Deschutes River Trail, the Lava Lands Visitor’s Center, Smith Rock State Park, the Peter Skene Ogden National Scenic Trail, the West Metolius (River) Trail, right next to the Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery (a free and interesting site itself) and Pilot Butte State Park, which is right on the east side of town. Also, the trails at the High Desert Museum are perfect for a stroll and the fact that you can learn about the region’s history and wildlife on the premises makes this place a must-visit while in Bend.

And even if you’re not a skier, take the ride out to Mt. Bachelor and continue on the Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway (parts of this byway are open only in the summer) for some glorious alpine scenery.

Beer

When it comes to good beer, there’s an embarrassment of riches in Bend. I have no clue how 10 brewpubs and three breweries (with more set to open soon) stay in business in a city of 80,000, but as a visitor, you can only benefit from the stiff competition. I visited seven brewpubs in four days and felt like I had just scratched the surface of what must be the best craft beer scene in America.

My favorites were McMenamins Old St. Francis Brewery, for its killer English Brown Ale and its atmospheric pubs, Crux Fermentation Project, for its tasty Marzen beer and its patio, and 10 Barrel Brewing Company, because I love their fire pit and indoor/outdoor bar. But all of Bend’s breweries are worth a visit, and if you manage to hit them all and collect stamps to prove it, you’ll get a nice little souvenir mug from the visitor’s information office.

Eats

For a city of its size, Bend has a remarkable array of good restaurants. I didn’t have a single bad meal anywhere. I had a carnivore’s pizza at Deschutes Brewery that was out of this world; some very memorable oatmeal cookies at Lone Pine Coffee Roasters, a stylish little café in an alley location in downtown Bend (thank you, Anna Brones); and some surprisingly outstanding New England Clam Chowder at Parrilla Grill. My colleague Pam Mandel sent me to the Sparrow Bakery for breakfast and I quickly became addicted to their vanilla and cardamom spiced ocean rolls (see photo below).

But the Bend restaurant that I’m still dreaming about, a week after returning from Bend, is Big Island Kona Mix Plate, a casual Hawaiian-style place in the Old Mill District. I had the mixed plate with bulgogi and spicy chicken and couldn’t remember the last time I tasted anything so divine (and affordable at $10 a plate with two sides.)

Dreamers

When Cate Cushman, a real estate broker we met, moved to Bend in 1976, the town had a population of less than 15,000. Cushman, a Georgia native, had been traveling across the country in a Winnebago with her first husband when they fell in love with Bend and decided to stay. Nearly 40 years later, she’s certain that she made the right move.

Bend’s population more than doubled in the ’90s, and continued to rise in the last decade, from 52,029 in 2000 to 76,639. Much of the population gain can be attributed to Baby Boomers from California moving to Bend to retire, but you don’t have to look very hard in Bend to find young people who have moved there as a lifestyle choice. Some call Bend a place to experience “poverty with a view,” but I think that, for many who move there, the point is to step out of the rat race, slow down and enjoy the finer things in life.

Take Sibel Edmonds, for example. I met Sibel at the Bend Brewing Company one afternoon this month and she told me that she looked all over the whole world for the perfect place to live and raise her daughter, Elle, and settled on Bend, thanks to its natural beauty, cultural offerings, good schools and sunny, dry weather, among other things. I don’t know if Sibel is right or not, but I like the idea of being in a place with so many idealistic people who are looking for their own little utopia. Bend may or may not be a good fit for us, but I got enough of a taste of Bend’s good life to know that I want more.

It’s Still Snowing Somewhere In Oregon

crater lake oregonWhen you think of wintery weather, Oregon might not be the first state that comes to mind. It certainly wasn’t for me until I visited snowed-under Crater Lake National Park and other snowy, high altitude spots in the Beaver State last week. It was 76 degrees and sunny on the day we left Klamath Falls, Oregon, for the park, which is only 70 miles to the north, and even though I’d been told that Rim Drive, the scenic route around the park, was closed due to snow, I didn’t quite believe it.

To me, it was like being in South Beach on a toasty, warm day and hearing that there was snow in West Palm Beach. But Crater Lake is about 2,000 feet higher than Klamath Falls and sure enough, the place was still buried in snow.

“All the hiking trails are covered in deep snow,” said the park ranger who took our $10 entry fee. “But we rent snow shoes if you’re interested.”
We drove on towards the visitor’s center and were astonished to see huge snowdrifts on both sides of the neatly paved road. Over at the lake’s Discovery Point lookout, it was 41 degrees according to our rental car’s temperature gauge, but when I stepped out of the car, I was almost knocked down by a ferocious wind that made it feel as though it was in the teens. I had brought a hat and gloves but there were a few other hapless tourists there in shorts and T-shirts grimacing in pain.

crater lake oregon

Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States at more than 1,900 feet (seventh deepest in the world) and the water is remarkably clean. I have never seen a deeper shade of blue in my life and the contrast of the snow against the steep cliffs along the lake makes for an unforgettable view. According to the Moon Guide to Oregon, Kodak used to send apologies along with photos they processed of the lake because their technicians couldn’t believe that the water at Crater Lake was that blue. It is.

crater lake oregon

Rim Drive was indeed closed after Discovery Point to traffic but that made it pleasant to walk on and although we couldn’t really take advantage of the park’s 90 miles of hiking trails with two kids and no snow shoes, it was delightful to have a national park practically all to ourselves, even if it was bitterly cold and windy.

After leaving Crater Lake, we spent four days in Bend, one of America’s most beautifully situated cities with snowcapped mountains in almost every direction, and had more wintery surprises in store for us. McKenzie Pass, reputed to be one of the most scenic drives in the Cascade Range, was closed due to snow, as was most of the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway, despite the fact that it was nearly 80 degrees in nearby Bend.

mt bachelor oregon

But only 20 minutes outside Bend, the Mt. Bachelor ski resort was not only open but also busy with skiers. The place remains open through Memorial Day and at this time of year visitors to Bend can ski in the morning and play tennis or golf in the afternoon. For a guy who lives in the flat, boring Midwest, the quick and dramatic changes in altitude and weather are reason enough to get on a plane and head to Oregon.

Ten outdoor destinations with everything!

Who says you can’t have it all? For many travelers vacation time is limited. Those in search of adventure want to maximize that short window of travel time. Here are ten cities where adventure-seekers can expand their options with a range of heart-pounding choices.

Buena Vista, Colorado
Buena Vista translates to “beautiful view.” It’s easy to understand why the name stuck. Nestled into the central Colorado highlands, this Colorado town just might be the hidden adventure gem of the Rockies. Peak-baggers have twenty 14ers within roughly an hour-and-a-half drive from Buena Vista, making it a perfect base camp for high-altitude hiking. Ski Cooper, Monarch and Aspen are all close by for a winter sports fix and the class III-V Arkansas River provides thrilling whitewater rafting all summer long.

Cape Town, South Africa
South Africa is considered by many to be the adrenaline capital of the world. Cape Town has no shortage of blood-pumping options. Traditional sports like sea kayaking and mountain biking are epic here, but there’s also more unique endeavors like sand boarding. If that’s still not enough to get adrenaline junkies excited, there’s always the shark cage diving experience.
Vancouver, Canada
Adventure pursuits like sailing and kayaking are synonymous with this famous Canadian coastal city. Of course, skiing is the main draw in Vancouver, a fact reinforced by the city’s selection as host of the 2010 Winter Olympics. One visit to Whistler Blackcomb, among the top ranked snow resorts in North America, and the powder crazed will fall in love.

Quito, Ecuador

I was on the summit of a 15,763 foot active volcano within four hours of leaving my hotel in Ecuador’s capital city, Quito. This short trek with dizzying altitude is but one of the quick fixes found in this city of less than two million. Rural Ecuador is still developing its adventure sports attitude, but when using Quito as a starting point guides can be found easily. Cotopaxi, one of the world’s most perfectly shaped volcanoes, is only a two hour drive from town. Cycling and mountain biking have seen a huge boom in recent years and bike rental companies are eager to take visitors on epic rides through the Andes for up to two weeks in length.

Bar Harbor, Maine
In Summer, the population of this quaint Maine fishing village swells from around 5,000 inhabitants to 18,000, and for good reason. Surrounded by paddling and sailing opportunities, those making their way into the area’s bays can not only watch whales and seals but can spot a variety of stunning bird species such as Bald Eagles and Puffins. During my stay I found that land based options are equally as spectacular with Acadia National Park sitting just out the back door. Hiking provides views of the channels and bays while the park’s abundant exposed rock opens up endless climbing opportunities. There is even a climbing school in the city for those uninitiated to the sport.

Castries, St. Lucia
Once travelers work their way past the cruise ships and trinket shops, a world of adventure awaits in Castries, the capital city of St. Lucia. Professional mountain biker Tinker Juarez designed a trail system specifically for the Anse Chastanet Resort. Beginner, intermediate, and expert single track trails wind their way through former plantations and lush jungle vegetation. Diving and snorkeling opportunities abound along St. Lucia’s shore. More experienced divers will find wreck diving just off the coast. This Caribbean island is even home to a diving shop named Scuba Steves. What more could a beach bum want?

La Paz, Bolivia
Trek along ancient Inca trails, raft the class II-IV rapids or the Rio Tuichi, or take on the world’s highest ski resort Chacaltaya. If that’s not enough adrenaline, mountain bike the Death Road, reported to be the most dangerous mountain bike ride in the world.

Auckland, New Zealand
Auckland boasts average highs between 59 and 75 degrees year round. The mild temperatures make for an ideal adventure sports hub. Rappel into massive caverns with Waitomo Cave Adventures to explore the underworld of New Zealand. You will need at least two weeks to take in all the adventure Auckland has to offer. Surfing, horse trekking, sailing, and magnificent hiking can all be found near this city in the “Land of the Hobbits.”

Bend, Oregon
With a beautiful trout stream rippling through town and ski slopes just up the road at Mount Bachelor, Bend accommodates Winter and Summer visitors alike. I found a trail run around Todd Lake that was the perfect way to take in a pristine alpine setting. Backpack the 40-mile Three Sisters Loop and enjoy jaw-dropping views of these triplet peaks.

Chamonix, France

France’s Chamonix has long been known as the site of world-renowned ski resorts and awe-inspiring vistas of the Alps. But these days, the French city is also home to an “air park” where brave visitors can paraglide from just below snowy summits and soar above green pasture. For those who prefer their adventures a bit closer to the ground, there’s the Via Ferrata course. Via Ferrata takes rock climbing to the masses with metal steps and small ledges for climbers to use, all while clipped in to a secure cable system.

Having your cake and eating it too was never so easy. Any of these world-class destinations should be a crowd-pleaser for even the most ambitious adventure travelers.

Drink up and stay the night at the old Catholic school in Bend, Oregon

There’s something deliciously wrong about turning a Catholic schoolhouse into a pub and brewery, but in Bend, Oregon, the delicious far outweighs the wrong. When the St. Francis School relocated, Portland-based McMenamins bought up the original building, renovated it, and reopened the Old St. Francis School as a pub, theater, and hotel in 2004.

McMenamins brews are an Oregon staple, and the restaurant has some of the best pub fare there is. The School is also a great place to catch a show. This weekend, Old St. Francis is host to the BENDFilm Festival. Then there’s Monday Night Football, more movies, and live music. Coming up in November is the pub’s Fourth Anniversary Weekend Party, featuring performances from the Freak Mountain Ramblers.

The property has guest rooms starting at $114 per night and cottages that sleep up to ten people, starting at $185 per night. All reservations include free admission to the movie theater and use of the Turkish-style soaking pool on the property. You can also purchase special packages that include meals, drinks, shows, and activities in and around Bend.

Can there be a better place to party than an old Catholic school?

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