When I was just a lad, which I must confess was more than 50 years ago, my family often headed over the Cascade Mountains from Portland seeking refuge from the rain. We camped all over Central Oregon, but the area we fell in love with was around the town of Sisters. Back then, Sisters had a population of around 300, and the closest “big” town was Bend, with maybe 25,000 people.
Times and populations have changed. The greater Bend-Redmond area is well over 100,000 and Sisters is now populated by more than 2,000 souls—not counting tourists. Despite the growth, the area remains a beacon of rest and solace for me. I was an Outward Bound instructor in the Three Sisters Wilderness, from which the town derived its name. I have climbed all the peaks visible to travelers: the Three Sisters mountains, Mount Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack, Broken Top and Mount Washington. Now, I head there pulling my trailer.
Getting there is half the fun. Portions of Oregon Highway 22 (from Salem) are part of the West Cascades Scenic Byway. U.S. Highway 20, from Sweet Home in the Willamette Valley, is the Over the Rivers and Through the Woods Scenic Byway. Oregon 126 and 242 (NOT RECOMMENDED for trailers) is the McKenzie Pass-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway. Even if you drop the trailer at camp, the McKenzie Pass Highway (open seasonally) is a must-see road! The Wright Observatory at the summit brings breathtaking views of fresh lava (where the Apollo astronauts trained) and glaciated peaks that seem close enough to touch. As you might gather, just about any road to Sisters is labeled “scenic byway” and is worth exploring.
The area is rich in recreational opportunities. Besides hiking (and climbing for the young at heart), there is great fishing on the Metolius and Deschutes rivers, golfing at numerous courses, cycling (road and mountain), rafting, and horseback riding, to name just a few activities. Bring along a camera because you never know what animal may wander into view or what splendor the mountains might show. The mountains are a beautiful backdrop—whether gleaming white with snow or pink with alpenglow.
The town itself is a delight. The city’s building restrictions have given Sisters a western motif, with delightful shops, art galleries, and outstanding dining opportunities, including great burgers at the Snocap drive-in, brew-pub grub at Three Creek Brewing, and excellent American food at the classic Gallery Restaurant (which has been there longer than I have been coming to Sisters). Several upscale restaurants offer fine dining, and the Lodge Restaurant at the nearby Black Butte Ranch Resort offers mountain views from just about any table. For those who need the comfort of the known, there are a McDonald’s and a Dutch Brothers Coffee.
For the RV traveler, camping options are nearly endless. For the boondocking RVer, there are 17 U.S. Forest Service campgrounds within 25 miles of Sisters that can accommodate even large RVs and trailers. For example, just off U.S. Highway 20, west of Sisters, is Indian Ford Campground, which does not have hookups, but offers spacious pull-through campsites. Nearby is Suttle Lake with campgrounds, a fancy lodge and nice dining. Several of these campgrounds can take the largest of rigs.
If you head south on Forest Service Road 16 (marked by signs seen in the heart of town), you can climb to primitive campgrounds with spectacular views. Wherever you drive, the view of the mountains takes your breath away!
For RVers who travel with comfort in mind, there are numerous full hookup campgrounds nearby. To the east, near Bend, is Tumalo State Park. Along the way on U.S. 20 are private campgrounds, including the Bend-Sisters Garden RV Resort, home each June to the annual Sisters Rodeo. As you drive along U.S. 20 to Bend, the view of the Three Sisters Mountains beckons you to pull over and take a photo—one reason I love the area.
One of my favorite campsites is part of a municipal park in Sisters. The city’s Creekside Campground, which is open from April to November, offers full hookups (with a senior discount!) as well as tent camping. The campground is within walking distance of the whole town, and its many special events, such as a quilt show, folk festival and art exhibits. Despite the closeness to town, we were entertained at the campground last November by watching buck deer sparring during rutting season.
You can use Sisters both as a destination and as a jumping off point to other places. To the east on Oregon 126 is Redmond, which has nearby Cline Falls State Park, Smith Rocks State Park, and many more points of interest. Bend offers big-city delights, with Newberry National Volcanic Monument close by as well as great skiing at Mount Bachelor. Only time is your limitation as you search for new wonders hidden within Central Oregon.
Whether you come to Sisters for the shopping, the rodeo, the quilt show, the Civil War re-enactments, or to explore all the other recreational opportunities in Central Oregon, you won’t be disappointed. Take my advice: to seek solace, seek Sisters!
Kurt Nelson is a writer, photographer and RVer who lives in Milwaukie, Oregon.