Strolling down Deschutes River Trail toward Benham Falls, you might be skeptical that this calm river will hasten into rapids and cascades. The wall of volcanic rock on the far side of the river does offer an early clue that something dramatic could happen. The Deschutes River was rerouted by Lava Butte Lava Flow, causing it to tumble over a few waterfalls on its path north toward Bend. This hike from Benham Falls East Trailhead down Deschutes River Trail to viewpoints above and below Benham Falls is 1.9 miles round trip with just 50 feet of elevation change. Benham Falls West Trailhead is even closer to the cascades and could be used for a half-mile round trip hike.
Set out from Benham Falls East Trailhead in Deschutes National Forest. This trailhead is actually south of Benham Falls on the east side of the Deschutes River, four miles from Route 97 and the Lava Lands Visitor Center in Newberry National Volcanic Monument (start of hikes to Lava Butte, Trail of the Whispering Pines, and Trail of Molten Land).
A couple trails leave from the day use area. Take the one heading down the Deschutes River, immediately passing Benham Falls Takeout, where boaters come out of the river above the hazardous class 5 rapids of Benham Falls. Walk down the trail along the river and you will see something that resembles a suspension bridge over the river. This is a river ruler that measures the water flow, as a sign explains:
This cableway was installed in 1905 by the United States Geographical Survey to measure the river’s flow. Today instruments sense and record the elevation of the water surface. This information is relayed by satellite into computers of water management agencies, and tells them how much water will arrive in Bend eight hours later. This is an important link in the domestic and irrigation water systems of Central Oregon.
After an eighth of a mile walking along the river, come to a junction by a trail kiosk. Turn left on a bridge that crosses over to the west bank of the Deschutes River. This bridge was built by the National Guard and U.S. Forest Service in 1982 and is described on a trail kiosk as “a gateway to the Upper Deschutes River – a National Wild & Scenic River as well as an Oregon State Scenic Waterway.” Walk out on the bridge and you will notice another interesting feature, a log jam just upriver. This man-made log jam, which has grown over with grass and silt deposits, actually predates the current footbridge. The logs were purposefully placed in front of an older bridge in the 1920s to protect that bridge from damaging objects that might float downstream. Today that log jam looks like a floating garden thanks to all the grasses that grow on the logs. Casting off on the north side of the bridge (downstream from the log jam of course), you may see fishermen angling for brown trout or Redband trout.
Walk across the bridge to a wide multi-use trail. A sign here puts the distance to Benham Falls at half a mile away. Enjoy a casual walk down the wide flat trail through tall ponderosa pines. On the right, you’ll pass intermittent views of the Deschutes River as it flows north. A mass of dark rock shoulders up to the river on the opposite bank. This near barren landscape is Lava Butte Lava Flow, a 9.5-square mile mass of volcanic rock that poured out of Lava Butte around 7,000 years ago. To learn more about the lava flow, check out nearby Lava Butte and Trail of Molten Land. As you continue down Deschutes River Trail, notice how the lava flow runs all along the east side of the river, clearly having shaped the course of the river.
The mellow flow of clear mountain water starts to move a little swifter and then a lot swifter. As rapids appear in the river, come to a junction 2/3 of a mile from the trailhead. Deschutes River Trail continues north toward Benham Falls West Trailhead, which is just above a downstream overlook for Benham Falls. To get up-close views from the upriver side of Benham Falls, bear right at this split onto a trail that clings closer to the riverbank.
The lower trail ventures down along the river and passes a couple junctions with paths heading back up to Deschutes River Trail. Don’t go back up to the main trail until you’ve checked out the waterfall. The river turns into swift cascades and makes a sharp left turn. Standing above this bend, you can watch the water churn around a pool before tumbling down a longer string of cascades as the Deschutes River squirts through cliffs. This collection of cascades is called Benham Falls and generous measurements make it the tallest waterfall on the Upper Deschutes River.
Downstream of the cliffs that frame the falls, look for a landing with a scenic overlook. This is your next destination for a view back up the river at Benham Falls. To reach the next overlook, leave from the pool partway down Benham Falls and take the trail back up to Deschutes River Trail.
Bear right to continue heading north down the wide trail. In another 0.05 miles, you will arrive at Benham Falls West Trailhead. This trailhead is a 0.85-mile hike from Benham Falls East Trailhead (or 0.8 miles if you skip the lower trail). Benham Falls West Trailhead has a picnic table, vault toilet, trailhead kiosk, and parking.
The course you’ve been on becomes a wider dirt road at the trailhead. Don’t continue straight and instead turn right, pass the kiosk, and start down the trail to the viewpoint below Benham Falls. This trail is a quarter mile long round trip, taking a string of switchbacks down to an overlook with brick walls and wooden railings dedicated to Michael Todd McDonald. Just before the overlook, you’ll pass a junction with a trail on the left that continues another 1.5 miles down the river to Slough Meadow (a possible extension for this hike).
Step up to the overlook on a perch atop a sheer ledge just downstream from Benham Falls and discover a great perspective of the waterfall. Look up a string of cascades where the water pushes through the gap in the cliffs.
After studying this stellar view, hike back up the zigzagging trail to Benham Falls West Trailhead. Turn left to hike south up Deschutes River Trail. Pass the junctions with the lower trail and hike all the way back on Deschutes River Trail, crossing the bridge to return to Benham Falls West Trailhead and complete this 1.9-mile hike with just 50 feet of elevation change.
Dogs are welcome on this hike. Bikes are permitted on Deschutes River Trail, but the side trails are not suitable for bikes. From May through September, a $5 day use fee is required to park at either trailhead in Deschutes National Forest (price as of 2016). A Northwest Forest Pass or America the Beautiful public lands pass can be used in place of the day use fee. The trailheads may close in winter months due to snow conditions. No permit is required to hike to Benham Falls, so get out and enjoy!
To get to the trailhead: From Bend, travel south on US 97 for 11 miles. Take the Crawford Road exit, following a sign for Lava Lands Visitor Center and Benham Falls Trailhead. At the end of the offramp, come to an intersection and proceed straight, driving another 4 miles the trailhead at road’s end. When the road approaches the Deschutes River, int will turn left into the day use parking area.
From Sunriver, take US 97 north to exit 151. At the bottom of the offramp, turn right on Cottonwood Road and drive 2 miles to Crawford Road. Turn left and drive nearly 4 miles to Benham Falls East Trailhead.
Trailhead address: Benham Falls East Trailhead, NF-9702 (Crawford Road), Bend, OR 97701
Trailhead coordinates: 43.93125, -121.41335 (43° 55′ 52.49″N 121° 24′ 48.05″W)
You may also view a regional map of surrounding Oregon trails and campgrounds.
|Trail of the Molten Land|
This 1.1-mile long paved partial loop cuts through Lava Butte Lave Flow and is packed with information and views.
|Trail of the Whispering Pines|
This interpretive botanical trail explores high desert plants on the edge of Lava Butte Lava Flow on a quarter-mile long path.
This hike explores a cinder cone with a fire lookout tower and a crater-circling trail that offer panoramic views over Lava Butte Lava Flow and the Cascade Mountains.
|Lava River Cave|
This underground hike explores a lava tube south of Bend that is filled with fascinating volcanic features.
See Bend’s best waterfall on a short walk to a downstream viewpoint or a half-mile round trip hike to an overlook by the top of the falls.
|Tumalo Falls Loop|
This 7.4-mile circuit ventures above Tumalo Falls and explores numerous other waterfalls and cascades on Tumalo Creek, combining North Fork Trail, Swampy Lakes Trail, and Bridge Creek Trail.
This 1.8-mile hike ventures up the dominant landmark in Bend to offer sweeping views of the majestic surroundings.
|Shevlin Loop Trail|
This 4.75-mile tour of Shevlin Park just a few miles east of Bend explores pine forests on both sides of Tumalo Creek.
|Archie Briggs Canyon Trail|
This 1.25-mile hike descends a ravine to clifftop views over a dramatic canyon on the Deschutes River.
|More trails in Oregon|
Explore other hikes in Central Oregon, the Columbia River Gorge, and elsewhere.