Updated: May 2, 2021
You don't need to hike 12 miles up a mountain to photograph Central Oregon's wildflowers in bloom. There are many locations easily accessed by car to see the beautiful flowers we have blooming in our high desert landscape during spring and summer.
First off, spring in Central Oregon is awesome for two reasons: 1. spring snowboarding & 2. the wildflowers start to bloom. Flowers in the desert are harder to find which makes them even more beautiful. I make all sorts of plans to reach my favorite photography locations to shoot the flowers, bees and birds. I never used to be one to just stop and focus on the beauty of flowers and the pollinators that land on them, but now I love it. It calms my mind and brings me a sense of peace that only nature can do. If you need a mental boost, I highly recommend taking a moment to check out any of these areas in spring or summer.
Before you go out, check out this highly useful wildflower search database that you can pinpoint a location and see what has been identified there and when. Very helpful and it must have taken a lot of work to put this together: wildflowersearch.org
I also use the INaturalist app to take pics of birds or flowers I see and identify them. I know there are tons of apps for this, but this is the one I grabbed.
Don't have time to see or photograph the flowers? Prints of the below are available for purchase here: Buy Oregon Wildflower Prints
Here is my list of easy locations to see wildflowers bloom in Central Oregon:
1. Crooked River, Prineville oregon
The Crooked River is designated as a "Wild and Scenic River" for simple reasons: excellent fly fishing, wildlife, and it's unmatched beauty as it meanders through the desert. Starting mid to late April, take a drive anywhere along Highway 27 that runs north and south along the river. Heading south from Prineville, you'll cross the Prineville Reservoir, then the road hugs the river with several turnouts along the road for wildflower viewing. In spring, you'll see my favorite - the bright red Desert Paintbrush. These are somewhat elusive but are found on the rock cliffs. Bright yellow Balsam Root are also in bloom along the roadside and they look similar to sunflowers. In summer, the tall Fuller's Teasel and many other flowers bloom. In winter, this area is still beautiful because the remains of the flowers are still standing and the landscape has its own beauty even when dried out.
2. McKay Park, Bend
Many parks in Bend have native flowers growing in them, and McKay doesn't disappoint. You'll find large purple lupine, pink phlox, tufted grasses, purple sage and more.
Go across the bridge where the surfers are and you'll see them.
3. Smith Rock, Terrebonne
Smith Rock is an amazing sight at any time of year, and is one of my absolute favorite places in Central Oregon. if you are able, walk the fairly steep paved trail down to the bottom and walk along the flat river trail. This place is incredible, and there's a reason it's called "Oregon's Yosemite". In spring, you'll start to see tufts of purple phlox creeping and Redstem Storksbill around edges of rocks where rock climbers are hanging, then the yellow Balsam Root popping up above the river. These flowers are so tiny compared to looking up at the giant landscape that is Smith Rock.
4. Whychus Canyon Preserve
The Deschutes Land Trust is the caretaker of this gorgeous 930-acre rimrock canyon nature preserve property that has miles of trails traversing up and down the canyon and rim. A fun bonus is that it has part of the old Santiam Wagon Road that you can walk (for those of us that are history nerds) and see sand lilies right in the trail. You don't even have to climb down the trail to the river below to see the other wildflowers. Walk the easy river trail west to the first viewpoint, looking down to see the white sand lilies, yellow bell and purple upland larkspur off to the side, and wax currant bushes with pink bell flowers a few feet high, starting end of April. In summer, the hills become even more colorful.
5. Painted Hills
I consider this easy even with the hour and half drive from Bend, because you literally drive right up to it. In late April, the hills start turning yellow with wildflower blooms. Summer brings many more. Even if you miss the flowers, it's still one of the 7 Wonders of Oregon you have to see if you haven't yet. Then to top your trip off, go into Mitchell and hit Tiger Town Brewery and Painted Hills Pastry for some unbelievable small town treats. You won't regret it.
If you've never hunted for wildflowers in the desert, put it on your list of things to do one day. Even if just for a quick walk or drive. Share your photos with others to inspire them. If you have any other favorite places you like to see them, or apps you like to use, let me know in the comments below. #getoutside!