Learning About the Oregon Trail at the High Desert Museum

As you leave the Mt. Hood area and enter Central Oregon’s High Desert, you leave behind the towering pines, deep valleys, undulating mountain ridges, and the stark, dramatic rock face of the towering mountain whose shoulders, even in summer, are draped in snow. As the miles roll out along Route 26, the alley of pines through which you are driving give way to scrubby brush, tall brown grasses, red rocks and flat desert buttes. Timber land becomes ranch land, waterfalls give way to hot springs, and you have a hard to believing you are still in Oregon.

It was as I traveled through this landscape that my interest in the High Desert was piqued. It was so unexpected and so contrary to the image I’d been holding in my head of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest that I needed to learn more, and the High Desert Museum was the perfect place to start my re-education.

High Desert Museum in Bend OR

The High Desert Museum, located just minutes south of Bend, Oregon on Route 97, is situated on 135 acres and offers over 100,000 square feet of exhibit space. This is not your average drive by tourist attraction that you drag the kids to for some obligatory “learning” in the midst of a fun-filled family vacation. On the contrary, this beautifully done museum is well-worth a half day visit if you are anywhere in the Central Oregon area.

When you enter the grounds it feels more like you are pulling up to a luxurious lodge than a museum. While the museum has been serving families since 1982, its gleaming wood and natural stone look as if it was renovated just last week. Clearly a lot of time, thought, and money has been put into making this museum a true reflection of the area.

High Desert Museum in Bend OR

Inside you will find four main exhibit areas. We started our journey in the “Spirit of the West,” where we followed the path of early settlers that crossed the High Desert (also known at the Great Basin) on the Oregon Trail, mined for gold, and started towns. The very detailed dioramas that depict this trail are accompanied by living history actors that helped us understand what life was like in Oregon in the 1800s. My little Minecraft fiend loved the real life mine cart in the gold mine exhibit. I was very taken with the attention to detail that was given to the creation of the town, complete with a dry goods store, saddlery, and Wells Fargo bank.

Conestoga wagon on the Oregon Trail at the High Desert Museum in Bend OR

Example of life along the Oregon Trail

Gold mine exhibit at the High Desert Museum

Mining for gold in the high desert

Saddle store in the Spirit of the West exhibit at High Desert Museum in Bend OR

Examples of a typical saddle store in 1800s Oregon

Next we were able to press our noses against the glass and oooo and aaaahh over the Canadian Lynx, which had been rescued from near starvation after being left in the wild after being raised domesticated. It was quite a surprise to see the lynx and his fellow small cat the bobcat in the museum and it was fun to see the mix of living and still-life exhibits. We were able to participate in one of the museum’s many daily wildlife presentations and learn much more about small and big cats and I finally learned the difference between a cougar and a mountain lion (quick answer: they are one and the same.)

Canadian Lynx at the High Desert Museum

Mountain lion at the High Desert Museum in Bend OR

Is it a cougar or mountain lion? Same difference.

Another wing of the museum told the story of the native people to this area, showcasing the various Native American tribes, their dwellings, beautiful beaded handicrafts, traditional attire, and celebration rituals. After studying Native Americans last year at school, it was a perfect capstone to her learning and complement to our visit to the Pequot Museum in Connecticut last spring.

Teepee at the High Desert Museum in Bend OR

Dwelling of the Plateau Native Americans

The final permanent exhibit inside the museum (note I said inside, there is so much more outside!) is the Desertarium. Here we found some more living wildlife, although I admit we spent much more time admiring the turtles and fish than looking at the snakes or spiders.

Fish in the Desertarium at the High Desert Museum

Not sure why this guy looked so angry

But like I said, once you are done inside, you still have so much more to see outside. We set off through the beautiful, shaded walking trails to find the Autzen Otter Exhibit. As natural looking as any otter exhibit I’ve seen, we were sad to find the otters curled up in their den sleeping instead of playfully swimming in their habitat.

The otters may have been sleeping but the living history actors at the 1904 Miller Family Ranch and Sawmill were very much awake and eager to chat with us. These “local homesteaders” were able to tell us not only about life in the High Desert over a hundred years ago, but also explain the climate variations in the regions and how that impacts the landscape. We took a look at the horses in the barn but didn’t have time to explore the sawmill or the other outdoor exhibits, like the Bird of Prey Center.

1904 Homestead and Barn at the High Desert Museum in Bend OR

The Living History Barn and horses

While there are plenty of places to enjoy a picnic lunch, we didn’t come prepared and stopped for a quick lunch at the Rimrock Cafe. If you have younger kids, they can also enjoy the indoor play area but for us, it was time to go and move on to our next adventure (white water rafting!)

High Desert Museum in Bend OR

The High Desert Museum is open year round, except for Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. From November 1st through April 30th, the museum is open 10 am to 4pm and 9 am to 5pm from May through October. In the summer, adult tickets are $15, $9 for youth 5-12, and free for children 4 and under. You will want to allot two to three hours to fully explore the museum and you will easily find something that will interest all ages in your family.

Bottom line? If you are in Central Oregon, I would suggest that the High Desert Museum is a “must-do” attraction! We were surprised and delighted by the variety and quality of the exhibits.

Note: Our visit to the High Desert Museum was complimentary but free or paid, this museum is well-worth a visit. 


3 Comments on “Learning About the Oregon Trail at the High Desert Museum

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  1. This museum looks beautiful! Very much like a lodge, as you mentioned. I would love to visit this museum and learn all about the Oregon Trail.

    It definitely sounds like my type of museum – I love otters! Also I have a thing for recreated historical towns/shops/people in costume

      I love otters too! They can be so playful when they are awake.

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