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High Desert Museum: Central Oregon Gem

Central OR High Desert MusemA unique museum, wildlife sanctuary, and living history exhibition, the High Desert Museum, just sound of Bend, tells the little known story of Oregon’s high desert past and present. The museum’s indoor and outdoor exhibits, shows, and demonstrations teach kids and adults about the area’s animals, flora, fauna, and its history and how they continue to interact to create the area’s present. The High Desert Museum is a desert gem that everyone, especially families with children, should take time to explore.

Central OR High Desert Musem

A museum volunteer helps bring natural history alive with a corn snake.

The High Desert Museum offers visitors both permanent and changing exhibits. When we recently visited, among other temporary exhibits, was an exhibit telling the story of area smokejumpers, those amazingly brave men and women who fight hard-to-reach forest blazes by jumping out of airplanes. The display featured an informative video with both historic and present-day fire fighting scenes as well as artifacts like smokejumper’s clothing, tools, radios, and other equipment.

Central OR High Desert Museum tortoise

A tortoise on display at the High Desert Museum.

An exhibit that appeals to little ones is “Whose Home?” It features climb-able rocks, caves and other structures, with plenty of desert animals like snakes, owls and turtles. Another, the Desertarium, presents live animals like spiders, snakes, lizards, and owls that inhabit deserts. On our visit, a volunteer held a golden-orange corn snake and allowed us to touch its soft, leathery skin.

Central OR High Desert Musem

Native American history is on display at the High Desert Museum.

By Hand Through Memory tells the story of Plateau Indian Nations as they journeyed from confinement on reservations to their present lives. Using authentic artifacts from Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, Yakama, Spokane and Colville tribes, including gorgeous beadwork and feathered headdresses, they lead visitors through this poignant story that ends with hope and renewal.

Spirit of the West is another excellent permanent exhibit at the High Desert Museum. It’s loaded with artifacts, dioramas, sound effects, and walk-through exhibits, including a spooky mine and wild West town with a Chinese mercantile, Pony Express office, leather good store, and more. This display demonstrates how different forces like exploration, military conquest, pioneer settlement, and mining and ranching shaped the West.

Central OR High Desert Museum wagon

An Oregon Trail Wagon illustrates the difficulties pioneers faced coming west.

While the High Desert Museum’s indoor exhibitions are outstanding, the museum really shines out of doors on its forested 135 acres. Visitors stroll along blacktopped paths under shady pines to watch two river otters frolic in the water. Guests can see these high-energy animals from above or go below and watch them in the water. During an afternoon show, a volunteer ranger feeds the playful creatures fish and talks about their food, habitat, and what we can do to save them from extinction.

Central OR High Deset Museum otter

River otter waiting for a snack at an outdoor display.

All of the animals in the museum’s exhibits, including the bobcat, porcupines, and the Birds of Prey Center’s hawks, golden and bald eagles and barn, barred, and horned owls, were born in captivity or have sustained injuries that make them unable to live in the wild. For instance, the giant golden eagle had its wing broken when it was struck by a car. It was rehabilitated and brought to the museum to help people learn about this magnificent creature. The great horned owl was rescued as a nestling and imprinted on humans.

Cental OR High Desert Museum owl

Unable to return to the wild, a Great Horned Owl is on display after rehabilitation at The High Desert Museum.

Visitors who want to learn more about the area’s raptors can pay $3 extra to watch the Raptors of the Sky show daily at 12:30 p.m. (Arrive by noon; no late entries.)

Central OR High Desert Museum ranch

Children gather to participate in the re-enactment of desert life at the 1904 Miller Ranch exhibit.

History comes alive at the 1904 Miller ranch that includes a 12’x 10’ family cabin, a smaller ranch hand cabin, a barn, an outhouse, a root cellar, and gardens. Staff in period costumes tell the story of the homesteading Miller family and encourage kids to help with ranch chores. When we visited, young children enthusiastically carried water to the garden, washed and hung out laundry to dry, and used small shovels to dig in a big area of soft soil.

At the nearby Lazinka sawmill, on select weekends, volunteers in costume demonstrate how the massive blades used to cut through Oregon timber. The wood-fired mill (which now operates on electricity, but still has all the original parts) mills timber for living history buildings that continue to be constructed.

The High Desert Museum works with schools throughout the year to offer educational programing for kids. In the summer, they hold hands-on day camps for kindergartners through fifth graders.

Guests can enjoy a picnic or buy meals and snacks at the café. The gift shop offers high-quality items for purchase and there’s plenty of free car and RV and bus parking-– Story by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor; Photos by Anne Weaver, RFT Editor



Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

RFT co-founder Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. An award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook, Bobbie is editor-in-chief at realfoodtraveler.com.