Nature of Central Oregon

Want to dig deeper into the nature of Central Oregon? Then, read on for a brief overview of this ecologically diverse region. We also encourage you to join the Land Trust for guided hike to further explore birds, trees, flowers, and bees!

Central Oregon is what we call this part of Oregon. There are no official boundaries tied to the name, it's just a way to say we are located in the middle of the state. Our geography, geology, and ecology are all unique to this region.

  • Ecoregions

    Central Oregon is spans three very different ecoregions—or ecological regions of our state. Ecoregions are not defined by counties or cities, but rather the environmental features—geology, rainfall, forests and deserts—that are similar for a certain area. Central Oregon is part of:

    The Central Oregon Cascades. Photo: Jay Mather.
    The Central Oregon Cascades. Photo: Jay Mather.
    The East Cascades slopes and foothills region: This is the ponderosa pine/bitterbrush woodland that is in the rainshadow of the Cascades. This region experiences much greater temperature extremes and much less precipitation than west of the Cascades. Sisters is on the eastern edge of the East Cascades ecoregion. Bend is on the border of the East Cascades region and the Blue Mountain region.

    Blue Mountain region: This is the Deschutes River valley. A broad sagebrush-grassland that is not as arid as grasslands further east. Parts of Bend, all of Redmond and Madras, and parts of Prineville are all in the Blue Mountain region.

    Northern Basin and Range region: Just southeast of Bend is another dramatically different region. These former lake basins are now sagebrush-dominated grasslands with cool season grasses like fescue and wheatgrass. Juniper woodlands can be found on surrounding foothills. Burns and Christmas Valley are all located in the Basin and Range region.

    Check out this map of Oregon’s ecoregions.

  • Geology

    It is, of course, the underlying geology that makes each Oregon ecoregion so different. The state is divided into geologic provinces based on similar types of rocks and geologic history. Just as Central Oregon spans several different ecoregions, it also spans several different geologic provinces:

    Smith Rock State Park. Photo: Joan Amero.
    Smith Rock State Park. Photo: Joan Amero.
    Cascade Mountains: The Cascade province is made up of two volcanic regions; the older and deeply eroded Western Cascades, and the younger snow-capped volcanoes of the High Cascades.

    Deschutes-Columbia Plateau: This region is dominated by thick basalt lava flows that erupted between 17 and 15 million years ago from fissures near the Oregon-Washington-Idaho border.

    Blue Mountains: This is one of the oldest parts of Oregon and is composed of volcanic islands that formed millions of years ago in the Pacific Ocean.

    High Lava Plains: This high desert region contains some of the most recent faulting and youngest volcanoes in Oregon. The high lava plains are dominated by sagebrush and grasslands.

    Basin and Range: This region is dominated by faults that created large mountain ranges separated by basins or valleys. Many of the valleys were occupied by lakes during the last ice age.

    Learn more with our Central Oregon Geology Guide. Then, go even more in-depth with Oregon’s geology explained step-by-step: Oregon: A Geologic History. Note how similar the geologic map in this link is to the map of Oregon’s ecoregions!

  • Major Rivers

    Central Oregon is fortunate to have five major river systems. They are all considered part of the Deschutes River system or watershed. A watershed is the area of land that drains into a river.

    Metolius River. Photo: Joan Amero.
    Metolius River. Photo: Joan Amero.
    Crooked River: The Crooked River travels 155 miles from Prineville Reservoir before it empties into the Deschutes and Lake Billy Chinook. Portions of the Crooked River carry the federal Wild and Scenic designation.

    Deschutes River: Beginning at Lava Lake in the Central Cascades, the Deschutes River flows north for 250 miles before emptying into the Columbia River. The Deschutes was designated a federal Wild and Scenic River in 1988.

    Metolius River: A tributary of the Deschutes River, the Metolius flows for 41 miles from its headwaters just outside of Sisters, Oregon to Lake Billy Chinook. The cold waters of the Metolius mix with the warmer waters of the Crooked and the Deschutes at Lake Billy Chinook, creating cooler temperatures on the Lower Deschutes.

    Warm Springs River: The Warm Springs River flows for 53 miles before entering the Deschutes at river mile 84. The river flows through Warm Springs tribal lands and provides 41 miles of anadromous (salmon and steelhead) fish habitat.

    White River: The White River flows 53 miles from it starting point on the eastern slope of Mt. Hood to its confluence with the Deschutes River near Sherar’s Bridge. The sand and silt that the river carries gives it a milky white appearance.

  • Flora

    Lupine. Photo: Carol Moorehead.
    Lupine. Photo: Carol Moorehead.
    The flora--or plant life--of Central Oregon is extremely diverse and spans a variety of different habitats. For instance, you'll find alpine flora along the crest of the Cascade Mountains and desert flora as you travel to the eastern portions of Central Oregon. In between, at places like the Metolius Preserve, you'll see plant species often found west of the Cascades mixing with species that prefer the drier, eastern side of the Cascades.

    Central Oregon, with its deserts, creekside corridors, and mountain meadows, is chock full of wildflowers--so many that flower enthusiasts often carry 3-4 books for identification! Here are several ways to get started learning the wildflowers of the region:

    Then, check out our favorite wildflower resources:

    • Sagebrush Country: A Wildflower Sanctuary by Ronald J. Taylor
    • Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest by Mark Turner and Phyllis Gustafson
    • Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia and the Inland Northwest by Roberta Parish, Ray Coupe, and Dennis Lloyd.
    • Oregon Wildflowers app created by Oregon Flora Project (The Oregon Flora Project website is also full of resources!)

    Wildflowers are not the only flora you will find while exploring Central Oregon. Forests of evergreens border our flower-filled meadows in the spring and summer. Then, with fall comes a brilliant display of changing leaves and needles. Here are several ways to start to learn about the trees of the region:

    Get even more in-depth with our favorite tree resources:

    • A Field Guide to Western Trees: Western United States and Canada by George A. Petrides, Roger Tory Peterson, and Olivia Petrides
    • Trees and Shrubs of the Pacific Northwest by Mark Turner and Ellen Kuhlmann
    • Northwest and Rocky Mountain Trees and Shrubs app. Based on Daniel Mathews' book.


  • Fauna

    A young mule deer. Photo: Tyler Roemer.
    A young mule deer. Photo: Tyler Roemer.

    Central Oregon is home to a diverse range of wildlife species. Large mammals tend to be the first critter that comes to mind, but they can be elusive and therefore difficult to see with your own two eyes. However, if you keep your eyes peeled, tracks and scat along the trail can give you a clue to the animals that have been there. Learn more about some of the wildlife that call Central Oregon home (and how to find them):

    Then, check out these great wildlife resources:

    • Explore wildlife on a guided Land Trust hike!
    • Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest by David Moskowitz: our go-to field guide.
    • iTrack Wildlife app: A tracking app recommended by expert tracker David Moskowitz.

    Central Oregon is home to beautiful birds, from raptors to songbirds, water fowl to owls. Birds fill the air with song and color, including the western meadowlark, the state bird of Oregon. Camp Polk Meadow Preserve is considered a birding hotspot in Central Oregon, and the restoration of Whychus Creek on the Preserve has improved habitat for songbirds. Here are a few resources that can help you get acquainted with the birds of Central Oregon:

    Land Trust Preserves protect important wildlife habitat for elk, deer, birds, fish, butterflies, bees, and other creatures in Central Oregon.