About 11 miles south of Bend  on U.S. 97 are the Lava Lands Visitor Center (541/593-2421, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily July–Labor Day, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Wed.–Sun. May–June and Labor Day–mid-Oct., admission with NW Forest Pass) and Lava Butte.
The center has some interpretive exhibits that explain the region’s volcanic history, as well as a small but good selection of local geology books and an assortment of free pamphlets on local attractions; their bulletin board has the latest activities and goings-on posted. Guided walks that provide a good introduction to the Lava Lands are offered during the summer.
After your orientation, cruise on up the steep drive to the top of 500-foot-high Lava Butte, located just behind the visitor center. The observation platform on top of this fire lookout (established in 1928) offers the best viewpoint. Be sure to talk with the resident lookout and have him or her explain how to work the Osborne fire finder.
Nearly 1 mile above sea level, the butte affords a commanding panorama of the Cascade Range. On a clear day you can see most of the major peaks, with Mounts Jefferson and Hood looming prominently on the northern horizon. These snow-capped turrets form the backdrop to a 10-square-mile lava field.
You can venture out into this eerie landscape by taking the trail that starts from the visitor center and makes its way to the Phil Brogan lookout. Don’t be surprised to see blue-tailed lizards sunning themselves alongside the trail. Naturalists lead walks and give presentations on top of Lava Butte July–August; call ahead to make sure you catch one of these.
A short trail circumnavigates the 150-foot-deep crater on Lava Butte and is complemented by informative placards that help you interpret this otherworldly environment. From the trail, you can see how the lava flow from the butte changed the course of the Deschutes River. You can also see the kipukas, small islands of green trees surrounded by a sea of black lava.
Along the trail, look for some of what geologists call splatter. You’ll know it when you see it, as it looks exactly like what it sounds like.