Helicopter Tours | Flying Above Central Oregon | Cascades Flights
The sun breaks through puffy clouds as we hover 13,000 feet in the sky, circling the Cascade Mountains of Central Oregon. A recent forest fire has left a haze in the air, creating ethereal, smoke-kissed, pastel brushstrokes in the sky. In winter, when the mountains are blanketed in snow and the air is crystal-clear, you can see all the way to Mount St. Helens.
It’s a chilly September morning, and I’m in a roomy R44 green helicopter with three Bend locals — photographer Jesse Polay, pilot Kevin Frame and Big Mountain Heli Tours founder Patric Douglas — hoping to get close to Mount Bachelor, Three Sisters and Broken Top, the star of these volcanic peaks.
Bachelor is shy this morning, still hidden in a mix of smoky fog and misty clouds. But the jagged exposed cone of 9,175-foot Broken Top glistens, and the hazy morning light casts a turquoise glow on the still water of its glacial lake, No Name. The entire scene seems out of a fairy tale.
Tours and Adventures in Bend, Oregon
Central Oregon’s natural beauty lures 3.1 million visitors a year, 70 percent of them return visitors. Like me, they come back for the unlimited outdoor recreation — hiking, biking, skiing, fly-fishing — and the utter convenience of it. Access to three mountains, 20 lakes and the massive Deschutes River all within 20 miles of Bend. It makes the Bay Area slog to Tahoe seem silly.
Experiencing it from above provides perspective — and constant jaw drops. You’re able to see more and go farther. Just like you ride a ‘copter in Maui or Kaui to get close to gurgling waterfalls and famous movie sets, you ride one here for the proximity to craggy glaciers and wildlife mysteries uncommon in California.
Back in August, hikers discovered the carcasses of 19 elk above No Name Lake. Biologists believe the elk became trapped by a slab avalanche as they attempted to cross a steep slope above the lake. Save for broken limbs and torn-up hides, their bodies were perfectly preserved under the snow.
As we float over Broken Top, I lean forward, hoping to see their outlines, but all I spot are the round white dots of camping tents along the lake’s edge. Guess I’m not the only one obsessed with elk carcasses. Looking north, Three Sisters reveal themselves like smooth, sibling waves. Where Broken Top is wild and rough, Three Sisters, the third, fourth and fifth highest peaks in Oregon (Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson are No. 1 and 2) exude calm.
Oregon Helicopter Flights and Adventures
During a 60-minute Big Mountain Heli Tour, pilots provide facts on the vast wilderness below, from Lava Lands to the gushing rapids of the Deschutes River, which snakes through a national forest brimming with maples and pines. During peak summer season, you can drive or shuttle to Lava Butte, a 5,000-foot cinder cone on the northwest flank of Newberry Volcano, but seeing it this way — flanked by the treetops of the lush forest — is another experience entirely.
If you crave a deeper dive, you can fly up with a naturalist — Big Mountain partners with Bend’s Wanderlust Tours on these rides — or let your imagination run wild on the Bigfoot & Sasquatch Helicopter Tour, which draws Bigfoot hunters from all over the world.
Powder-hungry skier? Brace yourself: By year’s end, you’ll be able to go heli-skiing here. Instead of a lift, a Big Mountain helicopter will pick you up at the airport and deliver you atop Mount Jefferson on the side owned by the Warm Springs Tribe for 7,000 feet of vertical bliss. Just you, the snow and the sound of fading rotors as the helicopter departs.