06 Sep Meandering Through Madras
Located 40 miles north of Bend, in canyon country of Central Oregon, Madras offers many charms as a summer day-trip. With the exception of the heavily used Lake Billy Chinook west of Culver, the area is often overlooked as a destination. That’s a shame, because Madras has pulled off an impressive transformation in the past decade, beautifying its downtown and building amenities such as an enviable swimming pool, a bike path encircling the city, a COCC campus, and the state-of-the-art Madras Performing Arts Center. The area has unique attractions, not the least of which is a laidback, unpretentious attitude.
Before and since its incorporation in 1910, Madras has been more of an agricultural and manufacturing town than a tourist magnet, despite being blessed with the same natural beauty as the rest of Central Oregon, and a more hospitable climate to boot. With a population of just over 6,000, Madras may be small but it does not lack culture—the city is the seat of Jefferson County, which has the distinction of being the most diverse county in Oregon, thanks to the Warm Springs Indian Reservation to the north and Madras’ large population of Hispanic immigrants. There is an active historical society, two art galleries and a thriving community spirit.
Jefferson County’s biggest event of the year is the Airshow of the Cascades, which takes place at the Madras Airport and drew a whopping 16,000 people last summer. The airshow kicks off on the evening of the last Friday in August (August 28 this year) with a live band, a fish-and-chips dinner and, of course, an aerobatic display, all enhanced by a spectacular backdrop—the sun setting behind the Cascades. The evening is capped by a fireworks show. On Saturday, the airshow runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with an Afterburner Party in town at Geno’s Italian Grill that evening. Both days, attendees can stroll around and get a close-up look at a wide variety of aircraft on the tarmac. There is also a car show, food booths, miniature train rides for the kids and ample people-watching opportunities. The airshow is a family-friendly event that all ages can enjoy. Military veterans and children 12 and younger get in free.
Complementing the airshow is the Erickson Aircraft Collection, a world-class museum which moved to the Madras Airport from Tillamook in 2014. Some of the collection’s 23 WWII-vintage airplanes are extremely rare, and most are still able to fly. The collection includes a B-17 bomber, recently rechristened “Madras Maiden,” and a P-39 Airacobra. Both models were used to train pilots at the Madras Army Air Field during WWII, and some long-time locals still remember watching them practice as they walked to school. The museum is open year-round, but if you visit during the airshow, you pay one admission price for both.
For some quieter fun, take Highway 97 north of Madras to Richardson’s Rock Ranch. When you get there, the first thing you’ll notice are rocks—in piles, on pallets, in bins and in buckets, all for sale. Look around a little more and you will see emus and peacocks too. The rock shop has both rough and polished agates of all sizes, and houses a small museum of fossils and polished stones. Visitors can borrow a bucket and pick, get a map and set out on a rugged eight-mile drive to the thunderegg digging beds—one of the best parts of the experience (best undertaken in a car suited for rough roads). The landscape on this historic cattle ranch is a stunning example of open high desert beauty, and you might see some interesting wildlife along the way, like deer and birds of prey. The thundereggs (golf ball-sized rocks with pretty agate interiors) are ridiculously easy to find, and for a fee Richardson’s will cut them open for you. Call before you go to make sure the roads are passable.
Back in town, check out one of Madras’ best recent additions, the Madras Aquatic Center, which opened in 2008. The facility has four pools including a six-lane lap pool with a diving board and rope swing at the deep end and a warm-water leisure pool with a gently sloping zero-depth entry; a lazy river (manmade current) feature, fountains, and a soft surface for tender feet; an adjoining pool to accommodate the large waterslide; and a hot tub. The MAC is situated on a hillside at the east end of town and boasts a panoramic view of the Cascades.
Athletic types can make the most of their visit to Madras by bringing their road bikes along to try out the Madras Mountain Views Scenic Bikeway, designated by the State of Oregon as one of the best rides in the state. The route is a 30-mile loop that begins and ends in downtown Sahalee Park. It winds through fragrant farmland and the small cities of Metolius and Culver, and then heads west to Mountain View Drive, overlooking Lake Billy Chinook, before returning to Madras.
If you are looking for something to eat in Madras, you will find an abundance of authentic Mexican food. On 4th Street, at the south end of town, Pepe’s has been a local favorite for more than two decades. There are no real surprises on the menu, but everything is delicious. Downtown on 5th Street, Rio Distinctive Mexican Cuisine strives to be a bit more upscale. It has an outdoor patio, an extensive menu and excellent service. Rio serves alcohol as well as fine food. For an alternative to Mexican food, try Great Earth Natural Foods at the corner of 4th and D Streets, with fresh breakfasts, salads and paninis, or, kitty-corner from Great Earth, Geno’s Italian Grill in the Harriman building.
Before you leave town, reward yourself with a stop at the Eagle Bakery for the best cinnamon roll you’ll ever have—remarkably soft, with perfect frosting. Located in a beautifully remodeled house just off the main corridor at the corner of 3rd and H Streets, the bakery has a wide variety of goodies, but it’s the cinnamon rolls that will hook you. You’ll never be able to drive through Madras without getting one again.
If you go
• Cascade Air Show cascadeairshow.com
• Erickson Aircraft Collection ericksoncollection.com
• Richardson Rock Ranch richardsonrockranch.com
• Scenic Bikeways rideoregonride.com/rides/scenic-bikeways
• Eagle Bakery eaglebakery.net
• Madras Aquatic Center macaquatic.com
• Madras Chamber madraschamber.com