Exploring Central Oregon’s Rich Cultural Heritage, Dynamic Geology, and Majestic Night Sky

Our 4-day trip to learn more about central Oregon’s historic past started with a call from the interpretive ranger at Fort Rock. The 100-degree heat wave hitting the region was cause for canceling our visit to the Fort Rock Cave for safety concerns and the threat of extreme fire danger. The cave is a significant archaeological site where shoes dating back 10,000 years were discovered and public entry is limited to just a handful of people each year. Sadly, but understandably, we were not able to visit the cave and I had to amend our trip to Oregon’s high desert on the fly. Fortunately, everything worked out.

Trip Report:
Leader: Mark Hougardy | Organization: Obsidians | Date: July 2018 | Duration: 4 days | Participants: 7 | Type: A 4-day exploration of central Oregon’s rich cultural heritage, dynamic geology, and the majestic night sky. Car camping, hiking, and lots of open space.

Group photo at the Pine Mountain Observatory. The red lights are easier on the eyes when working around astronomical equipment.

On our first day, we arrived at the massive caldera located in the heart of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. We visited the double 80-foot Paulina Falls and ate lunch overlooking the stream. We located two adjoining campsites on the picturesque East Lake, and just in time as the park was busy. In the afternoon we hiked the impressive Obsidian Flow trail, a massive flow of volcanic glass and pumice 17 stories tall. Returning to camp we enjoyed a swim in the cool and clear waters of East Lake. Afterward, we hiked on the beach to the local resort and were reminded of the subtle, yet abrasive qualities of volcanic glass on the feet. At the lodge, we enjoyed a delicious meal and had some good laughs with the staff. The radio in the background was playing a tribute to Tom Petty. We walked about a mile back to camp. That night we listened to acapella hymnals from a Mennonite group camping nearby.





 

On day two we drove to the top of Paulina Peak. The peak is 7,984 feet and sits in the middle of Oregon. The views are impressive; to the north, we could see the massive stratovolcano, Mount Hood, then down the spine of the Cascades to the steep-sided Mount McLoughlin close to the California border – a distance of about 300 miles! To our south was our next stop, the iconic shaped Fort Rock, a volcanic landmark named for the tall fort-like walls. We left Paulina Peak and drove about an hour. Out first stop was the Fort Rock Homestead Museum, an open-air collection of historic structures. This is where I learned about a shortcut of a backroad to Derrick Cave, a remote lava tube that we had hoped to visit. Apparently, the private landowner had closed the shortcut because visitors were not closing a gate and his cows were escaping. The alternate route would have involved about a 50-mile detour on forest and back roads. This was tabled until another visit. Our next stop was the massive Fort Rock a horseshoe-shaped tuff ring that rises 300-feet over the surrounding flat landscape. We hiked for about an hour in the heat then drove to the town of Christmas Valley for ice. We continue on a short distance to Crack in the Ground, a 2-mile long tension fracture where we could hike and scramble over boulders about 30 feet underground. The temperature at the surface was 95 degrees, in the fissure it was a comfortable 70 degrees with some pockets of air in the lowest sections that we were chilling. Late that afternoon we stayed at the Rockhorse Ranch where we pitched our tents and gleefully enjoyed their shower! A celebrity at the ranch’s store was a black cat named, “Scratchy.”

 

On day three we drove a short distance to Hole in the Ground, a crater that is a mile wide and 500-feet deep. Once thought to be a meteor impact the formation was actually caused by magma contacting groundwater. The resulting flash (there were many over the millennia) formed the massive hole we see today. The steep hike down the side was dusty and the walk up the forest service road was blazing hot. Near the end of our hike, three cars zipped up the road in a cloud of thick dust. The vehicles looked as though they were from the set of a Mad Max movie. The last car to pass was missing the driver-side door; the driver was wearing thick goggles. The rag-tag group waved as the passed. These were participants in the Gambler 500, a navigational adventure for cars whose value is no more than $500. Later that day we visited the High Desert Museum for a closer look at the cultural and natural history of the region, and we explored by flashlight the 1-mile long Lava River Cave, the longest continuous lava tube in Oregon. The cave was a welcome 42 degrees! As the sun lowered in the sky we made our way about 30 miles east of Bend to the Pine Mountain Observatory, an astronomical observatory operated by the University of Oregon. The center sits near the top of Pine Mountain at an elevation of 6,509 feet. We made camp, ate dinner, watched the sunset, and enjoyed the various telescopes of the facility. There were close-up views of Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mars, nebulae, globular clusters, and various astronomy talks from UO instructors. Most impressive was a view of Jupiter and several moons through the 24-inch scope.

The final morning we woke up hearing a chorus of cows in the distance. We made our way off the mountain appreciating the drastic change in terrain from pines to the open high desert. We took a shortcut around Bend and stopped at the Lava Lands Visitor Center where we explored the 500-foot tall Lava Butte that has commanding views of central Oregon’s volcanic story before returning home.

Lassen’s Subway Cave

Subway Cave in northern California is an easy, affordable and fun way to discover the area’s volcanic past.

Subway Cave is a lava tube that lies just under the rough surface of Lassen National Forest. Visitors can easily park and walk a short distance to the cave’s opening where stairs descend about twenty-five feet down into the darkness.

The cave walk is only 1,300 feet in distance but is otherworldly compared to the bright surface and hot summertime temperatures. The visibility inside the lava tube quickly becomes zero, so flashlights are required. Also, bring a light jacket, as the temperature inside the cave is an autumn-like 46 degrees. The cave has several chambers to explore and signs are marked to help guide you to the exit.

At the exit notice the large ‘hills’ that rise several hundred feet to the east, these are the edges of ancient lava flows. Also, look for the magnificent Lassen Peak to the south. The walk back to the car is about ten minutes. Subway Cave can easily be explored by family members of all ages.

Hiking the Rosengartenschlucht (Rose Garden Gorge)

Imst is a beautiful town in Western Tirol. Here visitors will find a wonderful gorge that gushes with cascades and roars with waterfalls. The hike begins in the middle of town near a centuries-old church, within minutes a visitor is traversing a series of catwalks and footbridges while exploring this rugged landscape. Steps along the trail are often carved from the rock itself, and if wet, can be slippery so wear decent hiking shoes. In fact, my local guide would not go on the trail for several days after a rain as she believed the steps to be too slippery.

The actual hike is not difficult, but there are several areas where the trail is very steep while other sections have low overhangs. Expect a 250 m (820 ft) elevation gain while exploring the 1.5 km (.9 mile) long gorge.

This is a beautiful place but be prepared for a good number of people in the summertime. Consider going on the early side to lessen the number of people on the trail with you. Be prepared for an unexpected rain shower; during my visit, a sudden and very unexpected rain shower poured from the sky on us for about ten minutes, then as quickly as it started, the rain ceased and the sky was clear again.

The sound of water is always around you in the gorge.

Near the top of the falls is a recreation area with opportunities for playing and dining. Plan for several hours to fully explore the gorge at a leisurely pace.

Let’s Go Exploring! Balconies Cave and Cliffs – Pinnacles National Monument

Note: This was produced several years before Pinnacles National Monument was renamed Pinnacles National Park. The references within the article and videos still use the term Monument.

The Balconies Cave and Cliffs loop is a great family hike at Pinnacles National Monument.

Start at the Chaparral Ranger Station at the West Entrance of Pinnacles National Monument to walk this easy to moderate 2.4-mile loop trail. The trail passes house-sized boulders and follows a small creek, gradually the trail funnels into a small canyon and the entrance of the Balconies Cave.

Balconies Cave is generally dry, but in the winter and spring wading might be required as you duck under boulders and scramble through tight squeezes. A flashlight is required. It is easy to imagine that this hidden trail takes you to a lost-world on the other side.

Just past the cave is the Balconies Cliffs Trail junction. Walk up the trail while keeping an eye open for a possible Condor or Turkey Vulture. At the top of the trail take a break and enjoy the breathtaking views of the surrounding area; in the background are the towering Machete Ridge and the immense Balconies Cliffs.

Walking down the path the scenery becomes greener. Enjoy the occasional wildflowers and great views. The Balconies Cliff Trail trail soon reconnects with the Balconies Trail and will return hikers to the parking area. Keep a watchful eye for the small waterfall on the left side of the trail during your return trip.

Let’s Go Exploring! Bear Gulch Cave – Pinnacles National Monument

This is a great family hike at Pinnacles National Monument.

Visitors can start at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and hike up a moderately inclined trail to the entrance of Bear Gulch Cave. The hike to the reservoir is a short hike of 1.3 miles (one way), but it is action-packed.

The trail pleasantly meanders past a creek, between the rocks and through the trees. In about twenty minutes we arrive at the entrance of Bear Gulch Cave.

Inside the cave, we hear water trickling and light can be seen streaming down onto the trail in several sections. As we move into some dark passages the sound of rushing water becomes louder. Then the cave opens up into a large room. A waterfall rushes next to us as we climb steps that take us further into the cave.

Depending on the season the upper section of the cave might be closed to help protect a sensitive species of bat and their young. In our video this section of the cave is open to explorers – here a flashlight is required. We sometimes have to squat down and duck walk through several narrow sections while wading in ankle-deep water. For an eight-year-old (and adults too) this is a lot of fun.

Soon we emerge from the darkness and walk below house-sized boulders that are jammed into the canyon above us. Then we see a staircase chiseled from the rock itself. We walk up and are greeted by a small reservoir. Walking around the reservoir we look back at the dam and several amazing rock features that rise into the sky.

Family Time at Bear Gulch Cave – Pinnacles National Monument

Family Time at Bear Gulch Cave’ was published in the June 2008 issue of ‘Bay Area Parent Silicon Valley’.

Pinnacles National MonumentMy seven-year-old daughter Anna was first out of the car upon arriving at Pinnacles National Monument, “Come on slowpokes, let’s go!” We walked up a meandering canyon trail to the entrance of the Bear Gulch Cave.

Pinnacles National Monument is a two hours drive south of San Jose. This natural playground includes bizarre rock formations, house-sized boulders, and my daughter’s favorite, Bear Gulch Cave.

We felt a cool breeze from the cave’s mouth. Anna instructed us, “Mama, Papa, don’t forget your flashlights.” My wife, Christiane and I smiled and followed our young adventurer.

At first, the cave was dark then our eyes adjusted to the low light. We appeared silhouetted against shafts of light that pierced the ceiling. Small rocks crunched nosily under our feet as we walked. A bat darted overhead. Being mindful of the bat’s home we walked more quietly and lowered the beams from our flashlights. In the distance, we heard a low rushing noise from a waterfall. Several minutes later we stood next to a gushing spray of water. Our lights illuminated the waterfall that disappeared twenty feet below.

Pinnacles National MonumentFurther in the cave the trail dove underneath enormous boulders that were interlocked between the walls of the canyon. “These are as big as the house!” exclaimed Anna. The trail snaked between boulders to reveal a narrow staircase carved into the canyon wall. We climbed the stairs and out of the cave. We were greeted by a small reservoir surrounded by amazing and awkward shaped rocks. My daughter spotted our favorite picnic area across the water.

We enjoyed lunch in a shaded area. Overhead a vulture, or a condor, glided on thermals. In the distance rock climbers carefully made their ascent up a stone monolith. A hummingbird zipped in close, startling us, then quickly sped off. The rest of the afternoon we continued to explore the many trails of this natural playground.

Finally, the sun became low on the horizon and signaled the end of our day. We returned to the cave and back to the parking area.

As the family car turned onto the highway I asked, “So Anna, what was best about today?” No reply. Our young adventurer was asleep.

To continue your own explorations of Pinnacles National Monument visit: http://www.nps.gov/pinn