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.
Volunteer Leader: Mark Hougardy | Organization: Eugene-based Hiking Club | 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.
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 for 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.