Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Oregon Outback

Did you know that Oregon had an Outback? A long day trip from Bend leads you to geological, natural and historic curiosities in the wide open spaces of south central Oregon. To really explore all of these sites, however, you will need at least a two day trip.

From Bend, drive south on Highway 97 to a left turn one mile south of La Pine) at Hwy 31 (the Fremont Highway) signed “Silver Lake” and “Lakeview.”

Your first stop might be “Hole in the Ground,” a descriptive name! Look down 300 feet into the remains of a volcano that blew its top. Look across one mile to the rim at the opposite side. Look below your feet to see Newberry volcanic ash exposed in the trail that goes straight to the bottom. A few trees grow in this crater, but much of it is just a big sagebrush bowl. Scientists believe that Hole in the Ground formed when lava oozing upward contacted a shallow water table, causing an underground steam explosion. The blast hurled debris outward, forming an elevated rim around the crater.

To get there, after MP 21, watch for the “Hole in the Ground” sign and turn left on FS Road 3125 for three miles, right at another sign for one mile and then left, several hundred yards right up to the rim.

Returning to the highway, continue through the ponderosa forest. At about 29 miles on Highway 31, you emerge onto BLM managed, sage brush-covered land. Watch for the left turn to Fort Rock State Park, a worthwhile detour. Travel six miles to the town of Fort Rock and follow the signs to the state park.

Fort Rock sits in an ancient lake bed. The huge lake extended over the forty mile wide Fort Rock-Christmas Valley basin. Fort Rock consists of a giant ring of tuff believed to have formed around an underwater magma vent. When erupting magma met with the lake water, the lava shattered and blasted into a ring around the vent. Eventually, the vent closed and one portion of the ring eroded from constant wave action driven by the prevailing southwest winds. Evidence of water erosion is visible in the rock to this day. Trails inside the “fort” offer an up-close look at the geological features of this giant bastion.

Also in Fort Rock Valley is "Crack in the Ground," not to be confused with the above described "Hole in the Ground." This fissure is so narrow that boulders are wedged overhead as you pass under on the dirt path that leads into and through the crack for about 1/4 mile. The bottom is more than 70 feet from the surface in places. Long lasting moisture in the crack facilitates the growth of stinging nettle, so beware if you venture in.

Another interesting site in the Fort Rock Valley is the sand dunes and the "Lost Forest." Yes, we've seen sand dunes at the beach, but where did all this sand come from? The theory is that swirling desert winds have herded the sand from the beaches of the ancient lake into 60 foot dunes. We did not venture far onto the dunes, but many ATV vehicles and tracks gave indication of the overriding usage for the area. Continue 8 miles from the town of Christmas Valley, and follow the "Sand Dunes" pointers another 16 miles, part over a sandy road that may be impassable in wet weather.

Much more quiet is the "Lost Forest," although a sturdy vehicle is necessary to get there. This island of trees, 40 miles from the nearest present day forest, survives on an underground lake formed on top of the compacted base of the former, much larger lake. The "Lost Forest is another 2.5 miles beyond the sand dunes over a very rocky and potholed road.

Upon returning to Highway 31, drive sixteen miles until the road bends east into the tiny town of Silver Lake. Dilapidated buildings and manufactured homes are scattered around the highway. Don’t expect many services here. Continuing on, look for two features named by explorer John C. Fremont when he ventured here in 1843. On December 16, he looked out from atop a snowy ridge to the sunny shores of an alkali lake. Thus we now have Winter Ridge and Summer Lake.

The lake itself is barely visible from the road, but for a really good look, drive to Fremont's viewpoint 18 gravel-road miles from the highway. We bypassed the lookout and went straight for the marshy areas near the lake--an area only bird watchers and hunters could love. Near milepost 70, turn left through the refuge headquarters and opposite the Summer Lake Lodge. Follow the "Wildlife Viewing Area" signs onto a gravel road that reaches a t-shaped intersection after 1.6 miles. For a 9 mile wildlife loop in your car, turn left toward Bullgate Dike. If you’d like to walk, go right toward Windbreak Dike and drive .9 mile to the Windbreak Campground. The dike road is closed to motor vehicles, but you can walk out at least 2.5 miles, skirting the edge of marsh and open water. A scope would be helpful for the birds hanging out on the water.

For more information on Oregon's Outback, click here.

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