We have traveled parts of the Outback Scenic Byway in the past, but on this trip had a specific set of sites that we wished to see. Our original plan was to do most of our exploring on Tuesday, but with so much to see we were grateful that we found “Crack-in-the-Ground” on Monday afternoon. Even so, Tuesday was so full that we had to repeatedly ask ourselves…”Wait…did we do that today or yesterday?” Yes, we did a LOT on Tuesday.
Knowing we had miles to travel and hikes to find, we were back on Highway 31 by 8:30 AM. The Tracker was on half a tank of fuel and we wanted to be prepared for anything. Returning west on the highway to Silver Lake we found the only gas station for miles in either direction. Leaving Silver Lake we were treated to a wonderful reminder of the dominant lifestyle in this part of Oregon. Most of the landscape is home to cattle ranches large and small. Seeing “real” cowboys herding cattle down the middle of the road is rare in many places, but not near Silver Lake.
Continuing north toward “Hole-in-the-Ground” I was grateful that I had downloaded the local google maps to the phone. It isn’t an easy place to find! There are no local signs, no directions to speak of, and Mo’s little travel book didn’t help much.
“Hole-in-the-Ground” is a large maar, an explosion crater caused by red hot magma surging upwards under the Earth’s crust until contacting groundwater. The resulting explosion blew rock and ash into a perfect circle, one mile across. There is a drivable rim road around and two trails down to the center.
From Wikipedia: It is about 1.0 mile (1,600 m) across, a little longer N-S than E-W. Its floor is about 150 meters (490 ft) below the surrounding ground level and has a rim that rises 35 to 65 meters (110 to 210 ft) above, the highest point on the east side. The crater formed during the late Pleistocene, between 13,500 and 18,000 years ago, at which time the Fort Rock Basin was a lake and the location was near the shore. Basaltic magma intruding near the surface flashed ground water to steam, which blew out overlying rock and soil, along with some juvenile material. As material slid into the hole formed, it closed the vent and the process repeated, eventually forming the huge hole. Blocks as large as 26 feet (8 m) in size were flung as far as 2.3 miles (3.7 km) from the crater.
Following google maps, we found a road that appeared to lead northeast toward the crater. The route suggested ended at a large gate. We were at the entrance to the Outpost Camp with no clue as to how to get beyond the private land to our location.
The blue line is one of the suggested routes by Google and the red line is the route we actually found on our own. Zooming in on Google Maps was a bit helpful, but I learned that downloaded maps are only as good as the resolution at which they were downloaded, so things were a bit fuzzy. We managed to find our way to the edge of the crater without much difficulty. As we approached the rim, it was amazing to see the crater below us. Without knowing where it is location, there is no hint at how the featureless ponderosa pine landscape is going to change.
We explored a bit and decided that making an attempt to 4-wheel down into the crater would be fun. The road was narrow and fairly steep, but the challenge was navigating the large pumice sand humps and deep dips.
Things looked a bit dicey, so I got out and walked the road a bit to see if it got better or worse. It didn’t look too bad until I saw a big side sloping curve with a very deep sandy hump and decided, nope, not gonna do it!
Mo did the backing as I walked backwards up the steep hill making sure she wasn’t going over the edge. Some of the humps were so deep that the top of the Tracker disappeared from view!.
Once at the edge of the Crater, we drove a bit along the rim road, and although fairly level, there were large rocks buried in the sandy pumice that Mo had to navigate carefully. We found a treasure before turning around.
It was a beautiful campsite, with rocks and fences overlooking the crater and there was a birdhouse in a large tree in the center of the site. If you look closely at the photo, you can see the memorial words for someone who must have loved the spot. “David E Hartley, Forever Enjoy the View”.
After enjoying the views and the drive we returned to Highway 31, turning east toward Fort Rock, another important destination for our visit. We originally planned to visit Fort Rock on Thursday, when the Fort Rock Homestead Museum would be open. Thinking better of that plan, we thought that we could visit the Rock this day to hike and see the surrounding area and then return on Thursday when we planned to return to Grants Pass, passing by the museum location on our way home.
The “You are here” point on this map is at the information kiosk where we learned about the local geology of the Fort Rock area.
Approaching Fort Rock from the west is fascinating. It does look ever so much like an old fort. However, it is simply another great geologic feature in this fascinating volcanic landscape.
Fort Rock is a small basaltic vent that formed a volcanic tuff ring when it first exploded to the surface about 100,000 years ago. At the time, the surrounding landscape was an inland freshwater sea, up to 300 feet deep that resulted from melting glacial waters that flowed into the area. Over thousands of years, wave action of the lake eroded the tuff ring’s southwest wall and left terraces along the front and insides of Fort Rock.
We parked at the trailhead and were happy to see that Mattie was allowed on leash on the short 1.2 mile trail that loops through the caldera. The first part of the trail is a bit steep and rocky, but very quickly it levels out to a nice wide sandy trail with little change in elevation around the loop.
We enjoyed the fragrance of the prolifically blooming bitterbrush and the brilliant colors of Indian paintbrush tucked among the volcanic rocks.
In some of the lower dips along the trail we found death camas and a tiny desert lily with at least 14 petals that I couldn’t identify or find in any book or on the internet.
The hike was beautiful and easy, with surprising twists and turns that allowed up close viewing of the vents and tuffaceous rocks formed in the explosion of the vent.
We enjoyed the views across the open desert with the brilliant green circle irrigated alfalfa fields in the distance.
By the time we finished our hike, it was still early in the afternoon and we decided to make an attempt to explore some of the back roads of the Fort Rock Area. Google Maps was only a little bit of help as we attempted to reach the road to the Green Mountain campground from the opposite side that we had tried the previous day when we drove to Crack-In-The-Ground. We also had our Gazetteer to help with navigation but the scale was a bit too small to help much. Still, it is a good thing to have some kind of paper map when traveling these back roads where cell service comes and goes and even downloaded Google maps can be sketchy.
We never did make it to the Christmas Valley sand dunes, or the Lost Forest east of the community of Christmas Valley. The information signs said specifically that high clearance 4 wheel drive vehicles were “ABSOLUTELY” required to navigate those back roads.
We made a few attempts to wander the roads, running into dirt, fences, and no trespassing signs, and some rough gravel before deciding that our adventures were over for the day and it was time to return to the MoHo. Both of us were ready for a bit of afternoon down time and I looked forward to a late lunch and a snuggle nap with Mattie.
After some time relaxing, we decided that it might be fun to attempt to find the Pictured Rock Pass petroglyphs. The location was just a little more than 5 miles east of our boondock location on Highway 31, between mile marker 63 and 64. We were hunting for the marker (which we had missed) when we found a lovely dirt road leading to a beautiful open camp area, perfect for boondocking. Excitedly we drove in and decided to return back to our original site and pick up the MoHo to relocate to what appeared to be a perfect place to spend the night. We figured we could settle in and then attempt once again to find the petroglyph site.
However, as we backtracked once to the site, we discovered that our dirt road leading to our new boondock location was the one we had missed the first time around. We were right at the petroglyph site! Unbelievably I had internet at this remote location and found the coordinates for the petroglyph on a website. There are no signs pointing the way, and the coordinates are for the beginning of the trail, not the actual location of the rock. I think this may be on purpose to discourage vandalism.
After a bit of hiking and hunting and wrong turns, we found the rock. There is a “fake” petroglyph, obviously carved recently on a nearby boulder that could confuse people. Once we found the actual ancient petroglyphs. we were so tickled and took photos of where the rock is in relation to the highway. It faces the opposite direction and it is very easy to walk right past it without realizing that you are looking at it.
I have chosen not to post the coordinates of the rock that I took when we found it, or the photos pinpointing the exact location in order to adhere to the thought of protecting the site. If interested, email me directly for the information .
The petroglyphs have been dated at between 7,500 to 10,000 years ago, when ancient peoples traveled this area. The famous Paisley Caves, which are from the same era of human habitation are not too far from this site. Again, from Wikipedia:
The Paisley Caves complex is a system of four caves in an arid, desolate region of south-central Oregon, United States north of the present-day city of Paisley, Oregon. The caves are located in the Summer Lake basin at 4,520 feet (1,380 m) elevation and face to the west in a ridge of Miocene and Pliocene era basalts mixed with soft volcanic tuffs and breccias, from which the caves were carved by Pleistocene-era waves from Summer Lake. One of the caves may contain archaeological evidence of the oldest definitively-dated human presence in North America. The site was first studied by Luther Cressman in the 1930s.
Scientific excavations and analysis since 2002 have uncovered substantial new discoveries. These include materials with the oldest DNA evidence of human habitation in North America. The DNA, radiocarbon dated to 14,300 years ago, was found in subfossil human coprolites uncovered in the Paisley Five Mile Point Caves in south-central Oregon. The caves were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.
After our very rewarding hike, we settled into an even more rewarding evening at one of the better boondocking sites we have experienced.
There was a lovely fire ring, and a beautiful sunset accompanied the perfect evening. Marshmallows topped off the night before we retired. Once again it was a dark and quiet night.
Checking the weather on the less than perfect internet was exciting. We had planned to visit Summer Lake the next day, possibly camping at Ana Reservoir RV Park, or returning to our perfect boondock site. The weather wasn’t cooperating, with 3 to 5 inches of snow and a winter weather warning for most of the area around Summer Lake, Christmas Valley, Silver Lake, and most of east central Oregon.
2 thoughts on “05-18-2021 Exploring Oregon’s Outback Scenic Byway”
We’ve been to Summer Lake and Christmas Valley for birding and hot springs adventures, but we’ve never explored the area as in-depth as you have. That boondocking spot you found is gorgeous! And that sweet little mystery desert lily is beautiful.
Not a desert like after all. It was bitteroot!! I should have remembered from my time in Idaho and it is Montana’s state flower.