Follow the signs
When reading about the Oregon Outback, one place that tends to be mentioned over and over again is Fort Rock. Fort Rock is an extinct volcano whose sides rise nearly vertically out of the flat ground of the Great Basin east of the Cascades. This last weekend, I had the opportunity to explore Fort Rock and the surrounding areas, including “Hole-in-the-Ground”, “Crack-in-the-Ground”, and the Christmas Valley Sand Dunes.
It’s very easy to miss the turn off of highway 31 to this crater. You might think it’s an impact crater from looking at pictures, but it’s actually formed from magma exploding out of the ground and then collapsing. It’s only about 4 miles from the highway, but be prepared for a bumpy ride. The road has not been maintained in a long time. You will need to drive slowly. A high clearance vehicle is definitely recommended, though I did successfully manage it in my Dart without it completely falling apart. Take your time. You can hike around the crater rim, and walk down into the crater itself. Make sure you take lots of water. I was there early in the morning and saw an abundance of deer.
I had a lot of fun exploring the areas around Fort-Rock. There are trails available, but I spent as much time bushwhacking through the sparse brush. Several types of wildflowers were in bloom, and I was surprised as just how much life was happening in this desert.
Looking into Fort Rock
Fort Rock is easy to find. As a State Park, it has full facilities available, though no camping in the park itself. The road is paved all the way to the entrance. You can see the rock standing out from the ground from several miles away. I had no problem seeing how it got it’s name.
On the west side of the fort, there is a trail you can take up the side of the wall and walk around on top. The view is nice, though there isn’t much to see. I spent some time just sitting up on the basalt, feeling like a king.
Crack-in-the-Ground is about a thirty minute drive from Fort Rock. Follow the signs to the small town of Christmas Valley. I’m not sure how it got that name. On the eastern side of town, there is a sign pointing to a northern road to Crack in the Ground. It’s a gravel road that turns to dirt pretty quickly, but it’s in much better condition than the road to Hole-in-the-Ground. About seven miles later, you’ll arrive at the trail head. A short trail will then lead you to exactly what you would expect, a literally crack in the ground. You can follow along the bottom of the trail for a while, though I turned around at some point. Some of the turns are quite tight, and you will be scrambling over large boulders in some places. I had to take my pack off to squeeze through at one point.
Even though it was quite hot at ground level, down in the shade it cooled quickly, and it felt like being in a cave.
It’s exactly what it says it is.
The final place I explored in the area was the Sand Dunes. I had hear of them and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Could it possibly be like the Sahara? That’s what I was hopeful for, but the reality turned out to be much more like the Oregon Dunes on the coast, though not nearly as large. The road was not marked at all. As you’re heading east on the main road, look for “Viewpoint Road” and turn north. It’s actually a different road name to the north of the highway. After that turn, you can pretty much navigate by sight. You’ll be able to see the dunes in the distance. Just keep heading towards them.
The roads out to the dunes are very hazardous for small vehicles. If it had recently rained, I would not have been able to drive at all. The roads are not marked. I ended up on roads that were only (apparently) meant for ATVs. But I managed you navigate it, and got a look at what free-moving dunes on Oregon look like.
Christmas Valley Sand Dunes
This is a great area to visit. There were several things that I didn’t see, including lava flows, caves, and a lost forest. I could have spent much longer exploring on and around Fort Rock as well. Once I get a tent, I think I’m going to be headed back. I highly recommend checking it out!