Fort Rock / Hole-in-the-Ground Area

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Southeast of Bend, Oregon is an area of high desert with a number of interesting geological features all relatively near to each other. These include Hole In The Ground, Fort Rock, Crack In The Ground, Christmas Valley sand dunes, Derrick Cave, and Lava Cast Forest. These sites are on National Forest and BLM lands, and while they are separated by swaths of desert including some private land, they are mostly interconnected by dirt roads, providing a nice framework for a softroading expedition with numerous opportunities to get out of the car and hike around exploring points of interest.

My son and I decided to make a two-day, one-night trip in order to explore the desert and visit these sites (with the exception of the Christmas Valley sand dunes which were a little further east than we wanted to roam on this trip). The video below documents the voyage and the sites we visited, along with a few navigation mishaps. The video also includes some more specific mapping than the Google pin above.

Coming from Eugene, we got off pavement just to the north of Crescent in order to cut over to Hwy 31 on dirt roads rather than following Hwy 97 up to the Hwy 31 junction and back down. This leg of the trip didn't offer any real surprises or challenging driving conditions, but we also didn't really explore so I can't truly report on what's to be found within that little triangle of land. We were happy with the unpaved detour however, it was a pleasant drive through a typical sparse central Oregon forest with occasional mountain views.

We proceeded directly to Fort Rock, saving Hole In The Ground for later in the day so we would already be on National Forest land to find someplace to camp. Fort Rock - a massive volcanic rim of rock jutting as much as 20 stories out of the otherwise flat desert - is a state park with no fee. Once you've parked, you can hike around pretty much anywhere you want, around the outside, inside, and wherever you can manage to climb up the rocky rim. The formations are surreal in places and climbing up into the rocks was worth the effort, yielding vast panoramas of the desolate Oregon desert.

A mile to the south you'll find the Fort Rock Homestead Village Museum. This is a collection of preserved historic buildings arrayed amidst the sagebrush with views of Fort Rock. This was well worth the $5 per person admission. From tiny cabins and other homes to a blacksmith shop, general store, and school house, you can wander inside each of these humble frontier buildings, each authentically furnished.

Hole In The Ground is a maar crater that's a mile across. I'd seen many photos and videos but still was awed by this sight. You can drive all the way around the rim, and there is also a road that spirals down the steep crater wall down to the bottom. Well worth a visit.

The National Forest lands to the west and south of Hole In The Ground are sort of grasslands meets ponderosa forest...it's very open and very inviting and beautiful, especially as the setting sun lights up the tall golden grasses. We selected a random clear spot along a disused spur to set up camp. It's easy to forget you're at elevation here since everything is relatively flat and you don't really climb any mountains, but our campsite was at about 4,500' (1,360 meters). We were there in mid-September and while the days were sunny and hot enough to require shorts and t-shirts, the temperature dropped rapidly and significantly once the sun went down. Be aware that for most of the summer and into early fall, campfire restrictions are usually in place in this area. It's a good practice to always check the Forest Service website or stop in at a ranger station for the latest updates.

The only services in the area are in the little town of Christmas Valley, where we fueled back up the next morning before heading to Crack In The Ground. This 2-mile long fissure deep into the volcanic basalt suprised me even more than Hole In The Ground - it's really really cool and also totally worth the very short hike from the parking area you'll find along Crack In The Ground road.

Derrick Cave is a large lava tube with skylights. Note that the apparent logical route from Crack in the Ground to Derrick Cave is not passable and it needs to be accessed either from the northwest or the northeast.

Heading northwest from Derrick Cave will bring you back up towards Bend and Lava Cast Forest. Due to some complications, we ended up changing our plan and visiting Pine Mountain Observatory instead as the final stop. This did not disappoint, and I would highly recommend driving up via NF 2017 from the south instead of the main road coming up from Hwy 20 to the north. Near the top, you can walk around among the observatory buildings (these are even open for visits on some Friday and Saturday nights) and from there it's a short hike to the summit and a beautiful 360° vista.

We encountered a wide variety of driving conditions. Quite a few of the roads crisscrossing the desert are just silty dirt, often riddled with jagged chunks of lava emerging from the roadbed. Some of the more principal routes were graded gravel, while other roads we ended up on were little more than faint two-tracks through the sagebrush. With the distances we needed to cover and wanting time to hike around our point of interest stops, we didn't have time to do any probing up little side spurs as I usually like to do. I saw some compelling little roads heading off this way and that, but our loop for the most part consisted of reasonably tame unpaved driving.

VIDEO OVERVIEW OF THIS EXCURSION (video will open in large player):