Driving the Oregon Outback Scenic Byway

by Ben McBee

 
Hike in a Crater

As you depart from the byway’s northern point in La Pine, the snow-capped Cascade Range falls away in the rear-view mirror. Ahead, the landmark known as Hole in the Ground — a vast volcanic crater — presents a 2-mile out-and-back hike down to its floor. It’s easy to see why astronauts used the desolate, moonlike surface as a training ground in the 1960s.

Fort Rock
Photo Jak Wonderly Fort Rock Photo Jak Wonderly

Tour a Cave

Next, a short detour leads to Fort Rock State Natural Area, where a 325-foot tall basalt ring rises above a plain of sagebrush that was once an island in a shallow, prehistoric sea. Over millennia, waves eroded one side, enabling visitors to venture inside its rugged facade and marvel at the panorama. Book an Oregon State Park ranger-guided tour of the archaeological site at Fort Rock Cave, offered May through October. 

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Explore Ancient Artifacts 

At the Fort Rock Valley Historical Society Homestead Museum, you’ll see evidence of humans spanning more than 10,000 years through artifacts like ancient Native American sandals and a preserved pioneer village. 

 

Watch Birds on the Flyway

Much of the Scenic Byway encompasses the Pacific Flyway route — a major thoroughfare for birds migrating north and south in spring and fall. Bring your binoculars and bird guides to observe species such as bald eagles, trumpeter swans and snowy plovers as they stopover at Paulina Marsh and Summer Lake Wildlife Area

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Soak in the Hot Springs

The nearby community of Paisley is a favorable place to fuel up, grab supplies and take a dip in the mineral baths at Summer Lake Hot Springs. Paisley Mercantile stocks grocery items and travel essentials, and Paisley Perk is a drive-through coffee shop with a welcome dose of caffeine in the desert.

 

See a Geyser 

Massive exposed cliffs of Abert Rim tower above its flat surroundings, providing a launch point for world-class hang gliding. Old Perpetual geyser — which erupts up to 60 feet in the air about every 90 seconds — is Oregon’s only natural geyser. The journey finishes beyond the town of Lakeview, whose 4,802-foot elevation supports its nickname, “The tallest town in Oregon.” 

Warner Lakes
Photo Jak Wonderly Warner Lakes Photo Jak Wonderly

Camp Under the Stars

Cap your trip at Goose Lake State Recreation Area, on Oregon’s southern border, where you can pitch a tent or get cozy in your camper van. About 100 miles from any town (Burns, to the northwest), the skies here are among the darkest in the United States. So bring your blankets and constellation guides and make a night of it. Through public policies, educational outreach and preservation efforts, local grassroots initiative Oregon Outback Dark Sky Network protects the natural celestial splendor for travelers and locals alike.

If you go:

Spring and fall are the best seasons to take a trip along Oregon’s Outback Scenic Byway, since winter snow may make roads difficult to access, and summer temperatures often soar in the high desert. Come stocked with fuel, food, water, paper maps, waterproof clothing layers and emergency supplies when venturing out to remote areas. And always check weather and road conditions before you go.

 

Ben McBee is a Portland-based writer and photographer who grew up along the banks of the Rogue River in Southern Oregon. He specializes in travel, food and science and his work has appeared in 1859 Oregon’s Magazine, Portland Monthly and TravelAge West. When he’s not producing stories, he enjoys hiking with his partner and pet Cockapoo.