There are holes in the ground, and then there is Hole-in-the-Ground, a one-mile-across explosion crater, also known as a “maar,” located in Lake County about 30 minutes southeast of La Pine.
Most outings that involve climbing head up, then down, but Hole-in-the-Ground reverses that trend.
On Sunday morning, my wife and I loaded up the van with our three compliant kids and one eager-for-everything dog, then made the roughly one-hour drive to Hole-in-the-Ground, formed sometime between 13,500 and 18,000 years ago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, when basaltic magma encountered groundwater on its way to the surface, then went “kablooey.”
If you like your geology in more scientific terms, “Bend, Overall” author Scott Cook writes, “The Hole formed by the rising magma encountering an underground aquifer, resulting in a huge explosion that blew rock and ash into a perfect circle around the vent — called a tuff ring.”
Hole-in-the-Ground is located on the eastern boundary of Deschutes National Forest, at an elevation of 4,700 feet. My wife and I had a bit of concern that the intermittent snowstorms we kept hitting as we drove on U.S. Highway 97 south toward La Pine meant we might encounter snow.
By “we,” I mean “she.” Myself, I was confident, in that manner of men who believe they know what they are doing, that we would prevail over any snow we might encounter. Why? It may have had something to do with the fact that we were heading east, or at least southeast, and people are always saying how accessible things in the High Desert are, even when the Cascades remain inaccessible to modes of transport that don't have “snow” in their name (i.e., snowmobile, Sno-Cat, snowboard).
Turns out, we were both right. From state Route 31, we hung a left at signs for Hole-in-the-Ground, encountering smatterings of snow on the gravel roads that lead to the crater. There was a downed tree blocking the road that my doubtful wife thought I wouldn't be able to get around, but conveniently, numerous others, possibly males, believed in their vehicles enough to have etched out a discernible detour around the offending trunk.
Because we couldn't see that we were almost directly on top of the steeper western rim trail, we walked along the dirt road (closed to vehicles through April 1, according to signs) that wraps around the crater to the south trail, a more gradually descending path into the bottom of the crater.
During the descent, adults will notice the small pine forest stretching from the walls of the crater. Kids, however, will prefer to use twigs to carve their names in the snow on the edge of the trail; two of mine did, anyway.
I'm trying to think how to describe being at the bottom of the crater, a wide, flat expanse with a few pines, rabbit brush and not much else, save for the mud puddle in its center. “Alien” (the word, not the film) comes to mind, what with that middle-of-nowhere feeling and the scale of it all. At one point we looked across and realized the vaguely beige metal thing parked atop the rim in the distance was the van we'd seemingly left behind just a few minutes ago.
The snow-then-sun pattern we'd experienced on the drive to Hole-in-the-Ground kept up during the hike, and much the way you can sometimes see rain showers in the distance, we could see when the next wave of snow was about to come down into the crater and torture us with its cruel winds.
Hole-in-the-Ground is about 400 feet deep, with a rim that's about 100 feet higher than the land surrounding the hole. At the time of its formation, the nearby Fort Rock Basin (home to magnificent Fort Rock) was the site of a large lake — so large the State Park service refers to it as a shallow sea — and Hole-in-the-Ground's location was about level with water near the shore.
Man's presence in the area has been traced back to about 10,000 years ago, thanks to sandals found in the area, which gives new meaning to the adage “leave nothing but footprints.”
At Hole-in-the-Ground, sadly, modern man's presence is evident, mostly in the form of trash, bullet casings and bullet-riddled stuff along the rim of the crater. I do wish I'd taken a photo of one sign for Hole-in-the-Ground as well as an oddly placed garbage can, smack in the center of the bottom of the hole. My wife doesn't really like it when I disparage rednecks in front of the kids, so I decided to gripe about yahoos instead.
My kids don't miss much, though. When I tried to tell them that this was a meteor-impact crater, Lilly replied, “No it's not.” That kind of casually jaded retort makes me miss the days when I could lie to them with ease.
We made a loop out of the hike, taking the steeper west-rim trail directly back to the vehicle, a moderately difficult climb that caused something called “sweat” to begin forming on the skin, and layers to be shed. All told, we walked a little more than an hour, with a few stops for photos and snacks.
When we got back to the top, we spotted a group of horseback riders from La Pine and Sisters atop a couple of mules and even a Clydesdale. The group was on its annual “antler” trip, where they comb the forest for shed antlers.
After chatting with them for a while, we found our way to the nearby town of Fort Rock, where we learned that sightseers from Bend and Sunriver comprise most of its clientele. We did our part, chowing on burgers and slurping down soup, then took another hike around Fort Rock, imagining the ancient lake and wave action that shaped it.
To think that these two amazing sites are just an hour and change from Bend makes me embarrassed I hadn't checked them out sooner. If you haven't, what are you waiting for?
Hole-in-the-Ground may lack the majestic drama of Fort Rock, but it has a beautiful, wide-open charm all its own.