Lava Lands now open

Center just south of Bend is informative, offers cool hikes

By Alandra Johnson / The Bulletin

If you go

What: Lava Lands

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday to Monday through June 9 and Sept. 4-29; daily June 12 to Sept. 1; weekends only Oct. 4-12; closed for the season Oct. 13.

Getting there: From Bend travel south on U.S. Highway 97 for about 8 miles. Signs for the center are on the right.

Cost: $5 per vehicle

Contact: www.fs.usda.gov/attmain/centraloregon/specialplaces and click on Newberry National Volcanic Monument or 541-593-2421

The clouds were whipping by overhead, cycling through a series of weather changes.

Sun. Rain. Sun again. Then borderline hail.

It was one of those crazy spring days when the prospect of going outside alternates between appealing and incredibly unappealing.

I wanted to be outdoors, but wanted something quick, close to town and not muddy. That’s when it hit me: Lava Lands.

The visitor center just opened for the year May 1. Despite driving by this well-known spot dozens of times, and seeing the giant butte nearly every day, I often overlook this place when considering outdoor options.

So I packed up my raincoat and headed out to the visitor center to figure out what I had been missing.

Lava Lands Visitor Center is part of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument and serves as the interpretational hub for all of the sites in the monument, which include the Lava River Cave, the Lava Cast Forest, Newberry Caldera and Lava Butte.

I have traveled to the top of Lava Butte on several occasions, usually on foot after the road has closed for the day. It’s a great alternative to Pilot Butte for those who love walking along curved roads that scale buttes.

But I had never explored any of the other trails that extend from Lava Lands. There are three main trails that leave from the visitor center — Trail of Molten Lands, Trail of Whispering Pines and the longer Black Rock Trail.

The visitor center offers a wealth of information about the history of the area and how the terrain developed. It has a very cool 3D map of the area so you can get a feel for where the lava is and how it spread across this swath of Central Oregon.

Molten lands

Based on the name alone, I opted to check out the Trail of Molten Lands. The easy, paved loop is just over a mile long.

The well-marked trail begins just outside of the visitors center and quickly takes you into the lava fields that sit just south of Lava Butte. This path was far more interesting that I would have expected. Lava fields, it turns out, are not uniform. There was a lot to see, including lava tubes, twisted trees and large hills made of hardened lava.

The trail includes numerous interpretive signs, installed in 2012. One pointed out some of hearty, yet surprisingly lovely plants that sprout amid the seemingly inhospitable black lava rocks, including different varieties of penstemon, Oregon sunshine, mountain spray, sulfur buckwheat and wax currant. Another sign instructed people to look for wildlife living among the lava fields. Sure enough, as I was reading the sign, I saw a couple of chipmunks darting across a nearby rock.

From the signs, I learned that the lava came from a volcanic explosion that took place a mere 7,000 years ago and that Lava Butte isn’t a solid structure, but rather just a really big pile of cinder.

My favorite sign, however, pointed out “Lava Ness Monster,” a twisted tree in the distance that shared the exact profile of Loch Ness Monster photos.

Although paved, the trail can be quite cracked and bumpy in places. Getting off the trail is strongly discouraged.

The trail begins with a single path, then splits into two trails, which form a loop. On the far end of the loop is another short path that takes visitors up in elevation to a great viewpoint.

From the top of the point, I am sure I could have seen the Cascades, had the clouds not been covering the mountains. I loved staring out at the great expanse of lava, with trees bordering the edge far in the distance.

After I left the trail, I walked over to check out the Trail of the Whispering Pines. But a few hundred yards in, the wind and rain picked up again. I enjoy walking in the drizzling rain sometimes, but this was feeling like it might be a deluge. Rather than press my luck, I opted to head back to the car.

As I returned to the parking lot, I wondered how many other Central Oregonians have skipped over this place that seems as if it’s hiding in plain sight.

I am definitely going to keep Lava Lands in mind next time I want to take my preschool age daughter on a fun hike (so long as she stays on the trail, it seems like a fine hiking spot for kids) or am looking for someplace to take visitors.

— Reporter: 541-617-7860, ajohnson@bendbulletin.com