SUMMER LAKE — The landscape of northern Lake County is rugged and dry today. Here on the Great Basin, sagebrush is ubiquitous and water, especially drinkable water, is scarce. Remnants of volcanoes and alkali deserts are the dominant landforms. Population is sparse; livestock ranchers and alfalfa farmers struggle to survive.

Yet thousands of years ago, geologists tell us, this region was covered by the immense freshwater lakes from which the county draws its name.

I opened a fascinating door on this huge and seemingly barren county last month when I drove the Oregon Outback National Scenic Byway from La Pine to Paisley.

I learned that in times long past — at the end of the Ice Ages, about 13,000 years ago — ancestors of modern Paiute, Klamath and Modoc tribes lived along the shores of giant Lake Fort Rock and Lake Chewaucan. Pleistocene mammals — mammoths and mastodons, bison, camels, horses and giant beavers — still grazed the marshy lands, holdovers from a time when the climate was lusher.

The tribes hunted, fished and gathered edible plants, finding shelter in numerous caves. Sandals woven from sagebrush bark more than 9,000 years ago were discovered in 1938 in a cave near Fort Rock, establishing this basin as one of the earliest inhabited regions of North America.

But a rain shadow cast by the volatile Cascade Range caused the climate to dry and the lakes to slowly evaporate. When Capt. John C. Fremont, leader of a U.S. Army Corps expedition, explored and mapped the Great Basin in 1843, he could look from the summit of snowy Winter Ridge, above sunny Summer Lake, and see broad, flat deserts extending from the lake beds.

Fremont passed through in late fall. He missed the impressive migrations of waterfowl and other bird life for which the marshy fringes of the Outback lakes are now known. But his visit paved the way for early white settlement of the Great Basin.

Fort Rock area

Testament to the hard lives chosen by those early pioneers may be seen today in Fort Rock, the nearest of several small Outback communities to Central Oregon.

For travelers approaching from the Bend area, state Highway 31 — branching southeast off U.S. Highway 97 two miles south of La Pine — is the most direct route. A prominent sign at this junction welcomes drivers to the national scenic byway.

The first half-hour of the drive is mainly through national forest. But at mile post 29, the highway emerges into the prairie, and Fort Rock Road tracks east toward an isolated volcanic monolith.

There are two reasons to stop in the village of Fort Rock, a mile south of its namesake feature: The Fort Rock Restaurant&Pub makes a mean hamburger, and the Homestead Village Museum exhibits more than a dozen wood-frame buildings from a century ago.

Open in summer and on occasional warm, sunny spring days (call ahead), this open-air museum includes a church, a one-room schoolhouse, a general store and other buildings. Signboards in tiny cabins tell stories about the families who once lived in them. Inside some of the buildings are wood-fired stoves, hand-sewn clothing and an old washing machine. Sharing the grounds are horse-drawn farm equipment and a well driller last used in 1922.

Large livestock ranches were established in this area in the late 1800s, but until drought-resistant crops and deep-plowing methods were developed around 1900, everyday farming was not an option. When Congress passed the Enlarged Homestead Act in 1909, thousands of adventurers headed west, lured by the promise of a 320-acre land grant if they built a home and farmed 40 acres.

But Mother Nature did not offer an easy welcome. The harsh climate — hot summer sun and frigid winter winds — shattered dreams. By 1920, most of the pioneers had fled the desert for more reliable urban jobs or to join the armed forces during World War I.

Reuben Long was a rare exception to the rule. In 1900, when he was 2, his family moved from Lakeview to Christmas Valley; he stayed in the desert for the rest of his life. He owned 7,000 acres and leased another 30,000 in the Fort Rock area, and was famed statewide for the horses he bred. “The reason I've been able to produce some fast horses out here is that where I graze them they have to feed at 30 miles an hour to get enough to eat,” he joked.

When Long died in 1974, he bequeathed the 30 acres surrounding Fort Rock to the state of Oregon. The prominent feature is now a designated state natural area, with picnic grounds and public restrooms supporting an extensive trail system.

Eight-tenths of a mile in diameter, surrounded by cliffs up to 325 feet high, Fort Rock is a volcanic tuff ring. It was formed, scientists say, between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago when molten basalt rising from the earth's core squeezed into the water table. A violent steam eruption hurled steam, hot ash and mud, laden with billions of glass shards, high into the air.

The debris (called “tuff”) fell into a massive ring around the crater. Some layers slumped into the crater as the glassy mud slowly solidified into rock, forming a steep-walled, fort-like ring. A shallow lake filled the inner basin as wind-driven waves from the outer lake lapped its walls. Eventually, the dual wave action breached the southern rim, leaving Fort Rock with the crescent-shaped appearance it has today.

Several miles of trails wind along the inner slopes of Fort Rock. In winter, the rocks are covered with multicolored lichen; in spring and early summer, native wildflowers thrive, along with sagebrush and native grasses. All times of year, the shrill shrieks of prairie falcons, the silent swoops of white-throated swifts and the raucous cries of resident crows provide endless entertainment for nature lovers.

I learned here that a volcanic tuff ring is a properly called a “maar.” While this is the most prominent, there are numerous others in the area. Seven miles northwest of Fort Rock in Deschutes National Forest, Hole-in-the-Ground is just that, a steam crater one mile across and 300 feet deep. Few trees grow on the crater floor. I detoured there by following graded forest service roads for 4 1/2 miles off Highway 31 at mile post 22. Having been there once, I have no reason to return.

Christmas Valley

One resident of Fort Rock warned me that the hamlet of Christmas Valley, 28 miles east, is truly in the economic doldrums. Three restaurants, he said, have recently closed, and the only place to find a beer is in the grocery. “All that's left is the churches,” he said.

But that may suit a community that shares a name with the year's biggest holiday. Streets bear names like Jingle Bell, Snowman and Mistletoe. The general store calls itself Santa's Hardware. Never mind that festivity was not in mind when Christmas Valley was named “Christman's Valley” for a stockman of the 1870s.

Livestock grazing was the only viable commerce until the 1960s, when deep-well irrigation technology made alfalfa farming profitable. Today that grass is shipped as far as Japan. The population remains sparse, however, with a few hundred people spread across hundreds of square miles, many of them living in trailers and pre-fabricated homes. Some have been there since the 1960s, when a California developer laid out the town site and built a golf course, a lodge, a water system and rodeo grounds. His grand plans fell flat.

For curious visitors, there are several unique attractions in the region. Crack-in-the-Ground (no relation to Hole-in-the-Ground) is a fissure 70 feet deep and two miles long; it formed about 1,100 years ago in a fault between two cooling lava flows.

A sometimes-rugged, seven-mile gravel drive north from Christmas Valley brings you to a parking area. From there, it's a quarter-mile walk to the fissure, where a mildly claustrophobic trail descends into the narrow slot between its walls. Even in mid-July, hikers find snow hidden in the niches of the cool chasm as they stare above to see a mere ribbon of blue summer sky.

If you take Millican Road north and Lost Forest Road east from Christmas Valley, you'll eventually wind up on a gravel road. This provides access to three sites administered by the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees most of the Outback's backcountry.

About 25 miles from town, on the south side of the road, are the Christmas Valley Sand Dunes, the largest expanse of shifting inland dunes in the Pacific Northwest. The 8,900 acres of dunes are composed mainly of pumice and ash that blew into the area 7,000 years ago when Mount Mazama erupted and formed Crater Lake. There are primitive campgrounds around the fringe of the dunes, a popular area for off-highway vehicle (OHV) use.

At the northeast edge of the dunes, the Lost Forest Research Natural Area preserves a woodland of ponderosa pines that don't belong. Located more than 40 miles from any similar stand, the trees exist in much drier conditions than they normally require, feeding on moisture trapped near the surface of the sandy soils. OHV use is limited to trails posted as “open.”

Southwest of the dunes is Fossil Lake, a dry lakebed that is regarded as a treasure trove of fossils of Pleistocene-era animals, especially small mammals. There is no signage here, but the region is well known to University of Oregon paleontologists.

Silver Lake area

Silver Lake, located on Highway 31 halfway between Bend and Paisley, is a tourist draw for one reason only: the Cowboy Dinner Tree.

A place where visitors are more likely to see “For Sale” than “Welcome” signs, Silver Lake township is situated where Fremont National Forest streams drain into Paulina Marsh. Its grasslands and those of adjacent Silver Lake, which rarely holds water, provide nourishment for the livestock that graze here on large ranches.

The ranchers needed a place to eat on cattle drives, and so the Cowboy Dinner Tree was born. Built where a buckaroo chuckwagon once stood, this über-rustic diner serves up more food than most people can eat in three sittings.

Call ahead to specify which of two main dinner courses you'd like, a 26- to 30-ounce sirloin steak or a whole roasted chicken. Both are served with a giant baked potato, endless servings of salad, soup and dinner rolls, a dessert and a drink — all for just $25 per person, cash only (and, yes, takeaway bags are provided for that meat).

No alcohol is served here, but that's a good thing, as the Dinner Tree is nearly five miles south of Highway 31 via narrow, but paved, East Bay Road. It's open Thursday through Sunday nights in summer, Friday through Sunday in spring and fall.

East of the town of Silver Lake, keep an eye out for mule deer and pronghorn antelope, which often browse on the grasses of the actual Silver Lake. This is another remnant of ancient Lake Fort Rock, which stretched across 900 square miles from Fort Rock to Christmas Valley.

Cross the saddle at Picture Rock Pass, and you're looking at the vestiges of Lake Chewaucan. Half as broad as Lake Fort Rock, but twice as deep (375 feet), it covered the areas of modern Summer Lake and Lake Abert, as well as the Chewaucan Marshes.

If you're never seen a true Native American petroglyph, Picture Rock Pass, at mile post 63, may offer your single best chance.

Pull off to the side of the road and walk a few steps uphill. Behind a large, flat rock with enough room beneath it for a person to recline, you'll see a hefty rounded rock with its flat face directed away from the highway. Drawn upon it are three men, perhaps hunters, one with his arms upraised, and at least a half-dozen animals of different sizes. There are other drawings in the area; archeologists say they may be as old as 8,000 years.

Summer Lake to Paisley

Hunters, fishermen, hikers, but especially bird watchers love Summer Lake. The marshy north end of the lake, through which the small, spring-fed Ana River drains, is a state game-management area where more than 250 species of birds have been identified.

Immediately to its south, the Summer Lake Wildlife Area is operated by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW).

During my most recent visit late last month, I drove an 8 1/2-mile route (four-wheel-drive is recommended) through this refuge from Highway 31. In barely 45 minutes, my untrained eye counted 16 species of birds — waterfowl such as trumpeter swans and snow geese, and raptors, songbirds and quail — along with jackrabbits and ground squirrels.

Directly opposite the refuge headquarters is the Lodge at Summer Lake, a lovely small motel owned by two couples, Jan and Gil Foust and Gary and Marie Brain. They bought the property in 1994 and have slowly developed it since. There are seven rooms — in former Camp Abbot barracks moved here in 1947 — and three cabins that face a fish pond stocked with trophy-size bass. There's also a gift shop and a spacious restaurant, with private rooms that have made the lodge a community meeting place.

Down the highway 11 miles, the former Summer Lake Inn has been converted into a lakeside artists' retreat. Playa, as it's called, now offers one- and two-month residency programs for writers, artists and those who explore the natural sciences. The beautiful 35-acre property has private cabins and common spaces, including a dining room and performance area.

Summer Lake itself is about 20 miles long and five miles across at its widest point. Yet even when the water is highest during spring snowmelt, it is no more than 30 feet deep. Its only constant source of fresh water is the tiny Ana River, so the lakeshore continually shrinks and expands.

In summer, when it is lowest, a white crust of salt and alkali paints a deceivingly thin veneer upon its muddy shores. On the east side of the lake, the same lake-bottom sediments have been blown by the prevailing southwesterly winds into a line of dunes.

These alkaline shores and hills provide the backdrop for bathers at Summer Lake Hot Springs, at mile post 92 between Summer Lake and Paisley. Owned since 1997 by Duane Graham, who is slowly developing a full-service, eco-friendly resort, the 145-acre property features cabins, RV sites and a popular campground.

High in silica and other minerals, known to native tribes for centuries, the springs are carried by pipes from a natural spring at between 106 and 113 degrees. They fill several outdoor rock pools and a large indoor pool. The main bathhouse, a curious timber-framed, corrugated-metal structure built in 1928, lends the small resort a distinctive, edge-of-the-desert flavor.

Paisley is only six miles farther on the edge of the Upper Chewaucan Marsh. About 250 people make their homes in this community, one of the few in Lake County that can be said to have a Main Street. Large ranches surround Paisley, and in season it's a major draw for hunters and fishermen. Bird watchers like this marshy corner of the state, too; I found a flock of sandhill cranes near the Simplot ZX Ranch, off Red House Road, on my recent visit.

But no event packs in visitors as much as the annual Paisley Mosquito Festival. Typically held the last weekend of July — coupled with a rodeo, town parade, car show, street dance, horseshoe tournament, flea market, even lawn mower and hamster races — the festival draws visitors from hundreds of miles around.

When the day's activities wind down, visitors and locals alike congregate at the old Pioneer Saloon and Cafe. In continuous operation since 1883, except during the Prohibition era, the Pioneer boasts a back bar that was built in Boston in 1905, shipped around Cape Horn to Portland, then freighted to Paisley behind a six-horse team the following year.

The Pioneer may be rugged, like the rest of the Outback, but it certainly isn't dry.