FORT ROCK —
This was the sort of rock climbing that I could get used to.
OK, so it was more like rock “scrambling” than actual climbing, but I preferred it to clinging to a vertical rock face while attached to a rope.
A quick little climb over rocks here and there, and I was always able to find flat ground again, even at the highest point of this remarkable geologic formation rising steeply out of the flat sagebrush country in remote south-central Oregon.
The Fort Rock State Natural Area, about 70 miles southeast of Bend along the Oregon Outback Scenic Byway, offers a chance to learn about the geology and the anthropology of that desolate part of Oregon. But it also gives hikers an opportunity to take a unique trek back in time. When they get off the flat trails and venture onto the rock, they can gain a keen perspective of this formation that was once an island in a large lake.
I made the drive to Fort Rock from Bend last week during a winter warm spell that had me in a hiking mindset. Most areas east of Bend typically stay dry enough throughout the winter — even a winter of heavy snowfall — to make for snow-free adventures.
As I drove southeast on state Highway 31, the trees of the snow-covered Deschutes National Forest thinned out until all that was left was sagebrush land and little if any snow.
The giant tuff ring (tuff is a porous rock formed by consolidation of volcanic ash) that is Fort Rock towers over the tiny community of Fort Rock in the middle of the endless sagebrush. Visitors drive past the Fort Rock Homestead Village Museum, where cabins, schoolhouses and homes have been gathered to preserve some of the pioneer history there.
A short drive from the museum is the parking lot and trailhead for the Fort Rock State Natural Area, which includes several trails that cut through the flat area in the middle of the formation, and some that lead hikers up onto the rocky cliffs of the ring.
According to Oregon State Parks signage at the trailhead, the tuff ring originated from a volcanic eruption more than 100,000 years ago. Debris from explosions of steam, lake bed mud and glass shards formed an enormous ring around a broad crater. The glassy mud of the 6,000-foot-wide tuff ring solidified into rock.
Today the rock walls are as high as 200 feet, and the formation is one-third of a mile in diameter.
Wind-driven waves in the lake eroded the walls of Fort Rock, cutting numerous notches and terraces, according to Oregon State Parks. The different notches represent prehistoric shorelines thousands of years apart.
Hiking beside, onto and through some of these formations, I imagined how the rock was formed by the lake waves. I also imagined how Native Americans made Fort Rock their home some 10,000 years ago, possibly canoeing along the lake to and from their island caves.
At the end of the last ice age, Native Americans migrated to the Fort Rock Valley, according to signs at the trailhead of the state natural area. A warming trend shrank the lake, and people found caves shaped by waves when the lake was higher. Humans occupied the caves for more than 11,000 years, and more than 70 sandals — woven from sagebrush bark — have been found in caves in the Fort Rock basin. Those sandals are believed to be some of the oldest evidence of human habitation in Oregon. Arrowheads, spear points and fish net weights have also been discovered in caves at Fort Rock.
With all this geology and history in mind, I set out to hike the trails through Fort Rock on a mild winter day when temperatures reached the mid-50s.
I started my trek on the east side of the ring, glancing up at unusual holes in the rock walls, no doubt formed by that ancient lake that stretched eastward 40 miles to Christmas Valley, and southward 30 miles to Silver Lake, according to Oregon State Parks. Camels, mammoths, bison and flamingos lived along the lake’s edge.
Today, Fort Rock is home to deer, coyotes, reptiles — and many species of birds that are rarely seen in other parts of Oregon.
As I continued to hike the ring, I came to the north side of the formation and started to look for a trail leading to the top of the rock wall. Four or five other hikers ambled along the trails below; while Fort Rock is in the middle of nowhere, it is hardly a secret.
After reaching the top of the wall on the north end, the shortest part of the wall, I hiked back down then back up toward the west side of the ring. A crack in the rock offered a view of the vast sagebrush land to the north, stretching toward the Newberry National Volcanic Monument.
Above that crack I pulled myself up onto a rock terrace and walked toward the south end of the east rim. For such a rocky formation, several flat trails cut along the cliff. I imagined that was where some Native Americans made their home on the island.
I continued up more of the natural terraces until I could go no higher. The sprawling view of the High Desert stretched for what seemed like forever.
It was the pinnacle of a Fort Rock hike that provided a fascinating mix of rock scrambling, geology and human history in the middle of the desolate, yet beautiful, Oregon outback.
— Reporter: 541-383-0318,