written and photographed by Stephanie Olson
As the mercury dips, the sun sets early and winter sets in, Summer Lake has a rather appealing ring to it. Open all year long, Summer Lake Hot Springs in southeast Oregon is the place to travel for an adventure abundant with stark contrast and unexpected surprises. Heading east on Highway 31, travel into the Oregon Outback, an area once covered by a vast expanse of water. Crest over Painted Rocks pass and gaze out over the playa to see thermal steam puff out of the ground, mingling with dust devils picked up from prevailing winds.
The geothermal activity seen from afar can be experienced firsthand at Summer Lake Hot Springs, a rustic enclave 22 miles past the small ranch town of Summer Lake. Accommodations vary from eco-friendly minimalist cabins with geothermal heated floors to RV hook-ups and camping. After Thanksgiving, it is recommended to rent a cabin or have a vehicle to sleep in as frosty nights are common. Cabins are few, so reserve in advance.
Summer Lake Hot Springs hosts several mineral pools that stay between 106-113 degrees, a welcome respite to life’s daily motions during any season. Enjoy a deep soak in the 1927-era bathhouse pool or stay outside to hop between three natural rock pools. Well-behaved children are allowed until 7 p.m. and clothing is optional after 9 p.m. Take advantage of this sacred time to unabashedly put modesty aside and bask in the glow of the moon and stars in a completely natural state of beauty. Located over a hundred miles from any sizable town, the light pollution is at a minimum and the night sky is resplendent. The silence is purifying, broken only by bubbling waters and the occasional yip of coyotes.
Apart from soaking, the seemingly desolate area provides a multitude of activities for those whose zen is found in movement rather than stillness. Don’t miss the short walk past the bathhouse to the playa (the ancient lakebed) through jack rabbit filled scrubland. Travel through epochs to the Pleistocene to imagine the era when the desert was lush and host to such critters as wooly mammoths, camels, and giant beavers. Keep your eyes open for arrowheads and other native artifacts, as the area has some of the oldest archeology in the Northwest.
If you can pull yourself away, head 6 miles down the road to Paisley. This small town once boomed and busted at the height of the logging industry, but remains home to its ranching homesteaders and the generations that followed. Meet locals and fellow travelers at the Pioneer Saloon for breakfast all day and $1.50 Rainiers, and hear the local lore of how the oldest working bar in Oregon, built in 1905 in Boston, ended up in the Oregon Outback.
The saloon is found at the base of the Chewaucan Canyon, a hidden gem down Mill Street. The road winds 19 beautiful miles along the river to an overlook which makes for a perfect road bike ride. Bring your rod for some epic angling at any of the river campgrounds and pullouts, or stop at the Chewaucan Crossing Trailhead (Milepost 8.5) which is welcome to hikers, horses and bicycles. Whether on foot, steed or pedaling, follow the maintained trail through forest, roaming cattle, ridges and canyons. Continue as far as the solitude of nature urges you or until the taunting of the hot springs lures you back.
Whether you stay a night or a week, Summer Lake Hot Springs is a place to reset and recharge. Home to some of the most fascinating geology, archeology and history in the Northwest, the desolate landscape has a mystical way of bringing people together and putting judgements aside. It has a way of reminding you of what is important and what you can let go of. Whatever brings you here, be present to it, soak in all that it has to offer and take the peacefulness home with you.