Into the Outback

Volcanic crater Fort Rock at milepost 22. / Photo by Peter Murphy

Bracketed by views of Mt. Bachelor and the Abert Rim, the Outback Scenic Byway is a sinuous ribbon of asphalt that carries travelers on an adventure of sights, sounds and smells. Traveling the Outback Scenic Byway, or Highway 31, isn’t so much a drive as it is a geological experience. This stretch of Oregon is best experienced at low speeds.

What we today call the Outback Scenic Byway didn’t start out as a paved pathway. Likely the first to use it were the wild animals that called the Great Basin home. Today, the Great Basin is one of the largest open spaces in North America. During the last Ice Age, the Great Basin harbored a huge inland sea. As the glaciers receded, the land rose, drained and dried. A tropical savannah evolved, full of flora and fauna including mammoth, bison, camel and horses. Those animals strode the shoreline and created the first paths along the western escarpment that forms the backdrop for the Outback Scenic Byway today.

Nomads followed wildlife to the trails along the edges of Silver Lake and Summer Lake, the diminutive remnants of the shallow Ice Age sea. Modern archaeologists date the arrival of the first Americans to about 10,000 years ago, their artifacts found near the remarkable geologic feature of Fort Rock. European settlers arrived in the late 1800s to try their hand at dry-land farming, but most failed in the arid desertscape. Their descendants today survive by cattle ranching for the most part. It’s the cattle trails that pioneers developed along the original wildlife paths that created the path of Highway 31. In a fitting reminder of that history, motorists sometimes find themselves delayed by cattle drives today along the highway that remains a bovine thoroughfare, as stockmen move their herds from seasonal ranges.

The Outback Scenic Byway begins just south of La Pine at its intersection with Highway 97. If you’re driving south on a clear day, you’ll want to turn around at about milepost 3 for a great view of Mt. Bachelor and South Sister. The highway appears to penetrate the base of the mountains.

Dodging in and out of the Fremont–Winema National Forest, the Deschutes National Forest and the Fremont National Forest, the highway weaves out of the forested steppes and into the open plains of the Great Basin. At milepost 22, stop to see Hole-in-the-Ground, a 300-foot-wide, one-mile-deep volcanic crater.

The next stop of note on the road itself is the Fort Rock Historical Marker at about milepost 29.

Motorists can continue along 31, or take the short detour on an eastbound leg of the Outback Scenic Byway to Fort Rock. Fort Rock is what was left behind when a volcano exploded and its rocky debris fell back to earth around the circular cone. It filled with water, but the pressure burst its southern wall. In 1938, archaeologist Luther Cressman found dozens of sagebrush sandals near here, dating from 9,000 to 13,000 years ago. At the time, they were the oldest Native American artifacts found in the New World.

Here at Fort Rock, travelers can get a feel of what life was like back in the pioneer days by touring the Fort Rock Homestead Village Museum. Opened in 1988 with the help of settlers’ descendents, the museum provides a great hands-on experience of what early settler life was like. There’s the Fred Stratton Home, the former St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church and lots of other buildings that housed the first pioneers. Walk around outside, get dirty and get a feel for life on the Great Basin. In the reception center, volunteers tell tales from the old days, and visitors can peruse the artifacts and gift shop. The old windmill still pumps water, and there’s rarely a lack of wind to make it spin.

Silver Lake and its rustic dwellings greet motorists a bit south of milepost 46. Don’t miss the sign at milepost 47 directing travelers west to the Cowboy Dinner Tree restaurant. It’s about five miles west of the highway on East Bay Road and worth the trip. The Cowboy Dinner Tree lies halfway along the cattle drive from seasonal ranges where a chuck wagon was set up to churn out buckaroo beans and biscuits.

Today Connie and Don Ramage serve up a cowboy dinner like no other. The buckaroo beans and biscuits from the old days are still a part of the meal. Toss in a whole chicken or two-plus pounds of sirloin, and cowboy, you’ve got yourself a real meal. Don starts early putting a secret recipe rub on the steaks, and then he gets to work on the whole chickens. Before long, the chicken is roasting and the steaks are grilling. Meanwhile, Connie is inside making her famous cowboy beans and biscuits. It’s about as close to a real life cowboy experience as many city-slickers will get. Don’t forget that reservations are required. Travelers can spend the night if they wish, and awaken to the sights and sounds of the Oregon high desert.

Milepost 54 brings travelers in sight of Table Rock. It’s another remnant of a geologic era gone by. Like Fort Rock, it was formed when a volcano exploded, but it’s nearly the reverse image. Rising sharply from the desert floor, Table Rock makes for an impressive circular volcanic monolith, a maar topped off by a surface level enough to play marbles.

Picture Rock Pass, aptly named for the ancient petroglyph nearby, divides the northern highway from its southern partner. Looking north, the highway rolls down along the mountainside where Table Rock peeks around the corner. To the south lies Summer Lake, so named by U.S. Army explorer Lt. John C. Fremont, who sought an escape from a nearly fatal winter encampment on the mountain rim to the west. Just south of milepost 69 is a memorial to that expedition in 1843.

Summer Lake Hot Springs is squeezed between the lake of the same name and the highway at milepost 92. Its natural hot springs, scenic setting, starry nights and vast expanses invite travelers to stop and relax with the rhythm of the desert. Heated to about 106 degrees by the same natural forces that shaped this region eons ago, water rises here from nearly a mile below the surface. Its mineral content is said to provide therapeutic benefits. The water is channeled to indoor and outdoor pools, where visitors can soak in views of the top of the Great Basin.

Motorists can find food, fuel and fun at milepost 98, where the highway turns a corner in Paisley. Known, in part, for its annual Mosquito Festival, Paisley is the only town of any size between Silver Lake and Lakeview. The Mosquito Festival arose from the need to raise funds to eradicate the bugs’ infestation nearby. The festival is usually held the last weekend of July, featuring a rodeo, a car show and dance—a truly outback experience for visitors.

Near the end of Highway 31 at about milepost 119, travelers can take note of the geological marker detailing the creation and naming of the major landmark of the region. Abert Rim is one of the highest fault scarps in the United States. Rising almost vertically to about 2,500 feet above the valley floor, it drives an exclamation point into the features of this highway. Its creation dates back to the epoch of the lava floods that poured from great fissures in the Earth’s surface millions of years ago. Following the lava floods, the Earth’s crust fractured and tilted here—Abert Rim forms the high point of a plate that tilts to the east. It stretches nearly thirty miles from north of Lakeview to Alkali Lake, making it the longest exposed fault scarp in the United States. Explorer Fremont named it in honor of Colonel J.J. Abert, a topographical engineer with the United States Army.

The Outback Highway comes to an end at its junction with Highway 395, at Valley Falls, about milepost 120. This stretch of road may be just a couple of hours of motor travel, but it can take you back hundreds, thousands and even millions of years in topographical and geological time travel.

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