Oregon Outback Scenic Byway
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Solitude awaits you on this adventure through Oregon’s high desert. Enjoy the play of light on the rocks, the smell of sagebrush, and the sounds of silence.
The Outback Scenic Byway takes you through a slice of the Great Basin Region, capturing the landscape’s diversity, and the rugged independence of the people who’ve honed a living from the land. The Outback is “isolated rural country,” and this area of Oregon is indeed that. As you push south along the Byway, lush green forests in the shadow of the Cascades are replaced by sagebrush and rock formations. It’s an austere landscape, rich in detail upon closer examination. The lakes along the Byway—important resting spots for waterfowl on the Pacific Flyway—provide a visual oasis amidst this arid country.
Leaving the Cascades
Your “drive-about” through Oregon’s Outback begins in the Deschutes National Forest, near the town of La Pine (30 miles south of Bend). From here, head three miles south on U.S. Route 97, then southeast on Oregon Route 31, through stands of lodgepole and ponderosa pine.
Twenty-seven miles east of U.S. Route 97, the forest abruptly gives way to vast sagebrush plains reminiscent of the Australian Outback. You’ll soon see Fort Rock, a mysterious rock formation that emerges abruptly in the east. Fort Rock is actually a volcanic crater (maar), and rises 325 feet above the high desert floor; a National Natural Landmark, it gets its name from its four-sided towering walls. Fort Rock State Park is an easy seven miles off Oregon Route 31, and offers hiking trails and picnic facilities. En route you’ll see Fort Rock Homestead Village, which preserves several buildings that date back to the 1800s. The structures were brought in from the surrounding valley to create this living history museum.
Silver and Summer Lakes
Return to Oregon Route 31 and head south toward the community of Silver Lake, named for a dry basin a few miles east that fills approximately every 30 years. From here, the Byway turns south and climbs 4,830-foot Picture Rock Pass, named for ancient Indian petroglyph-decorated rocks that are within walking distance of the highway. The Pass offers panoramic views of the lakes, forested mountains on the Fremont-Winema National Forests, and stunning Winter Rim which divides forest and desert.
Once over the pass, you’ll see Summer Lake, a long, shallow body of alkaline water that attracts a tremendous variety of waterfowl. The 18,000-acre Summer Lake Wildlife Area, with viewing sites, is a breeding and resting area for nearly 250 species of birds. The marsh-like setting is one of the most important stops in the region for migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway. Visitors can view many sensitive, threatened, or endangered species, such as bald eagles, peregrine falcons, western snowy plovers, greater sand hill cranes, and trumpeter swans. Early spring is the best time to view migrating flocks of waterfowl, and Summer Lake hosts more than 15,000 bird watchers annually. The small town of Summer Lake offers a variety of visitor services and a wayside commemorating an 1843 expedition led by Captain John C. Fremont.
Pull into Paisley
A dozen miles beyond the lake is the town of Paisley, home of the annual Mosquito Festival in July which includes a rodeo, skeet shoot, and classic car show. Paisley provides all services, hot spring baths, and good access to the Chewaucan River for anglers seeking native redband trout. The river crosses Bureau of Land Management and the Fremont-Winema National Forests and is best accessed from Forest Service Road 33. Continuing southeast on Route 31, you’ll soon pass Lake Abert. The lake’s high alkalinity makes it an ideal habitat for brine shrimp, which provide forage for migrating birds.
When you reach Valley Falls, Route 31 joins U.S. Route 395. Here, the horizon is dominated by Abert Rim, a 30-mile-long fault escarpment—one of the nation’s longest and most continuous fault escarpments. This rim rises more than 2,000 feet above the Byway. The rim’s southern section is a launching spot for hang gliders; in fact, the region surrounding the southern end of the Byway is considered by many to be the Hang Gliding Capital of the West. Watch for big horn sheep at the base of Abert Rim.
Oregon’s Tallest Town
27 scenic miles later, you’ll reach Lakeview, which at 4,800 feet above sea level, is Oregon’s “tallest town.” Lakeview is home of Oregon’s only geyser, situated at a resort a mile north of town. The geyser named Old Perpetual has a history of erupting 60 feet into the air every 90 seconds, more reliable than Old Faithful in Yellowstone. The supporting hot springs and geyser temperament changed recently to a less predictable schedule. While in town, visit the Schminck Memorial Museum, which commemorates pioneer life, and the Lake County Museum. Visit Black Cap, a popular launching spot for hang gliders in the summer, for a spectacular view of the Goose Lake Valley. Skiing and snowmobiling are available near Lakeview in the winter. The Outback Scenic Byway ends about 15 miles south of Lakeview at the border town of New Pine
Creek. Goose Lake State Recreation Area, a full service state park campground, offers a resting spot before heading on to California.
Signs from the Past
The native peoples who once inhabited the Great Basin left many artifacts that shed light on what their lives must have been like. Petroglyphs—incised rock drawings—are among these artifacts. Archeologists believe that some petroglyphs may have acted as maps, directing tribal members to fishing or hunting grounds. Other petroglyphs lack easy explanation. Some experts have ventured that more oblique drawings are a visual interpretation of visions experienced by young men as they ventured forth on spirit quests.
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Keep in mind many of the routes listed here travel through remote areas where gas stations are few and far between. And since road and weather conditions can be hazardous, even into summer, we urge you to call 800-977-6368 or check Trip Check before starting out.