There are no crowds, no noise and not much in the way of bright lights in Southern Oregon’s Lake County — just a whole lot of quiet (except for the cattle). That makes it a spectacular place for outdoor adventuring — from hiking and biking to camping, fishing, paddling and more. Inhabited by the Burns Paiute Tribe for thousands of years, this remote 8,000-square-mile region — marked by its dry climate and high altitude — is also world-renowned for one of humankind’s most ancient pastimes: stargazing.
“The skies are supremely pristine — that is, nearly absent any artificial light — and that’s a result of excellent land stewardship by the Paiutes, public land managers and ranchers,” says Dawn Nilson, a founding member and former chair of International Dark-Sky Association, Oregon Chapter. Nilson is also a professional natural-resources manager and dark-sky preservation director for the nonprofit Rose City Astronomers. She has lent her expertise to the grassroots Oregon Outback Dark Sky Network effort to nominate a site in Lake County as an International Dark Sky Place, a major distinction for Oregon. It would be one of either 12 International Dark Sky Sanctuaries or 16 Dark Sky Reserves in the world.
Since Lake County is one of the largest contiguous and most pristine dark-sky areas in the continental United States, the nomination “could easily turn into not just the largest such nomination in the world, but one of the naturally darkest,” Nilson says. “You have these super-dark skies, and they’re needed not just to see stars but to preserve wildlife habitat,” making the county both “ecologically and astronomically excellent.”
Ready to see some stars? Gather the family for some constellation stories — based on Greek mythology or local tribal heritage — and spend your evenings looking skyward in Lake County. Here’s how to do just that, and spend your days hiking, biking, hot springing and wildlife watching in the unspoiled Oregon Outback.
You’ll find most of the region’s amenities here, including a one-stop shop for outdoor equipment and rentals at Tall Town Bike & Camp. Rent a canoe and head out for a moonlight paddle and stargazing. Cyclists of all stripes won’t want to miss the chance to ride a section of the Oregon Timber Trail, which starts at the California border south of Lakeview and runs for 669 miles north through four national forests showcasing a variety of scenic landscapes and terrain. The world-class trail is mostly rugged and dry singletrack, with a mix of off-road and gravel and paved trails throughout. Serious riders enjoy “bike-packing” — bringing everything with them — and camping under the stars.
Where to stay: If you’re staying in town, pitch a tent at or pull your camper into the Junipers Reservoir RV Resort, family owned for 30 years at the site of an excellent trout-fishing reservoir, on the edge of a juniper forest. Enjoy access to the nearby hiking and biking trails, lounge at your shaded picnic tables or explore the 175-acre grounds for rock-hounding, horseshoes, volleyball, bird-watching and wildlife viewing — keep an eye out for pronghorn, mule deer, eagles and osprey. Snuggle up for your own campground star party.
Thirty-five miles northeast of Lakeview, camp at Vee Lake Campground, which is perched in between the desert and the forest, and offers a panoramic view of Warner Valley and Hart Mountain as well as the night sky above. The lake is good for fishing and kayak paddling, while the small campground (no fee, no reservations) is rustic with picnic tables, campfire rings and a vault toilet. Lace up your boots and pack your Ten Essentials for a trek along the Fremont National Recreation Trail, which starts here and connects with the Oregon Timber Trail about 14 miles into the junction.
Prefer to stay indoors? Gipson’s Warner Valley Lodging in Adel, 30 miles east of Lakeview along Highway 140, features 10 private rooms with a common area, stocked kitchen, bathroom laundry, barbecue grill and even satellite TV available. Enjoy the rustic digs and take in the dark skies from the comfort of your porch.
Glampers may want to consider booking a stay at the seasonally available recreation cabin Drake Peak Lookout (open June 15-Oct. 15) deep in the forest, 25 miles northeast of Lakeview. Reservations can be made six months in advance and fill quickly; 2020 is booked, but plan now for the 2021 season.
Dine: Tall Town Cafe serves breakfast all day, which is great news for those needing a hearty fuel-up or post-adventure fix. El Aguila Real down the street serves authentic Mexican, and Happy Horse Deli features fresh-made soups and decadent treats. TJ’s Family Fun Center & Restaurant is a crowd pleaser with nachos, ribs and more classics in a kid-friendly atmosphere, and Eagles Nest Food and Spirits is a great spot for dinner and a dash of nightlife. Cap your night with a Blue Galaxy cocktail at Indian Village lounge, one of many dark-sky-themed drinks popping up around town.
The Summer Lake Wildlife Area and Chewaucan Marshes are world-famous for bird-watching; travel the 8.3-mile tour route for spectacular viewing, and check the visitors’ guide for maps and best times to visit. Summer Lake Hot Springs (temporarily closed due to COVID-19) is an artesian hot mineral spring in a tranquil setting, focused on healing.
Where to stay: Pitch a tent or pull in the camper van at Moss Meadows Horse Camp (southeast of Paisley) or Farm Well Horse Camp (southeast of Silver Lake). Both have access to the Oregon Timber Trail, which is open for hiking as well as mountain biking and horseback riding. Both have the same rustic amenities as Vee Lake, with no fees or reservations needed. Cozy cabins at The Lodge at Summer Lake offer easy access to hiking, horseback riding and fishing for trophy-size bass from your back porch. It’s also a birders’ paradise, with more than 200 species of birds visiting the grounds.
Dine: The Flyway Restaurant at The Lodge at Summer Lake offers call-ahead breakfast and lunch to go, for your picnicking pleasure. Or stop into Paisley Mercantile for limited groceries and supplies for your off-grid adventures. Enjoy a sit-down meal and chat up the locals at Pioneer Saloon and Restaurant, formerly known as Paisley Saloon. The Portland-based owners serve fresh, local scratch cuisine, plus a great selection of beer and ciders. Don’t miss the house-smoked tri-tip, burgers and pizzas.
You’ll want to bring everything with you for a day or overnight trip to the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, due to its ultra remoteness. The refuge is home to the world’s fastest land mammal, the pronghorn. Keep your eyes peeled in early morning and late evening, when wildlife are most active in the summer heat. Make sure to keep your distance when spotting animals, and hike quietly so you don’t scare creatures away. Find a map and guide to fishing, hiking and other activities in the refuge brochure.
On the western edge of the refuge, the Hart Bar Interpretive Site at Warner Wetlands is a great spot for a picnic and a short hike on the 2-mile loop in the wetlands just north of Hart Lake, a 10,000-year-old, dried-up lake bed home to thousands of bird species visiting during their annual migrations.
Just a few miles down the road, rockhounds will want to bring buckets to collect Oregon’s state gem, the peachy-orange sunstone, which are free to pick up and take home at the Bureau of Land Management’s official Sunstone Collection Area near Plush.
Where to stay: The Adel Store serves a dual purpose as a campground for eight RV sites with full hookups, a great place to stay if you want to spend time in both Lakeview and the refuge. If you make base camp at the refuge, you’ll feel the stress melt away at Hart Mountain Hot Springs Campground, where you can soak in the hot springs with ease. The main pool for up to six people is enclosed in a rustic rock and concrete structure with a temperature just above 100 degrees. A more primitive and slightly warmer hot spring is outside, a short walk away, with unobstructed views of the high desert. Know that mosquitoes can be thick in the summer, so bring repellent and wear layers if needed.
Dine: The Adel Store is also a fantastic stop for a breakfast burrito, wrap, burger, cold beer or glass of wine to cap your day. You can also pick up a few camping essentials at the historic country store and fuel up your vehicle. Just north in Plush, the Hart Mountain Store is another grocery store, gas station, and bar and grill — stop in for a burger and chat with the locals.
If You Go: