10 Reasons you need to visit the Oregon Outback

10 Reasons you need to visit the Oregon Outback

Welcome to the Clever West Wind, a PNW based travel blog. This is the part of the internet where you’ll get access to travel secrets about the Oregon Outback from a native Oregonian. Shhh…don’t tell anyone!

Located in central southern Oregon, the beauty of the area is undeniable. It is easily one of the best, albeit highly underrated, places to visit in Oregon. And what I really love about this place is that there is not. one. thing. touristy. about it.

There are no crowds, no lines, no hubbub. Just the serene desert landscape. You can actually hear your own neurons firing in your brain if you stand still here for half a second.

It does help that many native Oregonians haven’t even heard about what a hidden gem this place is. Which is a shame, because there is so much to see and do here! Keep scrolling to find out.

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10 best things to do in the Oregon Outback

1. Go stargazing in the world’s largest Dark Sky Sanctuary

Oregon is home to the world’s largest Dark Sky Sanctuary. And it’s found within the Oregon Outback! The Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary covers an impressive 2.5 million acres in Lake County, with the goal to eventually encompass a total of 11.4 million acres.

To date, there are only 20 dark sky sanctuaries in the world. Dark sky sanctuaries are similar to dark sky reserves and parks, except that sanctuaries are typically more remotely located.

One of the coolest things to do in a dark sky sanctuary is to go stargazing. You don’t necessarily need any special equipment. Just something warm to wear on cool nights, and something comfy to lay on.

I grew up stargazing on warm summer nights, and never thought much about how lucky I was to have such a wonderful view from my own backyard. So I was stunned to learn that approximately 80% of Americans can’t see the Milky Way today, due to light pollution.

The harmful effects of light pollution on our ecosystems and the health of both humans and wildlife have been gaining increased attention as of recently. It’s been shown to negatively impact sleep patterns, reproductive habits, and animals’ ability to hunt or camouflage.

For these and so many other reasons, Oregon’s dark sky sanctuary is a priceless and limited resource. And that makes stargazing one of the best reasons to visit the Oregon Outback.

Fort Rock State Park, Oregon Outback

2. Fort Rock State Park

Another amazing reason to visit the Oregon Outback is to take in its vast, varied, and unique high desert landscape. This is not at all what people typically think of when they think of Oregon!

And one of the best ways to appreciate the landscape here is to hike Fort Rock State Park. Fort Rock may look small and unimposing from the distant highway, but it’s anything but that.

The remains of this dormant volcano stand as high as 200 feet from the ground in some places. The sleeping giant is estimated to have last erupted between 50,000 to 100,000 years ago.

The Fort Rock Loop hike takes you along the inner perimeter of this impressive natural landmark. This easy loop is 2.3 miles long, and family and dog friendly. It took us about an hour to hike with small kids.

During the hike, if you watch closely, there’s plenty of desert wildlife to be seen. We spotted a jack rabbit, a snake, and a hawk while we were there.

This state park does have restrooms and picnic tables available. Just be sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen!

Derrick Cave, Oregon Outback

3. Derrick Cave

Derrick Cave is another interesting example of volcanic activity in the Oregon Outback. This lava tube cave is about a quarter mile long, and is the third longest one in Oregon.

Just inside the mouth of the cave is tall and wide. A natural skylight opens up over head here, letting in the sunshine. However, as you continue, the cave soon grows dark and narrows down. And at the very end there is only room to crouch.

Be sure to bring a flash light or a head lamp (it’s convenient to have your hands free for navigating the uneven terrain). And as hot as it may be in the summer desert heat, Derrick Cave gets quite cool. So bring a hoodie as well.

Now getting there can be a bit tricky. I’d suggest traveling like a pirate. You know, printing out directions from MapQuest the old-fashioned way, like how we did before GPS. Or you can find directions to Derrick Cave on BLM’s website here.

We had an unforgettable adventure finding our way there, that I don’t want you to have to repeat. Our trusty GPS took us through back county roads that bear only numbers instead of names. On gravel roads and dirt roads, with pot holes the size of our vehicle.

And as we continued down these no-name roads, our GPS kept recalculating the route. It eventually led us down a narrow and twisted ATV trail before dropping the signal and leaving us stranded in a desert forest.

Luckily, I’m not sure who’s more stubborn, my husband or my dad. They wandered the area until they found Derrick Cave and we were able to resume our Outback exploration.

But the moral of the story is, don’t rely on GPS for this one. And always bring snacks and water!

Crack in the Ground

4. Crack in the Ground

Although the name may be somewhat lacking in imagination or wow-factor, you will not be disappointed with this experience. Crack in the Ground is a volcanic fissure in the Deschutes National Forest, with depths as great as 70 feet below ground level in some places.

It’s the perfect hike for hot days, as temperatures within the fissure can be as much as 20°F lower than ground level. That being said, it’s not a bad idea to bring a sweater, just in case.

It’s a moderately difficult hike that took us about an hour to explore. The trail is 2 miles in length, making the hike about 4 miles round trip. Although there are two exit points from the fissure, so you can easily shorten the hike if you wish.

The hike is kid friendly. However, it may not be appropriate for those with mobility concerns, as there are spots where you have to climb over a boulder or two. Our at-the-time 4 and 6 year olds were able to navigate the trail comfortably with minimal help.

The trail is also dog friendly. And there are restrooms near the trailhead, but no water. Note that you may need 4 wheel drive to access the Crack in the Ground trailhead.

5. Hole in the Ground

Hole in the Ground may not be enough of a draw to the Oregon Outback on its own. But the science and history behind its creation are interesting. And if you’re already visiting the area, it does make for a good hike.

This giant crater is what’s known as a maar. It’s created by a volcanic steam explosion that occurs when magma comes into contact with a body of ground water below the surface, and heats the water to the point of boiling.

In this case, the resulting explosion created a crater about a mile wide and somewhere between 300 to 500 feet deep.

A two-mile trail skirts the rim of Hole in the Ground, and two half-mile trails lead to the center. This easy hike takes about an hour.

Note that there are no restrooms here. Roads are not well maintained, and it’s best to bring a vehicle with high clearance, or you may find yourself stuck. And as always, bring water!

Fort Rock Historical Homestead Museum, Oregon Outback

6. Fort Rock Historical Homestead Village Museum

The remote location and rugged terrain of the Oregon Outback give off a hint of a Wild West ambiance. But stepping into the rustic Fort Rock Historical Homestead Museum completes the sensation.

The museum consists of roughly a dozen structures from early homesteads in the area, including a church, a school, a doctor’s office, and several homes. Most of the buildings were relocated to the site of the museum from neighboring settlements.

This little bit of Oregon history is preserved and operated by the Fort Rock Valley Historical Society. And they continue to add to collection today.

Its season runs from Memorial Day through the second weekend in September. Hours are 11 am to 5 pm Thursdays through Sundays. And admission is $6 for adults, $4 for youth, and kids 5 and under are free.

It’s hard to imagine what life must have been like out here, before the advent of refrigerated delivery trucks, WiFi, and Amazon. But you start to get at least a picture of it at the Fort Rock Historical Homestead Museum. And with its rustically quaint buildings against the desert backdrop, it’s well worth the visit.

7. Lost Forest

Lost Forest is a bit of a mystery of the natural world. It’s a 9,000-acre patch of ponderosa pine and western juniper. But what makes this forest particularly unique and frankly puzzling, is that it’s separated from the nearest forest by roughly 40 miles of high desert. With no nearby water source.

That’s right. There are no springs, or bodies of water to speak of. And the annual rainfall here is no where near enough to support a forest of this size. Just sand dunes and fossils to one side, and high desert to the other.

It’s believed this forest dates back to a cooler and wetter chapter in south central Oregon history. And as the climate became drier here, these trees have miraculously persevered.

Now before you visit Lost Forest, be aware that the forest is not well marked. And as many places in the Oregon Outback, there isn’t great cell reception. So it’s a good idea to print or download a map before you go.

The roads are pretty rough here as well. So it’s also a good idea to drive something with high clearance and 4-wheel drive. And as always when exploring the high desert, bring water!

Cowboy Dinner Tree, Oregon Outback

8. Enjoy a hearty dinner at the Cowboy Dinner Tree

There is one place you absolutely cannot miss when it comes to dining in the Oregon Outback—The Cowboy Dinner Tree. Located in Silver Lake, Oregon, it’s a half hour drive from Christmas Valley, or a 5 hour drive from Portland. And honestly, the meal is worth a visit to the Outback all on its own, forget the surrounding natural beauty and endless outdoor activities.

It’s said the restaurant now stands where a chuck wagon once stood. And decades ago, when local cowboys drove their cattle through this area, they would stop at this chuck wagon to eat before continuing on their journey.

In that spirit, the restaurant today has a decidedly rustic appeal. Saddles, horseshoes, and cowboy hats serve as decor above an unfinished plank flooring. And beverages come served in mason jars.

There are two options on the menu. Chicken. Or steak. Served with a side of soup and salad, a baked potato, beans, and a dinner roll, all topped off with dessert. This meal is not for the faint in appetite. Note that it’s $45 a plate, and it’s cash only.

Now don’t let the remote location or casual atmosphere have you fooled; reservations are a must. You won’t get into this establishment otherwise. Hours range from Saturdays only, to Thursdays through Sundays, depending on the time of year. You can make your reservations here.

Lakeview, the tallest town in Oregon

9. Visit Lakeview, the tallest town in Oregon

At an elevation of 4,800 feet above sea level, Lakeview is the tallest town in Oregon. This small town is about a 2 hour drive south of Christmas Valley, and is just 13 miles north of the California border.

As small and remote as Lakeview is, there are a few things that really set it apart. For one, Lakeview is well know for its perfect wind conditions, ideal for hang gliding. And the town draws people from all over the world for this high-adrenaline sport.

One of the top things to see in Lakeview is the geyser, “Old Perpetual,” at Hunter’s lodge. This geothermal marvel was actually created by accident, when the geothermal water table was accessed in an attempt to drill a well.

It used to shoot 60 feet into the air, every 90 seconds. Unfortunately, the geyser stopped going off for several years due to geothermal power development in the town. However, it did start up again in recent years. And although it may not go off quite as often as it once did, it’s still an exciting sight to see.

Another thing Lakeview is well known for is the Lake County Round Up, one of the oldest rodeos in Oregon. This action-packed rodeo has now been around for over 100 years! Aside from the rodeo, the weekend includes a fair, a destruction derby, and a parade. It makes for a fun way to spend the Labor Day weekend.

You may discover that the people here reflect their high-desert surroundings. They’re tough, of the no-nonsense sort, but with big hearts. They’ll wave as they pass you on the highway, and greet you as they pass you on the sidewalk. Overall, Lakeview has a great small-town charm and plenty of fun.

Hart Mountain Hot Springs, Oregon Outback

10. Hart Mountain

Hart Mountain is a bit more removed from the other Oregon Outback locations mentioned above. It’s about a 4 hour drive from Christmas Valley, or a 2 hour drive from Lakeview.

Even as remote as it is, there are still some really interesting and unique things to do here. The most popular draw is the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge.

The refuge is a great place to see various wildlife, including antelope and big horn sheep. It also offers camping, hot springs, hiking, and an opportunity to see petroglyphs!

There are actually two locations of Hart Mountain Hot Springs—a “developed” site, and an undeveloped site. The developed hot springs are surrounded by a low stone wall and a concrete pad, the undeveloped springs are not. But both are otherwise naturally occurring, and accessed from the same parking lot.

The petroglyphs are a little trickier to find. It’s a bit of a hike on an unmarked trail to get to them. They’re located up a canyon near Flook Lake, and include a snake and clawed creatures. You can reference this article for some excellent and precise directions to the petroglyphs. Just be sure not to touch the drawings, as the oil from our fingers can damage them.

Rockhounds, gem, and crystal enthusiasts also love Hart Mountain for the Oregon Sunstone Public Collection Area. The Oregon Sunstone is particularly known for its stunning clarity and range of color. This 4 square-mile plot of land is open to the public for collecting sunstone. And the best part? It’s free!

Where to Stay in the Oregon Outback

For most of these locations, I would suggest staying in Christmas Valley. There are two motels here, Lakeside Terrace Motel and Christmas Valley Desert Inn.

We stayed at Lakeside Terrace, and our rooms were these cute little cabins that sit right on Christmas Valley Lake. We got great service, and the prices can’t be beat. Plus, the location was excellent, as most of our excursions for the week were under an hour’s drive.

⭐️Click here to check availability at Lakeside Terrace Motel⭐️

However, if you plan to visit Hart Mountain as well, you’ll want to book a night or two in Lakeview. Hart Mountain is about 4 hours from Christmas Valley, but only about 2 hours from Lakeview.

By far the nicest place to stay in Lakeview is the Neon Cowboy Roadhouse at Hunter’s Hot Springs, formerly known as Hunter’s Lodge. There are several other more budget-friendly options as well, such as the Oregon Trail Inn and Suites.

⭐️Click here to check availability at the Neon Cowboy Roadhouse at Hunter’s Hot Springs⭐️

⭐️Click here to check availability at Oregon Trail Inn and Suites⭐️

What is the weather like in the Oregon Outback?

As this is high desert, the climate is generally arid. Summer days are hot, although the nights can cool off quite a bit. And although the area does see snow, winter days between snow fall are often clear and sunny.

Average temperatures below are based off of the Roberts Field report, about 75 miles from Christmas Valley. So you may see some variance depending on where you’re visiting in the Oregon Outback, but it gives at least a general idea of what to expect.

Average High44°F47°F54°F60°F69°F77°F88°F87°F78°F64°F51°F43°F
Average Low25°F25°F26°F30°F36°F42°F47°F46°F39°F32°F27°F23°F

Frequently asked questions

Where is the Oregon Outback?

The Oregon Outback is located in central southern Oregon and covers four counties (Lake, Klamath, Malheur, and Harney counties). Its rugged, high-desert landscape is sparsely populated, but offers endless outdoor adventure.

Where is the world’s largest dark sky sanctuary?

The world’s largest dark sky sanctuary is located in southern Oregon, specifically in Lake County, a part of the Oregon Outback.

A brief side note and a big thank you

The Oregon Outback is a section of Oregon that is near and dear to my family. It was a second home to me as I was growing up.

Unfortunately I lost most of my photos of this cherished corner of the state at some point. So I want to extend a special thank you to my mother, who lovingly provided the majority of the photos in this post.

Final thoughts on the Oregon Outback

There are so many reasons why the Oregon Outback should be on your list of places to visit this year. The endless outdoor activities highlight the fascinating and rugged terrain of Oregon’s high desert.

From Fort Rock to Crack in the Ground, and Derricks Cave to Hart Mountain, these landmarks offer a unique glimpse of this PNW state. It’s vastly different from the rain sodden landscape that comes to mind for most people when they think of Oregon.

And since it’s not a touristy spot, you won’t have crowds to contend with as in other high desert locations in Oregon. Plus, it’s a budget friendly getaway, with plenty of free things to do. All in all, it makes the Oregon Outback a highly underrated destination you won’t want to miss.

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