Oregon’s Outback

by Jennifer Nice | Photo © Jennifer Nice

Just south of Bend, Oregon, the road to adventure awaits, ready to transport you to a different space and time. The Oregon Outback Scenic Byway, one of Oregon’s six National Scenic Byways, slices through the Great Basin region, a land of rugged contrasts, solitude, and unspoiled by human civilization. You can pack in some serious scenery in just a day, or for a true respite, extend your day trip into a desert getaway at Summer Lake Hot Springs.

After motoring through a stand of lodgepole and Ponderosa pines, the forest transitions to vast sagebrush plains similar to the Australian Outback. Fort Rock, a mysterious volcanic tuff ring emerges, rising 325 feet skyward, with the crater floor above original ground level. A designated National Natural Landmark, a stop at the Fort Rock State Park is a few miles off of Highway 31, and offers hiking trails on and around the geologic monolith, as well as picnic facilities. Check out Fort Rock Homestead Village, a historical site that preserves several buildings from the 1800’s. The village is open May 1–October 31.

Back on the highway, keep heading south to Silver and Summer Lakes. Silver Lake fills about once every 30 years. After Silver Lake, the byway climbs up Picture Rock Pass, elevation 4,830 feet, and features Indian petroglyphs. Park your car and see if you can find the decorated ancient rocks. The desolate texture of the land is awe inspiring with sandy buttes dotted with junipers and pines and dust funnel clouds dancing across the desert floor.

Over the pass, lush and verdant Summer Lake comes into view, and with it, scores of waterfowl. The 18,000 acre Summer Lake Wildlife Area is a breeding and resting area for 250 species of birds.

Next up is your destination, Summer Lake Hot Springs Resort. Surrounded by wind-swept, sagebrush steppe country, get ready for a multi-sensory experience. Billed as a rustic resort, you can choose from a day pass for soaking, camping or a cabin. Three new “pumice-crete” cabins boast radiant heat floors, full kitchens, and loads of natural light.

Summer Lake Hot Springs features natural geothermal mineral pools, all with a high silica content, known for its healing properties. Soaking in the hot springs offers a sublime escape in the high desert; the three compact outdoor pools take in sweeping views of the Winter Rim and the barren, boundless landscape. You can hear every sound—the wind rustling, insects buzzing, birds singing—signs of nature living out loud.

Summer Lake Hot Springs’ historic bath house was constructed in 1928 of wood and galvanized steel. Although unrefined, it offers changing rooms and restrooms for the day soakers. Breathe easy and let the warmth envelope you—it’s easy to relax in the spacious, 102-degree pool.

As the afternoon wanes, it’s time to consider your options. You could head back to the city (Bend is just two hours away) or stay the night at Summer Lake. Should hunger strike on the return trip, stop by The Cowboy Dinner Tree in Silver Lake for a gastronomic experience, wild-west style. If you’re lucky enough to have an evening soak, your reward is the stargazing. With little ambient light in the Great Basin, the stars drip out of the inky night sky. And the shooting stars? Too many to count.

For additional details and a map, visit fhwa.dot.gov/byways/byways/2142.