Starry Skies Shine in Southern Oregon

by Matt Wastradowski

Sitting in the high desert of south-central Oregon, Lake County is known for its other-worldly wonders: Fort Rock—the modern remnant of a one-time tuff ring—lords over a sagebrush sea at its northwestern edge, while nearby Christmas Valley hosts a surreal expanse of inland sand dunes, and the famed Crack-in-the-Ground is a 70-foot-deep, 1,100-year-old volcanic fissure through which adventurous visitors can hike all year long.

But for all its ground-bound natural wonder, Lake County also happens to boast some of the darkest night skies in Oregon. And with the recent creation of the Oregon Outback Dark Sky Network, Bob Hackett, associate director of Travel Southern Oregon, is helping the grassroots effort to protect those night skies from light pollution and working to help visitors see the galactic wonders for themselves—not just in Lake County, but all over the remote reaches of southern Oregon.

Ideal Conditions for Stargazing

Hackett explains the region’s stargazing appeal this way: If the island of Manhattan boasted the same population density as Lake County, it would be home, not to 1.6 million residents, but to 20. (Yes, just 20.) Lake County’s low population density—less than one person per square mile—translates to very little light pollution muddying the otherwise pristine night skies. “There’s nobody there,” Hackett says of the sparsely populated county.

Other factors play a role, too. Much of Lake County sits at 5,000 feet or higher, bringing visitors that much closer to clear night skies, and the dry desert air helps the stars shine brighter than they might in more humid terrain. “There’s no buffer between you and the sky,” Hackett says.

Outback Outposts Promise Stellar Stargazing

With such clear nighttime conditions, there’s almost no bad place to see stars in southern Oregon. But Hackett is nonetheless happy to share a few suggestions, far from even the most rural communities, that shine bright.

Within Lake County, Hackett cites Christmas Valley as an especially attractive destination for pitching a tent and stargazing; the area’s handful of primitive campgrounds and distance from nearby communities mean little light pollution when seeing stars, planets, shooting stars and other celestial bodies. To the east, the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge sits at about 6,200 feet and likewise affords clear nighttime views. At the western edge of the refuge sits the first-come, first-served Hart Mountain Hot Springs Campground, where tent campers can pitch a tent for free and enjoy views of the Milky Way while relaxing in the open-air hot springs. 

Farther east—beyond Lake County’s borders in neighboring Harney County—sits Steens Mountain, another stargazing hotspot. The summit of Steens Mountain sits at nearly 9,800 feet and affords 360-degree views of the surrounding high desert—leading to some of the best views anywhere in southern Oregon. (The Bureau of Land Management operates a number of first-come, first-served campgrounds on Steens itself, including Page Springs, South Steens, Fish Lake and Jackman Park campgrounds; sites run $6-8 per night.)

At the base of Steens’ sheer eastern face sits the Alvord Desert, a dry lake bed that sees only a few inches of rainfall each year. The dearth of cloudy skies and its high altitude (roughly 4,000 feet) makes the Alvord a regionally renowned destination for observing the Milky Way and other cosmic sights. Campers are welcome to pitch a tent along the Alvord’s shore, but a pair of lodgings at its western edge—Fields Station and Alvord Hot Springs, the latter boasting both a comfortable hot springs pool and a few bunkhouses—offer overnight stays out of the elements.

Wherever visitors wind up, Hackett hopes they appreciate the beauty that just can’t be matched in more populated areas. “It goes on for miles,” he says of the dark night sky. “It goes on forever. It is truly an undiscovered landscape for a lot of people, even in the Northwest.”

When you go:

Travel Southern Oregon

Oregon Outback Dark Sky Network 

Christmas Valley Sand Dunes

Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge

Hart Mountain Hot Springs Campground

Steens Mountain and Alvord Desert

Fields Station

Alvord Hot Springs