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Oregon: Fort Rock State Park set in the Oregon ‘Outback’

A visible landmark for miles around Fort Rock is a vestige of a time when the dry valley in which it lays was a large ice-age lake

The remote country, known as the ‘Oregon Outback’ stretches through central Oregon down to the southern border with California. This dusty, expansive land is home to more rattlesnakes and coyotes than people. If you want to get away from it all then this is the place to head to. 

As you drive along Highway 31 you will see Fort Rock jutting out of what is largely a flat landscape. It looks big even from quite a distance. We’ve driven by a few times and thought about heading to take a closer look but we always seem to have been in a hurry and never stopped – until recently.

About Fort Rock Nature State Area

Fort Rock is what is known as a ‘tuff ring’, and measures 4,460 feet (1,360 m) in diameter and stands about 200 feet (60 m) high above the surrounding plain. Back in the ice age this area was a large lake so when magma pushed up from way below and hit the mud of the lake bed the result would have been pretty explosive and a ring of lava was laid around the vent and stuck above the surface. Overtime wave action crated the steep cliffs that we see today. When the water’s receded what was left was these tuff rings, which overtime had been eroded by the weather, which can get very extreme out in the high desert (both highs and lows). The region of Fort Rock-Christmas Lake Valley Basin contains about 40 such tuff rings. 

William Sullivan, an early settler in the area, named Fort Rock in 1873 while searching for lost cattle.

The Fort Rock Basin has served as a vital part of the Native American lifestyle. Fort Rock Cave is near Fort Rock State Natural Area, and is the site of an archaeological discovery of several 9,000 to 11,000 year-old sagebrush sandals. This property serves as a reminder of the rich cultural heritage that has shaped so much of Oregon’s history.

The story of the Fort Rock Basin is told by the artifacts left behind and by the rich oral tradition of the tribes who claim the area as home. Fort Rock Cave is a National Heritage site and is open only by a state park guided tour.

As you walk around inside, imagine the early American Indians who canoed to and from what was then an island. Sandals found in a nearby cave are the oldest ever discovered, dating back around 9,000-13,000 years.

Fort Rock State Park is a great hiking area, complete with picnic area, restrooms and information on the history of the region. The ground within Fort Rock is a soft, sandy loam — former lake sediment that makes for easy walking.  While you are visiting, you can also check out the nearby ghost town Fort Rock Homestead Village Museum, to see how early settlers lived in this high desert region complete with clothing, buildings from the early 1900’s

The craggy 'buttresses' that gave Fort Rock its name
The interior of the Fort Rock 'tuff' is dry and barren
Erosion has created some free-standing pillars
Some signs of life at Fort Rock State Nature Area
Looking out through the open side of the rim of Fort Rock
Looking across the Oregon high desert
A wild and rugged landscape

In summary …

  • Fort Rock is very, very remote but if you are traveling through Oregon it could be a great place to stop and do a hike
  • It gets hot in the summer so wear hats, put on sunscreen and take plenty of water
  • The trails are well maintained but there are some uneven sections so good walking shoes are recommended

Visiting Fort Rock State Natural Area

Location:Co Road 5-11A, Fort Rock, OR 97735
Hours:Open for day use all year round

Fort Rock State Natural Area is located in Central Oregon off Oregon Highway 31, 2 miles northwest of the town of Fort Rock.

The nearest large town is Bend, Oregon which is 70 miles distant. Everywhere else is a long way away!

Best time to visit Fort Rock

The best time to visit Fort Rock depends on what you want to see. In summer, temperatures can be blistering, but there are the guided tours. Spring is also an attractive time to visit, with wildflowers in bloom.

If you are looking for clear skies and some solitude, late autumn and the early winter might be for you. 

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