Trail Stories

 Oregon hikes for history buffs

Oregon’s world-class hiking trails are one reason many of us hang our hats here. The state also lays claim to an abundance of intriguing and significant chapters in human and natural history. These events leave their mark on both the landscape and its inhabitants’ culture, creating a destination to explore that’s a feast for both the eyes and the imagination. Here are a handful of hikes from around Central Oregon and a little farther afield that showcase the beauty of the region as well as the backstories that helped define it.

1 – Santiam Wagon Road

Constructed in 1866 to 1867, the Santiam Wagon Road connected the cattle towns of the Willamette Valley with the gold-mining towns of eastern Oregon. Long-since replaced by the road you’ll use to get there, US 20, the old wagon road has drifted into obscurity. Today, sections of the original Santiam Wagon Road have been reborn as trails.

Besides history, this hike possesses a substantial handful of bonus features. Stellar stands of old-growth fir and some inviting swimming holes along the South Santiam River provide a place to cool off on the trail. There’s also noteworthy House Rock Falls, a 30-foot cascade, along the way, and a gigantic boulder—House Rock—under which is a wide-open cave that once shielded pioneer families from angry weather on their way over the pass.

Directions: From Bend, take US 20 through the town of Sisters and past the junction with US 22. Before milepost 54, turn left towards the House Rock Campground. Drive 1.5 miles along FR 2044 to a small pullout and a locked gate on the right side of the road.


2 – The Oregon Trail at Flagstaff Hill

This three-mile loop hike from the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center affords one the chance to visit a preserved segment of the original Oregon Trail, as well as take in some stunning views. Admittedly, there isn’t much left in the way of an actual wagon-worn trail to explore. But remnants of the ruts (along with a photo-worthy view at Panorama Point) are found easily enough after a short stroll from the interpretive center,

While it will take a bit of imagination to put yourself in the shoes of those that travelled en masse along the trail towards a new life, much of the sweeping scenery that coaxed settlers forward over a century and a half ago remains intact. In fact, many settlers remained in the Baker City Valley rather than continue on to the Willamette, or they returned later, drawn by memories of the drier, sunnier beauty of Eastern Oregon. The Blue Mountains, named so because of the color produced by the distant fir and pine forests that populate the range, remain as inviting and daunting as they were then. Only now odds are no visitors will contract dysentery.

Directions: From Baker City, travel I-84 north to exit 302. Head east 5 miles along Highway 86 to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.


3 – Fort Rock

In 1938, scientists discovered a large collection of 9,000-year-old sandals comprised of sagebrush bark in a cave near Central Oregon’s Fort Rock. Before the discovery, it was widely believed that this part of North America had only been inhabited for roughly 1,000 years. Today, a 1.7-mile loop hike leads to a viewpoint of the cave that changed that belief forever.

In order to visit the cave where the sandals were discovered, you need to reserve a spot on one of the cave tours offered by Oregon State Parks. But a hike around the inside of Fort Rock, no tour required, offers a glimpse into the state’s geologic history. What we now know as Fort Rock was actually a volcanic maar, a ring-tower of volcanic mud, which rose out of the water in the middle of what was Oregon’s largest lake at the end of the last Ice Age. Today, you can still see a tideline—evidence of the water lapping away at the ancient island.

Directions: From Bend, head south on Highway 97 and turn left on Highway 31. Drive 29 miles and make a left at a sign for Fort Rock. Drive another 8 miles, following signs for Fort Rock State Park.


4 – Black Butte

Born from a fault that parallels the Cascades to the east, the same eruption that formed Black Butte temporarily erased the Metolius River. The river was reborn in spring-form, and Black Butte remains as a somewhat out-of-place prominence offset from the main Cascade Range. The almost-perfectly formed volcano affords a particularly breathtaking view of the Cascades and Central Oregon, which is why it’s also home to a Forest Service fire lookout and perhaps the largest collection of historic fire lookout buildings in the state.

The nearly 4-mile round trip hike to the view-blessed summit of Black Butte is a thigh-burner, gaining 1600 feet in just under two miles. That’s pretty steep by any measure, so keep that in mind before you decide on this one. But the view and collection of four historic lookout buildings make the hike well worth the effort. The best view comes by walking past the lookout tower to a cabin built in 1923, while the current staff live in a nearby cabin built in 1980. Even though you might not be able to go inside any of these buildings anymore, you can walk up to them, almost smell the history, and take in a view that shows off a dozen Cascade peaks.

Directions: From Sisters, take Highway 20 west for 5.5 miles to Indian Ford Campground. Turn north onto Green Ridge Road 11. After almost 4 miles, turn left onto road 1110 and drive 5 more miles to the road’s end.

5 – Lava Cast Forest

If you live in Bend, you’re probably no stranger to the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. Thanks to the extensive and varied landscape created by the Newberry Volcano, this area is ripe for outdoor recreation of all sorts, as well as home to volumes-worth of Central Oregon geologic history. One of the many phenomena here is the Lava Cast Forest trail—a short, handicap-accessible path that visits the eerily stunning remains of a forest consumed by lava 7,000 years ago.

The paved, one-mile, self-guided interpretive loop hike might qualify as more of a leg-stretch than an actual hike. But it’s excellent for younger hikers, folks with hiking limitations, or anybody fascinated by Oregon’s volcanic past. The path winds through a lava flow that encased the forest that once laid claim to the area. What remains of the trees are holes where they once stood—cylindrical, tree-shaped lava casts, some descending several feet below the ground. The trail also shows off a wide array of regrowth that includes a good variety of wildflowers in the summer.

Directions: From Bend, head south on Highway 97 for 15 miles to FR 9720. Drive 10 more miles east to the Lava Cast Forest trailhead.


6 – John Day Fossil Beds

Spread out over roughly 80 miles of ruggedly scenic Central Oregon landscape, the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a combination of semi-desert shrublands, badlands and riparian zones. Comprised of three different and wildly diverse units totaling some 14,000 acres in the John Day River basin, the National Monument is also a natural history lover’s dream.

The biggest draw offered up by the Monument is, of course, fossils. Well-preserved plant and animal fossils detail over 40 million years of natural history. In fact, the fossils found in this little section of Oregon are among the most diverse in the world, and easily observable.

Come for the fossils, stay for the scenery. At the Sheep Rock unit, visitors are welcome to peruse the numerous fossil displays and interpretive murals at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. Just up the road, the Blue Basin is otherworldly—the “Island in Time” and “Blue Basin Overlook” trails lead through blue-green layers of ancient volcanic ash.

Clarno is the westernmost unit and features a landform known as the Palisades. These towering rock spires are the modern-day remains of a prehistoric mix of volcanic mudflows and the near-tropical flora and fauna that once inhabited the area, which was encased in the mudflows. Keep an eye out for leaf, twig and log fossils.

The Painted Hills is perhaps the most visually stunning unit, and is the muse for many a landscape photographer. The ancient flood plain is richly hued with shades of gold and red, punctuated with dapples and striations of black. The surrounding desert slopes are adorned with an array of wildflowers in the spring and summer that appear to dance in the late afternoon breeze. A number of short trails lead into, above and around the colored terrain.

Directions: The three units are widely spread out in Central Oregon along Highways 19, 26 and 218. Visit the National Park Service website for more information: www.nps.gov/joda.

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