Fort Rock rises like a stone colosseum above the high desert south of Bend.
FORT ROCK, Ore. — If the United States descends into anarchy, and roving tribes of armed highwaymen rule the countryside, the place I’m going to start a new civilization is Fort Rock State Natural Area, in Central Oregon.
Actually, by this time, it would just be Fort Rock.
There would be no state parks in the smoking ruins of what once was called Oregon.
If you go
Fort Rock State Natural area is in south-central Oregon, south of Bend. From the town of La Pine, follow Highway 31 east to signs for Fort Rock. Follow County Road 5-10 into the unincorporated town of Fort Rock and follow signs to a parking area and trailhead.
What to do
A collection of trails within Fort Rock can take visitors on hikes ranging from 1 to 3 miles round-trip. Hole In the Ground, Crack in the Ground and Derrick Cave are interesting geological oddities nearby. Hike to the spectacular lookout on Hager Mountain in summer, with views from the Cascade Range to the high desert, or spend the night there mid-November to mid-May. Get a reservation (way in advance) at recreation.gov (it’s already pretty solidly booked for this coming season).
Summer Lake Hot Springs: A glorious resort with cabins starting at $100 per night and natural hot springs inside a historic bathhouse. Day use is $10. A must-visit during winter; summerlakehotsprings.com
Visit this area without stopping at Cowboy Dinner Tree restaurant, south of Silver Lake, and you’ll regret it. The meal is true cowboy cuisine: a 26- to 30-ounce top sirloin steak or one roasted chicken with a baked potato. Reservations required: 541-576-2426. Cash only. cowboydinnertree.net.
The benefits of Fort Rock as a place to reset humanity are obvious the minute you see this National Natural Landmark rising like a stone colosseum above the high desert, southeast of Bend.
Most Read Life Stories
- Sunday Best: Emily Blunt, Iman are among the fashion winners from 2021 Met Gala
- These Buffalo wings are an extra-crispy way to celebrate the American classic
- Rant & Rave: Reader gives a lesson on the etiquette of waiting in line at Dick’s
- Ramona Quimby's Portland: A self-guided walking tour through sites in Beverly Cleary's books
- Why prescribing weight loss for polycystic ovary syndrome is futile and dangerous
An enormous circle of jagged rock wall, Fort Rock provides an excellent level of natural protection. The sagebrush prairie extending in every direction means you could see invaders coming from miles away.
A hike through the inside brings you within walls that feel both cozy and expansive, not unlike a professional baseball stadium. The towering rock pedestals, rising in gothic shapes, would make an impressive throne to sit upon while emissaries from neighboring tribes arrived to offer tribute.
Yes, this natural kingdom is the place to be after a full-blown breakdown in society.
The problem, I suppose, would be finding a reliable source of water. It’s an ironic conundrum considering Fort Rock began life — and sustained some of the earliest life in North America — as an island in a gigantic prehistoric lake.
Beginning about 2 million years ago — and occurring in cycles — melting glaciers and rain created massive bodies of water in Eastern Oregon called pluvial lakes. The largest, today known as Fort Rock Lake, was over 1,260 square miles and covered the length of the Christmas Valley, according to the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries.
About 100,000 years ago, a small eruption below the lake’s surface spewed hot basalt magma up through the water, cooling into a stone ring island with gently sloping sides. That became Fort Rock itself.
The island drew visitors.
In search of the lake’s abundant fish and waterfowl, some of North America’s earliest human inhabitants are believed to have paddled canoes to Fort Rock and lived in the area’s lakeshore caves.
A pair of sagebrush bark sandals were discovered at Fort Rock Cave, about 1.5 miles from Fort Rock, by University of Oregon archaeologist Luther Cressman in 1938. They were dated to some 9,000 to 13,000 years ago and revolutionized the way we understand the development of humans on this continent.
“They’re still the oldest known footwear found anywhere in the world — older than anything found in Egypt or Africa, which is pretty amazing,” said Joe Wanamaker, park manager at Fort Rock. “A lot of other artifacts have been discovered there as well, including spear points.”
Today, evidence of the former lake and its inhabitants can be found by looking in the right places.
Tours in summer
Oregon Parks offers guided tours of Fort Rock Cave each June, July and August. And while hiking in Fort Rock itself — an easy 1- to 3-mile trek — you can peer up at the stone walls and spot notches carved by the ancient lake’s surf, which eroded the former island into the cliffs seen today and breached the southeastern wall.
The ground within Fort Rock is a soft, sandy loam — former lake sediment that makes for easy walking.
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.
For me, late autumn and winter has been grand. The cool sunshine and near-complete solitude allows a person’s imagination to drift, creating visions of a post-apocalyptic civilization in a prehistoric landmark.