The label “Oregon Outback” gets thrown around a lot by us city dwellers—pretty much anywhere east of Highway 97—conjuring visions of sagebrush and starry nights. But the real Oregon Outback is a scenic byway that runs from just south of Bend to Lakeview, near the California border. Be assured: it’s every bit as desolate, wild, and beautiful as its Australian namesake.
Time: 3 days
Distance: 291 miles from Portland to Paisley
Pack This: bathing suit, binoculars, tire patch kit
Fuel up for the long trip ahead at Bend’s east-side location of local sandwich institution Jackson’s Corner. Slavishly local and anchored by an in-house bakery, Jackson’s turns out a super beefy meatball sub and a bacon, lettuce, and pickled beet number on pillowy soft, honey aioli-slathered bread.
Head south to the Newberry National Volcanic Monument: a place of staggering geological marvels. Hike up cinder cones, wiggle through a milelong underground lava tube, or simply gawk at the glittering obsidian flows. If you can hit just one spot, make it 7,984-foot-tall Paulina Peak, accessible by foot trail or gravel road, and boasting sweet vistas of Newberry’s two lakes and—on the best days—Cascadian giants from California to Washington. Top off in La Pine before continuing your journey. Plan for dinner (and next-day leftovers) at Southern Oregon icon Cowboy Dinner Tree ($33 per person, see below) before taking the well-maintained 19-mile washboard Forest Service Road 2901 up to Fremont Point Cabin ($40/night). Perched 3,000 feet above Summer Lake, it’s privy to one of the state’s most epic sunsets, with light scattered across the alkaline lake’s eerily shallow bottom and, eastward, over the impossibly flat desert lands of Oregon’s Great Basin. Unlike your draftier Forest Service cabins, Fremont Point was rebuilt in 2015, outfitted with a propane-fueled stove and refrigerator as well as a panoramic deck for sunny days.
Spend the morning hiking part of the Fremont National Recreation Trail, a 135-mile route that traverses the region’s Fremont-Winema National Forest and runs across the front porch of Fremont Point Cabin. If you’re a birder, this swath of Southern Oregon is a veritable paradise, with gob-smacking numbers of migrating species, from sandhill cranes and snowy egrets to osprey and golden eagles.
Wind back down to Summer Lake Hot Springs ($10 day-use fee), on the south side of Summer Lake. This bare-bones, eco-friendly soaking stop is somewhere between Little House on the Prairie and Burning Man. (It is a well-established pit stop for Burners.) Its 106- to 113-degree alkaline water fills a charmingly dilapidated 1927 pool house and several outdoor rock alcoves that turn magic at night when the Milky Way reveals itself. Fusty but sweetly decorated cabins with geothermal heating are an excellent place to hole up at night ($100–250).
Pints, pub grub, and a bit of history await at the Pioneer Saloon and Restaurant, 10 minutes away in tiny Paisley. It’s been serving drinks since 1883, its current bar an ornate mahogany-and-oak number built in Boston in 1905. (It was shipped around Cape Horn, as the Panama Canal hadn’t yet been dredged, and completed its overland journey via mule train.) Allow ample time to survey the ranching photos and paraphernalia crowding the walls.
Before the voyage back, pack on some rib-sticking meatloaf and cheesecake at Silver Lake Café and Bar, a friendly roadhouse (wood-paneled diner to the left, mammal-head-festooned saloon to the right), that showcases owner Maria Leckenby’s closely guarded scratch recipes. It’s a go-to for area hunters, but diehards also motor in from Bend, particularly for the café’s mountainous, juicy burgers, featuring Angus beef that grazed on the Outback’s broad plains.
Scrambling around Fort Rock—a ring-shaped volcanic monolith jutting skyward in nearby Christmas Valley—feels a bit like exploring another planet. Hike the easy mile-long loop before popping over to the Homestead Village Museum, a sort of ghost town of early-20th-century structures. Moved and assembled here in the late 1980s, the 10 buildings—including homes, a schoolhouse, and a general store—are kitted out with period furniture and décor. Continue to Crack in the Ground, a two-mile-long volcanic fissure way cooler than its name suggests. Clamber through the narrow canyon, using your hands to assist you over boulders as you squeal at all the unusual rock formations. Pack layers: temps drop down here.
A chilly 6,300 feet atop a bluff, Pine Mountain Observatory ($5 per person), an hour southeast of Bend, is a prime portal to the cosmos. Open Friday and Saturday nights in clear weather (Memorial Day weekend through September), the observatory’s half-century-old, 24-inch Cassegrain telescope offers eyefuls to bundled-up amateur astronomers. Eager staffers are on hand to answer questions about the dense blanket of stars, planets, and constellations twinkling in those inky depths—and help you pick your jaw back up off the floor. —KC, RJ, BT
Along the Way
The Cowboy Dinner Tree has been a beacon of Southern Oregon cowboy cooking since the late 1800s. The slant-roofed eatery’s namesake juniper marks the site of the original chuck wagon, one frequented by Lake County cattle-driving buckaroos. Current owners Angel and Jamie Roscoe ensure locals still get their fix, alongside travelers who journey far and wide for massive portions and old-timey vibes. Bring cash and book a month out. You’ll place your order then, too. Since forever, the nonnegotiable mains are an entire roast chicken and a jumbo top sirloin steak—60 sizzle at a time on the custom-rigged grill. —EM