When we went to the Big Island of Hawai’i, we expected to see lava fields (and boy did we!) But in Oregon? I thought Oregon was the land of pine forests or even the high desert? I wasn’t expecting to see lava fields but there I was, driving down Hwy. 97 south of Bend, OR, on our way to Sunriver and on the right I see a towering pile of red rocks, creating a tall butte in the middle of a expansive field of barren land, covered in rough, reddish-black rocks — part of the Newberry Volcanic National Monument.
It is good to know that you don’t need to fly to Hawaii to see the direct impact that volcanic eruptions have had on the landscape. The Lava Lands Visitor Center is a wealth of information and hands on learning about how volcanoes work and the history of volcanic activity in the Pacific Northwest.
The Lava Lands Visitor Center is part of the Newberry Volcanic National Monument, located within the boundaries of the Deschutes River in Central Oregon, covering more than 50,000 acres of lava flows and lakes. In fact, lava flows cover about 1,200 square miles, which is almost the size of our home state of Rhode Island! Newberry Volcano is a shield-shaped, “composite” volcano formed by diverse styles of eruption and over 400 volcanic vents. The Newberry volcano eruptions were extremely explosive, with very liquid lava flows, similar to that which we saw in Hawaii. Its volcanic ash can be found as far away as San Francisco. Between the last Ice Age and about 7,700 years ago, the volcano erupted at least a dozen times. Seven thousand years ago, the 500-foot Lava Butte erupted, creating the lava flow we see today at the Lava Lands Visitor Center.
When you arrive at the Lava Lands Visitor Center, there are two different areas to explore. At the entrance gate, you will be given a timed entrance pass to the top of the Lava Butte. There are only 10 parking spots at the top of the cinder cone and therefore each car is allotted only 30 minutes at the top of the Butte. The road up the butte is very narrow and winding, with steep drop offs on the side of the road, so you’ll need to take caution and keep a close eye out for bikers and hikers. Once you arrive at the top, you can claim one of the 10 parking spots and get out to take a look around. At the very top is a lookout building, with sweeping views of the mountains to the south, including Mt. Bachelor.
As you gaze across the lava flow, you will see the point where the lava lands turn to forest. This is where the Deschutes River cuts through the land. The volcanic eruption was so powerful that it rerouted the Deschutes River and actually pushed it to begin flowing north toward Bend. You can walk along a gravel path that loops around the entire cinder cone for 360 degree views, with the lava fields on one side and the Deschutes forest on the other. The Butte is 500 feet tall so it was good my husband (who is scared of heights) wasn’t with us on this trip, but we did have some fun teasing him with photos at the edge (but no worries, we weren’t too close.)
Once you are done hiking around the Lava Butte, you’ll want to leave plenty of time to explore the rest of the Lava Lands Visitor Center. In the main building, you will find an exhibits room and book store, as well as public restrooms. Forest Rangers are on hand to walk you through a three-dimensional map of the Newberry Volcanic National Monument and explain the history of the area.
The exhibit hall showcases local geology, ecology, climate and culture, as well as hands-on activities to explore the bottom of Paulina Lake, understand the physical characteristics of local rocks, and examine a molar of a Columbian Mammoth. We were also lucky when we visited to arrive just before the beginning of a presentation from a Forest Ranger. Our guide was funny and entertaining, packing a lot of learning about the forest, animals, rocks, and of course the volcano, in just a short presentation.
There are also two trails to explore at Lava Lands Visitor Center. You can take a short stroll through the sparse forest area near the lava flow on the Trail of the Whispering Pines, or head out into the lava on the Trail of the Molten Land. The Trail of the Molten Land extends approximately one mile from the visitor center to the base of the Lava Butte. One third of the trail has been newly reconstructed to be universally accessible, making it doable for those with strollers or wheelchairs. The remainder contains some steep grades and can be a bit more challenging if you aren’t physically fit.
We explored both trails, but we were able to join our Forest Ranger on a guided hike out onto the Trail of the Molten Land, so we got some very good insight into the history, the nature of the explosion and lava flow, and the landscape surrounding the area. Once out at the end of the trail, there were some magnificent views of the Lava Lands. It was exciting to not just see the rough lava fields from above or learn about it at the visitor center, but to actually get out there in the center of it and see the scale of the explosion and touch the rocks that have been there for 7,000 years.
Along the way we learned that NASA used Lava Lands to train its astronauts and test its equipment before landing on the moon. The theory at the time was that the landscape on the moon would be similar. Turns out they were wrong but still a pretty cool fact that inspired my daughter to consider switching her goal of becoming an astrophysicist to becoming an astrogeologist so she could study the rocks found in space.
Once you’ve finished exploring the Lava Lands Visitor Center, you can also tour the nearby Lava River Cave or spend a day enjoying the outdoor pleasures of Paulina Lake or East Lake. We decided to do some more adventurous cave exploring with Wanderlust Tours and then take a hike to Benham Falls.
Tips for Exploring Lava Lands
- There is a $5 fee per vehicle for accessing the Lava Lands Visitor Center.
- Go early in the day to avoid crowds and the hottest part of the day.
- You only get 30 minutes at the top of Lava Butte because there are only 10 parking spots so use your time wisely.
- Call ahead to see if there are any Forest Ranger programs scheduled for the day and time your visit accordingly.
- Wear sturdy, closed toe shoes. Most of the trails are paved or flat but the rocks around are rough and dusty and there is a lot of loose gravel at the top of the cinder cone.
- Bring water for everyone, especially if you plan on hiking/walking on some of the Trail of Molten Land as there isn’t any shade and the rock reflects heat.
- Wear sunscreen and a hat to stay protected from the sun.
- There are plenty of parking spots in the main parking lot and flush toilets at the visitor center.
- Lava Lands is closed from mid-October through May, and hours change depending on the season so check the website for more information.
- There is a lot to see so if you plan on taking the mile hike out into the lava flow (I highly recommend it!), plan on alloting about 1.5-2 hours for your visit.
Combined with our trip to the High Desert Museum, our stop to the Lava Lands Visitor Center was a great way to wrap a little education (or “roadschooling”) into our vacation.