A hole in the ground worth seeing

It can be pretty hard to get kids excited about visiting a place called Hole-in-the-Ground.

But what if that hole is a mile-wide crater that formed when magma hit an aquifer deep underground, triggering a steam explosion that flung earth and car-sized boulders more than two miles away?

Well, that might get kids' attention.

My family made a recent trip to Central Oregon that included a stop at Hole-in-the-Ground, a crater located off Highway 31 about 40 miles south of Bend.

Most people from the Ashland-Medford area use Highway 97 to reach Bend and Central Oregon. From Highway 97, turn east onto Highway 31, traveling into the desolate area known as Oregon's Outback.

Drive about 22 miles along Highway 31, watching out for a Hole-in-the-Ground sign, and then turn left onto a gravel and dirt road when you see the sign. Ignoring offshoots of minor roads, follow the main road for a few slow miles, and you will reach the edge of the crater.

We left our car in a dirt parking area and began the steep 400-foot descent into the crater.

Once we reached the bottom, we followed a path to its center, admiring the views of the crater's walls and the dry Central Oregon landscape. From the center, we could choose to turn around and return to our car, or continue straight ahead, crossing the crater's bottom to a gradually ascending trail through Ponderosa pines on the opposite side.

Although it meant a longer hike, we chose to forge ahead, partly to see new sights, and partly to avoid climbing the steep trail behind us to get back out of the crater.

On the far side of the crater's bottom, we had a long, gentle climb back up to the rim. The trail connected to a dirt road, which we followed along the rim back to our car.

The whole hike was about 2.5 miles.

Since it was still early in the afternoon, we took the dirt road back out to Highway 31 and then continued east for about 10 miles until we saw signs for the Fort Rock State Natural Area.

Fort Rock is a horseshoe-shaped geologic formation of towering rocks, a bit like a giant Roman Coliseum if one side crumbled away.

You can hike for a few miles on trails that run inside the horseshoe shape, but since we'd already had one hike for the day, we choose to scramble about and explore the outer base of the rock formation.

At the base of the towering rocks, we found thousands of bone and skull fragments — the remnants of rodents known as sage rats by Central Oregon locals.

Birds of prey capture the rodents and then fly back to their homes in the rock towers. They swallow the sage rats, then regurgitate the indigestible fur and bones in lumps known as pellets. The pellets eventually loosen, scattering tiny skulls, vertebrae, miniature femurs and other skeletal remains in the rat boneyard.

Our family started the day learning about volcanic geology, and ended the day with a grisly but fascinating biology lesson.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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