A dramatic geological landscape in Central Oregon is waiting to be explored. It’s incredible to think this place served as the training ground for astronauts in the late sixties.
At the time, NASA was looking for a place to train astronauts in preparation for an important mission to the moon. They needed a spot that resembled what they thought the astronauts were likely to find on the surface of the moon.
This location was Lava Lands.
Where History Comes to Life
Lava Lands was formed about 7,000 years ago, following a volcanic explosion of Lava Butte. The result is an unusual terrain covered in jagged lava rock.
The history of the area is revealed at Lava Lands Visitor Center, the interpretive hub for the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, which consists of 56,700 acres of lakes, lava flows, and other intriguing geologic features near Bend and Sunriver.
At this Visitor Center, U.S. Forest Service Rangers help get you oriented, using a 3D topographical map. There’s also a bookstore for those who’d like to get a keepsake with more detailed information on the area. Sometimes you may also be able to catch films and interpretive exhibits on the geological and cultural history of Lava Lands.
Capacity will be limited in the lobby and bookstore. If you have not yet been vaccinated, you’ll be expected to wear a mask and maintain social distancing.
Lava Lands Visitor Center opened May 20, 2021. Due to current COVID19 conditions, the exhibit hall and theatre room are not open. On the Lava Lands grounds, you’ll still find staffed visitor contact stations but there won’t be scheduled visitor tours or talks.
If you’d like to take in an awe-inspiring view, Lava Butte is the place to be. From Highway 97, just south of Bend, Oregon, drivers will see this imposing spot as a jagged, orange-brown butte towering over them.
From Lava Butte, you can see the full expanse of the sea of lava rock, up to where it meets a dense forest of Ponderosa pines. A picnic under the pines, anyone?
There’s also the option to walk the Trail of Molten Land and the Trail of the Whispering Pines. The Trail of the Whispering Pines takes hikers through a young Ponderosa pine forest. The Trail of Molten Land, on the other hand, takes visitors on a mile-long, paved exploration of one of the largest lava fields in the Cascade Volcanic Arc. The lava extends five miles northward and three miles toward the west over 6,000 acres. Hikers will be pleased to discover amazing views of the Cascade Mountain Range, as well as several informative kiosks providing details of the area’s intriguing volcanic story.
It’s 6.1 km from the Visitor Center to Lava Butte and you’ll only encounter moderate traffic. There is a trail located near Sunriver, Oregon that offers scenic views as well. The trail to Lava Butte is primarily used for hiking, walking, and nature trips and is best used from March until November.
Walk, Ride or Shuttle – You Choose
Stretch your legs to get there or take a shuttle to the summit, for a mere $3 per person roundtrip. Exact change is required or you may pay using the TouchPass app. From Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, which is peak season, the shuttle runs approximately every 20 minutes, departing from Lava Lands Visitor Center and taking visitors to get to the top of Lava Butte.
Riding a bike? Check out the paved 5.5-mile bike path that connects Lava Lands with Sunriver. This just might be your most scenic ride ever.
Adventure-seeking hikers can also make use of this trail, which connects Lava Butte to the Benham Falls East day-use area and Sunriver.
Motorized access by personal vehicles to Lava Butte is not available on days when the shuttle is in service. Access by personal motorized vehicles is possible outside of peak season with free first-come, first-served time permits available at the Lava Lands Welcome Station and only when the Lava Lands Visitor Center is open. Alternatively, visitors with non-motorized transportation may access Lava Butte at any time, generally from dawn to dusk.
Day use only parking is available at the west end of Lava Lands for access to trails, Lava Butte, and the visitor center. Visitors must display a recreation pass to park at Lava Lands. Most recreation passes, including the Northwest Forest pass and Interagency Senior Pass, are acceptable. Passes are also available for purchase onsite.
The parking area for the visitor center is open year-round, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily for accessing trails and Lava Butte roadway on foot or bike.
Lava River Cave
From the Visitors’ Center, your exploration of Lava Lands may include the Lava River Cave, a mile-long lava tube. It takes around 1.5 hours to take a self-guided tour of the entire cave. First, you’ll descend 55 stairs, ending up on a combination of flat boardwalk, uneven surfaces, and stairways.
Visitors are asked not to wear or bring into the cave any clothing or gear they have used in any other cave or mine to prevent the spread of White-nose Syndrome to bats that reside in the Cave. The recommendation is to wear close-toed shoes and warm clothing. Visitors should be aware that the average temperature in the cave is 42 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wildlife of Lava Lands
Connect with nature, past and present on your Lava Lands exploration. There’s plenty of wildlife to keep your walk interesting. This area is known to be a habitat for golden-mantle ground squirrels, yellow-pine chipmunks, yellow-bellied marmots, and long-tailed weasels, among other creatures. Birdwatchers will be pleased to know that they might have sightings of mountain chickadees, pygmy nuthatches, red crossbills, red-tailed hawks, and golden eagles.
For more information on Lava Lands, visit www.visitcentraloregon.com.