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At the center of Oregon lies the birthplace of mountains

Newberry National Volcanic Monument is a case study in Oregon's geologic history, a place where volcanic eruptions and magma flows stand in perpetuity.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The best adventures are the ones that offer tangible history lessons that teach us more about Oregon! This week, we have a dandy in Central Oregon where volcanic eruptions, magma flows and a birthplace of mountains mark the Newberry National Volcanic Monument.

When the mood to move strikes my family, there’s no better way to celebrate summer than packing up and moving out toward our annual camping trip at the Newberry National Volcanic Monument near Bend.

It’s a chance to leave busy U.S. 97 behind and follow the lonesome trail high into the alpine reaches of the spectacular Newberry Caldera and my favorite high lakes, called East and Paulina.

Newberry National Volcanic Monument was established in 1990 and it includes over 50,000 acres of lakes, lava flows and spectacular geologic features.

The monument’s summit is 7,985-foot Paulina Peak, which offers showcase views of the Oregon Cascades and the high desert.

“Probably the most spectacular views you can find are atop Paulina Peak," noted retired geologist Bob Jensen. "On a clear day you can see from Washington’s Mount Adams to California’s Mount Shasta — and to the east you can see all the way to distant Steens Mountain.”

Every direction you look is a recreation heaven on earth, offering snow-capped peaks, deep green forests, inviting pockets of ponds and grassy meadows.

Named for Dr. John S. Newberry, a scientist and early explorer with the Pacific Railroad Survey, the caldera (the center of the volcano) holds two lakes, Paulina Lake and East Lake.

It’s hard to believe as you drive through this mountainous area that you are within the caldera of a 500-square-mile volcano that remains very active seismically and geothermally to this day.

Geologists believe the park sits over a shallow magma body only two to five kilometers deep.

Come down closer to ground at places like nearby “Lava Butte” and discover that all of this region’s geologic history is a part of the remarkable Newberry National Volcanic Monument.

Geologist Bob Jensen said you quickly learn that so much beauty was built upon devastating natural disasters that date back 75,000 years ago.

“A key place to start is probably the Lava Lands Visitor Center to get a handle on the big story of what has happened in Central Oregon as recently as a thousand years ago," he explained. "There is also the great viewpoint atop Lava Butte that overlooks the area. Then the Lava River Cave is nearby and easy to explore in summer. It’s the longest lave tube in the state.”

If you go caving, be prepared with a lantern and dress for warmth; inside Lava River Cave it’s a constant 42 degrees.

Scott McBride of the U.S. Forest Service said that visitors to this national treasure can spend weeks exploring the monument’s 50,000 acres and never see the same thing twice.

“Visitors who take the time to turn off Highway 97 are completely surprised by what they almost missed, and then completely excited that they didn’t," McBride said. "It is the easy access to volcanic features, the types of recreation that you can do in the center of a caldera which is essentially the heart of a massive volcano spreading out the size of Rhode Island.”

The caldera also includes the Big Obsidian Flow, deposited 1,300 years ago by an eruption. One of the most intriguing parts of the crater is the obsidian flow — over a mile in length and 200 feet deep, with huge chunks of obsidian scattered about like so many forgotten children’s toys.

The mile-long stroll puts you in the heart of gray pumice, brick-red lava, and ebony obsidian, and the contrasting shapes and colors rest side by side.

Bart Wills, USFS Geologist, said that Native Americans discovered the glass-like qualities of the obsidian and hand-tooled it into razor-sharp tools for hunting and cleaning game:

“It’s sharp like glass and it’s very brittle; it holds a keen edge but it breaks very easily," Wills said. "So, once you’ve obsidian as a tool — say, an arrow — the tip may break and they wouldn’t be able to use it again. But as you can see, there was no shortage of material.”

Today the fractured, jagged ramparts of the volcano are topped by the pinnacle called Paulina Peak, but a glance down to East Lake’s forested shore reminds me of my true interest in this site, and it won’t take long for you to discover that camping has long been a tradition here.

The first East Lake Resort was built in 1915, according to resort owner Bruce Bronson.

“A lot of people walk in the front door and ask, ‘Where is the caldera? I came here to see the Newberry Caldera,’" Bronson said with a chuckle. "Well, you’re in it.”

Bronson added that East Lake has long been a drawing card for the angling crowd; especially at daybreak when trout and kokanee are on the bite.

“Families have been coming here since the very beginning when it took much longer to get here, but then they stayed much longer too. Many came up as children, they’ll come up with pictures of themselves in front of these same cabins when they were 5 or 6 years old and say, ‘Boy, it hasn’t changed much. Just like I remember.'”

East Lake Resort’s cabins offer all the comforts of home — just like the cozy café where no one ever walks away hungry. Rental boats put you on the water where fishermen troll or cast flies that entice big fish to bite.

Nearby, two USFS campgrounds called East Lake and Cinder Hill offer more than 150 campsites for tent or trailer with plenty of lakeshore elbow room that will find you coming back to Newberry again and again.

“People have a super outdoor experience in an atmosphere so clean and clear at 6,400 feet in elevation that the clouds seem but an arm’s length away," added Bronson. “Laid back is a great way to describe our place. It’s for people who really want to get away from the hustle and bustle of their city lives. They come up here and, within a day or two, all that they thought was so important seems to disappear.”

That’s certainly true! The stress melts away. There is no water skiing or jet skiing on either Paulina or East Lakes, so life moves here at a slower pace.

“It’s the camping, the hiking, fishing and horseback riding,” noted Scott McBride. “Almost anything you can think of to do recreationally, we have it here in this national monument and that is extraordinary.”

Be sure to watch the weekly half hour program of Grant’s Getaways. The show airs each Saturday and Sunday at 4pm on KGW.

For something different, you can follow my Oregon adventures via the Grant’s Getaways Podcast. Each segment is a story-telling session where I relate behind the scenes stories from four decades of travel and television reporting.

You can also learn more about many of my favorite Oregon travels and adventures in the Grant’s Getaways book series, including:

The book collection offers hundreds of outdoor activities across Oregon and promises to engage a kid of any age.

You can reach me: Gmcomie@kgw.com

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