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Fort Rock Loop Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Fort Rock from Fort Rock Road (bobcat)
Wave-cut platform on the east horn of the Fort Rock volcano (bobcat)
View across Fort Rock's crater (bobcat)
Gray rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa), Fort Rock (bobcat)
Tafoni face on the outer wall, Fort Rock (bobcat)
The loop hike on the inside and outside of the Fort Rock volcano (bobcat) Courtesy: Google Maps
  • Start point: Fort Rock Trailhead
  • Ending Point: Fort Rock Cave Viewpoint
  • Hike Type: Loop
  • Distance: 2.3 miles
  • Elevation gain: 260 feet
  • High Point: 4,495 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Seasons: All year
  • Family Friendly: Yes
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: No


Hike Description

About 100,000 years ago, vast shallow lakes covered much of what is now the Great Basin. In the Fort Rock area, volcanic eruptions resulted in a number of interesting features, including Fort Rock itself. Fort Rock’s volcano erupted through the groundwater below the lake bed, which was almost dry at that time, throwing up a mile-wide ring of basaltic magma, mixed with water and local sediments, around the volcano’s vent. This mixture of different material is known as volcanic tuff. Later, about 20,000 years ago, lake waters rising from glacial meltoff eroded away the southern portion of the ring, giving Fort Rock its crescent-shaped appearance. You can see wavecut notches and platforms from the prehistoric lake today, carved when Fort Rock was a 300-foot high island in an inland sea.

If the geologic history were not interesting enough, archeological discoveries near Fort Rock and in the surrounding area place a human presence here as far back as 15,000 years. A small cave near Fort Rock yielded, in 1938, a trove of dozens of sagebrush bark sandals buried under a layer of Mount Mazama ash. The sandals, about 10,000 years old, are the oldest footwear yet discovered on the planet. The same archeologist, Luther Cressman of the University of Oregon, returned to Fort Rock in the 1960s and found stone tools which could be up to 15,000 years old. Today, you can take a guided tour to Fort Rock Cave, off limits to the public otherwise, but any time of the year, you can hike around Fort Rock tuff rim, using trails on the inside and cattle paths on the outside. Spring and fall are the best times to visit as summers are hot and winters can be bitterly cold.

From the parking area, hike up past the new covered picnic area through honeycombed boulders, and bear right at a junction. Take a rougher tread up to the wavecut platform at the tip of the crescent-shaped outcropping’s eastern horn. There are views south to the Conley Hills across a wide, flat expanse of sagebrush. Drop down to a wide path, and then take narrow footpath leading off to the right through sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and clumps of fescue. Keep alert for cottontail rabbits and fence lizards scuttling off. Descend to the wide track, and bear right to hike up towards the rim of tuff, noting a few scattered western junipers and wax currant bushes, and passing above a tuff pillar. Follow a stone-lined loop path to the base of the cliff, and then drop down to the right to descend a narrow defile.

Before you reach the bottom of the defile, look for a scramble trail leading up to your right. This will take you to the rim to get a view across the sagebrush flat, actually the bed of the Fort Rock Paleolake, to a smaller volcanic outcropping to the west with a cave. This is the place where sagebrush bark sandals, the world’s oldest footwear, as well as other Paleolithic artifacts about 10,000 years old, were found in 1938 (On topographical maps, the cave appears as the Reub Long Cave; Long was the rancher who owned the land here at the time.).

After taking in the broad landscape, descend the defile to keep right and continue around the floor of the volcano. At a four-way junction, you can find an obvious trail that leads up to the rim for the same views of Fort Rock Cave. At the west end of the tuff ring, you can walk up to another obvious wavecut platform.

To circle back around the outside of Fort Rock’s tuff cliffs, keep right around the base of the western horn, also known as the Shark Fin. Pass two junipers, and cross a barbed wire fence. You’re still on public land, but the area beyond the fence is leased for cattle grazing. Cut up towards the cliffs to find an obvious trail that stays about 30 yards from the base. Look up at the cliffs on this end to see numerous surreal examples of tafoni, or honeycomb weathering, where the rock in some places seems to drip and in others displays honeycomb-like structures. This form of chemical weathering involves the interplay of salt crystals in the tuff with wet/dry and freezing/thawing cycles. You’ll also get views west towards Fort Rock Cave, about half a mile away.

Pass above a fence corner, and continue below a low point on the rim. Reach a group of boulders where numerous cattle trails braid. Head up close to the colorful lichen-stained cliffs to find a more defined trail. Rounding the tuff wall, large irrigated crop circles hove into view in the farmland below. Keep close to the base of cliffs as you choose different paths. As the Fort Rock Trailhead comes into view, you’ll pick up a more defined track again that leads you to a turnstile in a fence and then the covered picnic area.

Fees, Regulations, etc.

  • Restrooms, picnic area
  • Dogs on leash
  • Day use only; open 6:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
  • Guided tours of Fort Rock Cave in spring and summer


Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this destination

  • Remote Wonders: An Explorer's Guide to Southeast Oregon by Melvin R. Adams
  • 100 Hikes/Travel Guide: Eastern Oregon by William L. Sullivan
  • Hiking Oregon’s History by William L. Sullivan
  • Trips & Trails: Oregon by William L. Sullivan
  • Hiking Oregon’s Geology by Ellen Morris Bishop
  • Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes by Andy Kerr
  • Oregon Hiking by Sean Patrick Hill
  • Hiking Oregon by Lizann Dunegan
  • Oregon Campgrounds Hiking Guide by Rhonda & George Ostertag
  • Oregon State Parks: A Complete Recreation Guide by Jan Bannan
  • Canine Oregon by Lizann Dunegan

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Page Contributors

Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

Hiking is a potentially risky activity, and the entire risk for users of this field guide is assumed by the user, and in no event shall Trailkeepers of Oregon be liable for any injury or damages suffered as a result of relying on content in this field guide. All content posted on the field guide becomes the property of Trailkeepers of Oregon, and may not be used without permission.