Camping on top of an active volcano: Newberry National Volcanic Monument, Oregon

Follow our St. Clair family summer road trip of 4 weeks, 5 states, and 3,851 miles: All posts

Central Oregon. High lakes. Vast pine forests. And volcanos. Lots of volcanoes. Including, a little southeast of Bend, the stunning, still active Newberry National Volcanic Monument, part of Deschutes National Forest. Inside the NNVM, there are forests, hiking trails, ancient lava flows, and lakes on top of a volcano.

There’s something else too: A whole heap of excitement.

Central Oregon, you see, is where Anthony’s love of Oregon began. He first visited the area in 1998—and soon returned to Virginia determined to move to the Northwest. Now, as made our way south along Highway 97, south of Bend, toward Sunriver and Newberry National Volcanic Monument, beyond, Anthony’s excitement was building. We’d spend the last few days of our epic road trip in one of the state’s most iconic locations, a place he’s been wanting to show us all for years.

Learned

…There’s nothing like Central Oregon’s aroma of pine and juniper…
…Forests and lakes hide inside a Cascade volcano, but it ain’t Crater Lake…
…We can travel as a family for weeks on end, love the experience, and come home wanting more…

Made

…Ourselves not take any illicit souvenirs from the Big Obsidian Flow trail…
…Ripples on sunset waters the night before we came home…
…Plans not for the next big trip, but for the next big trips…

Family travel video: Volcano camping on the way home

Newberry National Volcanic Monument, Oregon

Heading into Newberry National Volcanic Monument: Volcanic Junior Forest Rangers

Before heading into Newberry itself, it’s a good idea to stop at the Lava Lands Visitor Center, just outside Bend. As it turns out, even though Newberry National Volcanic Monument, is part of the US Forest Service, not the National Parks Service, they also have an excellent Junior Forest Ranger program.

Kids can head to Lava Lands, pick up an activity booklet, and explore the grounds and exhibits to complete their requirements. Short interpretive trails also surround the center, so it’s easy to go for some family wanders (and cure in-the-car-too-long wiggles) through the trees and lavascapes that define the scenery here.

Viewed from the patio outside the center, the stark, dark red mass of the 500-ft. Lava Butte Cinder Cone rises above the trees and the paths lined with lava rocks. A hiking trail winds its way up to the summit, or you can take one of the regular shuttle buses up and back. We arrived late on a hot afternoon though, and decided we’d go up Lava Butte another time.

Inside the center, we explored the incredible forces that have shaped the Newberry area over the centuries. After all, we’d been spending the next few nights camping inside a massive volcanic area—and one, it turns out, that is still active.

The forest inside the volcano

One of two lakes at the top of the caldera, East Lake is surrounded by forests and craggy remnants of the mountain walls.
One of two lakes at the top of the caldera, East Lake is surrounded by forests and craggy remnants of the mountain walls.

Newberry National Volcanic Monument, itself spans about 1,200 square miles. That’s about the size of Rhode Island, or over twice the size of the Los Angeles area. And Newberry is far more explosive than both.

While Newberry is indeed a volcano, it’s not the smoking, conical mountain covered in lava that you might be imagining right this very moment. Instead of a Mount Doom or Death Mountain, Newberry is a broad, vast shield volcano. It’s more a huge bump of land rounding up slightly from the surrounding landscape, a sort of earthy zit on an otherwise flat cheek, albeit one covered in volcanic vents that you definitely do not want to squeeze.

Unlike zits, Los Angeles, or metaphors stretched too far, Newberry is full of trees. While the volcano has erupted multiple times over the last, oh, 400,000 years or so, the last eruption was 690 AD, or a little over 1,300 years ago. Hot springs in the monument and hot spots in the lakes indicate that plenty of oomph simmers down below too. Fortunately, the area is regularly monitored for seismic activity. That way family campers like us can crank up the popup at the edge of a caldera lake without worrying about being blown to Mt. St. Helens.

To the top of Newberry Crater’s caldera

Driving in east from US 97, we nestled into a wide, vast expanse of old volcano field. Dense conifer forest covers much of the landscape, and we drove along a winding road lined with tall pines. Glimpses of the jagged edges of the top of the volcano shield are the only indication that maybe, just maybe, something deep down in the bottom of a massive mountainous mass roughly blew the top off a chunk of landscape that’s much bigger than you want to think about.

And we didn’t. As we made our way up the lonely road, soon we could see the lakes hidden at the top of the caldera. Sure, Crater Lake has one lake. But Newberry? It has two. All we cared about was the quiet in the pine-scented air, the shimmer of evening summer sunlight on the water, and a spacious campsite that the kids immediately transformed into a make-believe playground, full of what Aster referred to as “crystal wolves.”

Was this entire place, long ago, full of magma and capped with thick stone? You bet. Now, though, we camped on the edge of a wide, calm, lovely lake. Dust floated in the air as the kids gathered little volcanic rocks to lay out houses for the crystal wolves. The only other things filling the campground were evening sunlight and wonder.

Walking on broken glass: Family hike at the Big Obsidian Flow

So. Much. Obsidian. The Flow is over a square mile of the stuff, and up to 150 feet thick. That's a lot of broken glass to walk on...
So. Much. Obsidian. The Flow is over a square mile of the stuff, and up to 150 feet thick. That’s a lot of broken glass to walk on…

Obsidian. It’s easy to think of this black, smooth, glossy volcanic glass as small shards. But here, at the Big Obsidian Flow hiking trail, lava hardened into a square mile expanse that’s over 150 feet thick.

Much of the lava cooled into obsidian, but not shards, arrowheads, or paperweights. Here, we see obsidian differently: A thick, bumpy sea of broken black glass. Some of the obsidian rises in the form of boulders bigger than trucks. Some of it dots the lava field in small chunks. And some of it you walk on, taking careful steps over a surface that can be as slick—and as sharp—as glass.

Black boulders glinted in the sun as Jodie made her way with two hiking sticks, slow and steady. We always made time to stop and marvel at the unique landscape around. The Big Obsidian Flow is the sort of place that you could easily compare to a moonscape, an alien world, a wasteland. But it’s not.

The forces of our planet made this place. And where the obsidian stops, a thick, tall, endless wave put on pause, the forest picks up where the flow leaves off. Even amidst the cooled lava, life persists. As we made our way along the steep, rocky, mile-long trail, little patches of lichen and small, gnarled trees, like bonsai, grew out of the cooled, cracked lava.

As the kids read the various interpretive signs, we discussed the different ways obsidian has been used, such as scrapers, jewelry, and surgical blades. And as Connor passed other people on the trail, we would tell them how indigenous peoples use obsidian to make arrow points.

The Big Obsidian Flow’s unexpected summer visitors

Even among all this old lava, life persists—sometimes in unexpected ways.
Even among all this old lava, life persists—sometimes in unexpected ways.

A place like the Big Obsidian Flow is full of surprises. And Anthony promises he is not making this up: It turns out, that even in a place made of lava and fire, with virtually no water, the flow annually receives thousands of unexpected visitors.

Frogs.

They make their way up the flow every year, typically in August, away from the water, during the hottest month of the year, across sharp, black, hot volcanic glass.

This creature, known for its love of water, wanders a place made by fire.

Best part?

No one knows why.

But on our way back down the trail, Connor made sure that everyone he passed heard about the frogs.

The water’s fine at the caldera: Sunset kayaking on East Lake

The summer sunset lights up the lake.
The summer sunset lights up the lake on top of Newberry Crater.

Oregon is best known for its other lake-on-top-of-an-exploded-volcano, the world-famous Crater Lake. But inside of Newberry National Volcanic Monument,, other volcano lakes await, with forested slopes, rocky beaches, and water that just begs to have a kayak on it.

Who are we to refuse?

Our last night at Newberry—our last night before driving home to Eugene—we ate an early dinner and got into our kayak gear. The day before, when we had driven to the beach and one of East Lake’s boat launch areas for a quick look, Aster had already told us the plan.

“When we go down, stop the car so I can run down the ramp and jump into the water,” she explained. “But, Daddy”—she made sure to specify—“I’ll be wearing my life jacket.”

Now, as the sun inched closer to the high western rim of the caldera, we launched our kayaks onto the water, for the final paddle of our big family road trip. In many spots, the water lay calm, dark, and glassy, the lake’s answer to the Big Obsidian Flow. Flashes of silver leaped from the dark green water. From a nearby boat, someone would give an occasional whoop as they reeled in a nice catch.

The calm of the caldera is the quiet of the heart when you know that you’ve done something right. When your family is together, and healthy, and happy. When you’ve challenged yourselves, and had a heckuva lot of fun.

We splayed our fingers through the waters of East Lake. Instead of the bone chill of most Cascades waters, East Lake was surprisingly warm. Some of it may have been the lingering summer sunshine, but much of it was the hot spots running throughout the water, a little reminder that the fire below still burns.

The best time to plan a trip to Newberry National Volcanic Monument

Nope, the volcano hasn't reverted to lava. It's just another typical Oregon summer sunset on the lake.
Nope, the volcano hasn’t reverted to lava. It’s just another typical Oregon summer sunset on the lake.

The best time to plan a trip is the end of the trip you’re on. After weeks of having ourselves open to the world, to people, to new experiences, to time together mundane and profound, we found ourselves on a surprise rainy morning, packing up.

But the day before, as we enjoyed some sunny afternoon downtime? We had looked through atlases and guidebooks. After all, eruptions, time, and weather have transformed Newberry, just as travel has transformed us—into wanting more travel.

California’s Redwoods, Disneyland, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Lassen Volcanic. The Utah parks of Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capital Reef. Salt Lake City. So many amazing things. It got us thinking too: Craters of the Moon, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone. Maybe a spur trip up to Glacier. And Washington: Olympic National Park, Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier, Seattle, North Cascades National Park. Then onward: British Columbia’s Vancouver, Victoria, and the Southern Gulf Islands—places we last went to during our honeymoon.

Soon, though, we’d be planning the school year. What better way to ring in first grade and fourth grade, than a camping trip to Crater Lake?

And onward. Beyondward. Costa Rica. Panama. Portugal. Japan. Australia. New Zealand. Namibia. Italy. Egypt. Thailand. Tanzania. Morocco. Ireland. Scotland. Cambodia…

Homeward bound?

After over a month on the hot, sunny, dry road, after a day of dreaming about the travels to come, maybe it’s a good thing we woke to our homeward bound day with a sky full of good, hard rain. Our heads and hearts sizzled with anticipation, with excitement, both for home and for the travels to come. It was nice to cool off a little, as we packed the Outback and cranked down the camper for (almost) the last time of the season.

We turned up Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound,” and set our course to the same. Windshield wipers at full speed, we rolled through the mists combing the trees and the rain that washed the hills and scrubbed the sky. Our phones dinged: A friend in Eugene had texted, saying her kids wanted to know when we were coming home.

This trip taught us so much. Big days of travel. History and culture. Wildlife and family. We experienced so much, and we were still taking it all in, and appreciating it, loving our time together, getting time apart when we needed it, balancing work and vacation and seeing, too, how much they blend together for us.

This trip has been a trip of a lifetime.

Our next trip is going to be even better.

The end of one trip of a lifetime

What do you mean we're going home?
What do you mean we’re going home?

We crossed the Cascades and entered the Willamette Valley. In time, we entered Eugene. Turned off the highway. And made our way down a familiar street to a familiar driveway and a door waiting for the turn of our key.

Happy to be home, we returned to where our wifi rocks, and we have our space and stuff, and we were all looking forward to sleeping in our beds again. Home. Where Jodie and Anthony got engaged, and held our babies, and built this amazing life that we treasure, protect, and grow.

And we returned to things to do. We have things to do around the house. We have an office and remodels and gardening and trips to work on. We’re ready for it. We did so much, learned so much, because of this trip. Now we can be together, with our kids, and do more than ever.

Yet while we were relieved to be home, we knew, we felt, that something was also different.

After one month, four people, five states, 3,851 miles, and a lifetime of memories, we were home.

But only for now.

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.