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Close your eyes for a moment, and breathe deeply…feel the hot sun warming your neck as the dust assails your nostrils. The dry scent of sagebrush and the sharp smell of juniper hang in the air. And then you descend down, down, down. The temperature drops 20 degrees, and there’s blessed relief from the relentless summer sun.
Welcome to Crack in the Ground, maybe the most unique hike you’ll take this year. Add this one to your bucket list, because I guarantee you don’t want to miss this. Crack in the Ground is a 2-mile long volcanic fissure in south central Oregon, near Christmas Valley. It was formed around 1000 years ago by a tension fracture from a nearby volcanic eruption. Today, it’s open as a trail managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Arrival at Crack in the Ground
Once you’ve made the (probably long) drive to the town of Christmas Valley, you’ll leave the paved roads and endure the last 7.5 miles on gravel. I’ll tell you a secret: drive faster. The road is badly washboarded, and if you drive slowly, you’ll rattle your teeth right out of your head. We found a much more comfortable speed that allowed us to “float” over the washboard ridges. Phew! Once we discovered this, we made much better time and arrived quickly at the trailhead.
The trailhead is broad with plenty of parking. There’s one vault toilet, but no other amenities, not even a map. The one interpretive board is about bats. When we arrived on a weekday morning, there was one other car in the lot. But throughout our time there, several other cars came and went.
From the parking lot, there’s a short hike to the entrance of Crack in the Ground, maybe 0.25 mile slightly uphill on a well marked path.
Crack in the Ground
You’ll know when you’ve arrived at the “Crack”. There’s a few juniper trees offering a bit of respite from the sun and heat, a picnic table, and a former registration podium. There was nothing in it this time except for an inexplicable Realtor’s card.
And of course, there’s the crack. It’s hard to get a good feel for how big it truly is, but it is unmistakably a crack in the ground.
From the picnic table, the canyon stretches both north and south. If you look to the north, there’s a formidable boulder scramble. We did not go that direction, but I’ve read that there is a trail once you’re past the boulders.
If you go to the south, there’s a little bit of a climb down into the canyon, but it’s much easier and that’s the direction we chose to go with our children (ages 2-14).
Inside the canyon
As you descend into the canyon, the temperature drops. The day we went, the ambient temperature at the top was about 85 degrees. Inside the canyon felt wonderfully, refreshingly cool. We did not feel the need for sweatshirts, but on a cooler day, you might need one.
The very first thing we saw in the canyon was an array of unique rock formations. We couldn’t help but marvel, and wonder what happened during that cataclysmic event to cause each formation.
The path through the canyon is varied: sometimes flat and smooth, sometimes narrow and rocky, sometimes boulders to scramble up and over. Be prepared to climb up and climb down! Sturdy shoes required (my bigger kids wore sneakers, my smaller kids had hiking boots or sneakers, we wore hiking boots). Hiking sandals would probably be fine, but definitely no flip flops.
The canyon from above
There are a few spots where a brave and nimble person can reach the top of the canyon walls. While we didn’t let our kids attempt this, my husband was able to achieve the top, and his view was certainly different from ours down below!
You can see graffiti on the wall behind us. It seemed to be made with charcoal, so hopefully it’s not permanent. We reminded our kids that all forms of desecration is still vandalism, and we prefer to not leave any trace of our visit. However, we didn’t find a single piece of trash in the canyon, and that was a welcome surprise.
Finishing the hike
Despite my daughter’s running watch being on and tracking our progress via GPS, we had no idea where we were in the canyon. With all the boulder scrambling, we could have hiked 0.25 or 1.5 miles, we really weren’t sure. Her watch wasn’t tracking well at the bottom of the canyon, and we didn’t have a map. In hindsight, I suggest printing something before you go: a map, a satellite image, anything. Not for the reasons you might think, though…
After maybe 30-45 minutes of hiking, we started our ascent to the top. Toward the end, there are several fallen boulders. Some you could traverse around, or over, and some we crawled under. (Note: you don’t have to actually crawl under any of them…there are paths around the tightest spots.)
Here we needed to decide what to do…continue on, hike the canyon back, or hike the topside trail back. I explored the area a little, took some photos, and ultimately, our little ones were done. We have two 2-year-olds, and they were ready for snacks and naps. We chose to head back on the upper trail along the canyon rim.
It was only later that we realized we’d actually only done a small portion of the canyon, and we’d missed most of it. Our trip was planned very quickly, without the obsessive planning I usually do, so when I said earlier that we didn’t know where we were, we truly had no idea. Not that we were lost, of course, but we weren’t sure if we’d finished the trail or not. In hindsight, we wish we’d continued on. Our littles could have slept on our backs and we could have easily explored another half mile of the canyon. But it is what it is, and we thoroughly enjoyed the part we did hike.
We probably hiked only about 0.25 mile inside the canyon. But even so, it was possibly the best hike we’ve ever done. Certainly the most unique. If we ever get the chance to return to Christmas Valley, we are certainly doing it again!
If you go, and I hope that you do, here are some extra details:
Water: None at the trail head. Take lots of water.
Restrooms: vault toilet at trail head
Permit required: none
Accessibility: none for wheelchairs or strollers
Nearest Amenities: the town of Christmas Valley is 7 miles away with gas, restaurants, and a grocery store
Additional resources: BLM website for directions and nearest info center