Exploring A Volcanic Scar: The Crack In The Ground

At the trailhead to Crack In The Ground; all photos by Jeff Kish

By Jeff Kish

The drive to Crack In The Ground passed over rough sandy washboards with names like Jingle Bell and Snowman Road on the north side of a small farming community called Christmas Valley. Jackrabbits darted in and out of the chamisa and sagebrush as my van trembled over the ruts, and an orchestra of clanging gear filled my tiny home.

I was in the Fort Rock Basin, once the site of a large inland sea that dried up during the late Pleistocene period that now appears as an expansive high desert plain, studded with towering hydrovolcanic features and divided between tiny communities of hay farmers, cattle ranchers, and the BLM.

I reached the trailhead for Crack In The Ground at dusk and watched a soft, low-hanging cloud layer stretch and flow around distant snow-topped buttes as the last purple-blue light of day slipped from the horizon. Then I crawled into bed, layered in my napsack and my sleeping bag, covered myself again in a Pendleton blanket, and drifted off to sleep as the desert winds whistled around the contours of my roof rack.

I woke to an alarming silence. There was no wind, no patter of precipitation on my metal roof, no birds calling, and no distant hum of industry, as if the world had vanished, and I was completely alone. I reached an arm out from under my warm cocoon and pushed aside the curtain to find that the noises of the desert had been extinguished under a shroud of fresh snow.

I packed a small pack, layered in wool and down, and set out across the white plain, crunching prints into its pristine surface, and standing taller than any feature aside from a few western junipers that punctuated the skyline.

Crack in the Ground is a volcanic fissure, believed to have formed 1,100 years ago, as a result of a tension fracture at the edge of two lava flows. It’s two miles long, 10-15 feet at its widest, and up to 70 feet deep; a rare basalt slot canyon in the great basin where most volcanic features stretch in the opposite direction.

I entered the crack easily on the northwest corner, where erosion had provided a gradual slope into its depths, and I carefully plodded along the canyon floor where fresh snow obscured the icy uneven terrain. It was quiet and very cold, but the canyon was dynamic as the morning sun loosened the snow above, and tiny cascades of fine powder fell like confectioner’s sugar toward the canyon floor.

I explored for a couple hours; hiking the flats, scrambling the breakdowns, and slipping over all of it. I observed the stark contrast of black basalt, green and orange lichen, and fresh white snow. The canyon walls were striped with ribs of smooth dark ice that snaked down their contours, and here and there small hardy plants seemed to grow directly from the basalt. As I walked on, the pinches got tighter, the crawls got lower, the scrambling over slick ice-coated rock became more constant, and I decided it was time to turn around.

Though it did little to cushion the ruts, the snow made the drive back more enjoyable with all of the signs of life that it exposed. Small animal tracks perforated the surface at an astonishing rate. I had been surprised by the density of Prairie Falcons, Red Tailed Hawks, and Golden Eagles on my drive in, but the tracks attested to the abundance of prey to support them, and I began to better understand the ecology of this expansive sagebrush steppe.

—Columnist “The Rubber Tramp,” aka Jeff Kish, writes a weekly article on a laptop aboard the customized Ford Econoline in which he lives. You can catch up on Kish’s past stories: Dangerous Beauty: The Glacial Caves Of The Cascades, The Rubber Tramp Diary, Entry One, and his back story about shuttling through-hikers on the PCT.

Sean McCoy

Editorial Director Sean McCoy is a life-long outdoorsman who grew up hunting and fishing central Wisconsin forests and lakes. He joined GearJunkie after a 10-year stint as a newspaperman in the Caribbean, where he learned sailing and wooden-boat repair. Based in GearJunkie's Denver office, McCoy is an avid trail runner, camper, hunter, angler, mountain biker, skier, and beer tester.