The thing about eastern Oregon’s Summer Lake is, you don’t go there for the lake. In summertime, in fact, especially during the Western drought of recent years, the high desert lake — which sits off Highway 31 north of Lakeview — barely has any water in it, if it exists at all.
What you do go for is clean air, gorgeous scenery, splendid isolation, free campsites — and birds. Lots and lots of birds, especially now as spring migration is beginning.
Forget all about that better known federal bird refuge over in Harney County. You can see many of the same species, and often with fewer other people in your way, at the state-run Summer Lake Wildlife Area, an easy three-hour drive from Eugene, making it more than two hours closer from here than Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The Summer Lake refuge consists of 30 square miles of desert marshland, much of it viewable from an 8.3-mile gravel loop road that takes you from refuge headquarters — on Hwy 31 right across the road from Summer Lake Lodge, which offers comfortable rustic rooms and a good restaurant at reasonable prices — past reedy marshes (see red-wing and yellow-headed blackbirds, coots and even an occasional elusive bittern), past a few expanses of open water (shorebirds such as ibis, sandpipers and avocets), through a stretch of cultivated fields (where short-eared owls hunt in the early evening) and back to the highway across from Summer Lake Store, where you can stock up on gas and basic groceries.
As you drive the loop counter-clockwise, be sure to stop at the large barn next to a campsite on a spur road off to the left; its interior is an excellent place to find great-horned and barn owls enjoying daytime naps.
And speaking of campsites: The refuge has four primitive camping areas, offering picnic tables and restrooms on mowed grassy areas. They’re usually quiet and uncrowded except during duck season, late in the year, when they can be jammed with big RVs. Camping is free, except that you need to buy a parking pass to park anywhere in the refuge, including the camp grounds; it’s $10 daily or $30 for the calendar year at myODFW.com. The permits are also good at 14 other Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife wildlife areas around the state.
Besides birding the marshes, staying at Summer Lake gives you access — once the snow has melted off — to a beautiful pine forest atop nearby Winter Rim, a high ridge that parallels Hwy 31 to the west. Driving the occasionally steep gravel road that takes you along the top of the rim can require a sense of humor in some places, but it gives you spectacular views over the lake and marshes.
Along the way you’ll pass the remote Fremont Point Cabin. Owned by the Forest Service and situated atop a steep rocky outcrop, it can be rented by the day ($40), giving you and yours 24-hour access to one of the most breathtaking views in the Northwest.
Farther afield, check out Fort Rock State Park, off Hwy 31 about 40 miles north of Summer Lake; the circular rocky outcrop was never a military fort but looks like a medieval island fortress in the middle of a sea of sagebrush. An easy loop trail from the parking lot gives you a tour inside the fortress walls, and a nearby cave is where the famous 9,000-year-old reed sandals displayed at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History were found in 1938 by UO anthropologist Luther Cressman.
Another 10 miles north of Fort Rock, aspiring bird and wildlife photographers should check out Cabin Lake Campground. The old Forest Service facility, in a mature pine forest, offers neither a cabin nor a lake, but does have a spacious primitive campground — and a pair of well-appointed photographic blinds, with water features that attract a steady stream of winged and four-footed visitors ready for their closeups. The blinds are free to use, first-come, first-served; feel free to leave a donation for upkeep.
Find plenty more information online by Googling “Summer Lake Wildlife Area,” “Fremont Point Cabin,” “Fort Rock State Park” and “Cabin Lake Viewing Blind.”