Obsidian at the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. Dawn Page / CoastsideSlacking

Dark Tower of Obsidian Bedazzles Hikers as Rough-Hewn Volcanic Gallery of ‘Dragonglass’

A hillside of shiny obsidian born of liquid rock and thrown by Mother Nature herself atop a fiery geologic potter’s wheel rises from the Newberry Volcano just south of Bend, Oregon. It’s so cool they named a beer after it!

Who knew?

We made our first visit to Central Oregon nearly three decades ago, long before we were Coastside Slackers. New to the West Coast and living near sunny Los Angeles at the time, we drove up in search of whitewater adventure on the Deschutes River. We took a pass when we awoke to snow our first morning at the Sunriver Resort. It was May. Oops.

This time we arrived in the midsummer high-desert heat seeking a room and desperately in need of steps to meet our respective 10,000-stride quotas after a long drive from Hells Canyon and Lewiston, Idaho. We found a room in La Pine and temperatures topping 95 degrees. Neither ideal.

MontaraManDan suggested finding a step-worthy trail and relief from the heat by ascending from the valley to Newberry National Volcanic Monument. Thirty minutes later and 2,200 feet higher we arrived at the Big Obsidian Flow trailhead. Temperature, 78 degrees. Better.

A short walk across a creek and through a stand of pines placed us at the foot of a 700-acre mass of shiny black obsidian, folded and refolded 140 years ago across layers of dark gray pumice. Thrilled with nature’s megalithic monument to geologic fury, The Geek unsheathed her camera and began her ascent up the rocky one-way loop trail of sharp volcanic glass. MontaraManDan stared thoughtfully at his sandals, wishing he’d worn his hiking boots. He soldiered on.

The Big Obsidian Flow sits inside the Newberry Volcano’s caldera. Occasional swatches of lichen and a handful of stunted yet determined pines provide the only signs of life atop the otherwise barren flow. The caldera also cradles Paulina and East lakes, a pine forest and a plethora of competing volcanic rock features.

Obsidian is hard yet brittle volcanic glass formed by rapid cooling of lava along the edge of a flow. Easily fractured into shards with sharp edges, it was valued for its cutting and piercing properties by ancient peoples and continues to be used in knives and surgical scalpels today. It’s a beautiful, bad-ass rock.

Pumice is formed when molten rock is ejected violently and cools and depressurizes simultaneously, forming a matrix of bubbles. When the carbonated lava cools, you’re left with the light-weight stone you find on the lip of the bathtub to scrape callouses from your feet. Useful, but not particularly bad-ass.

The trail is slow going, especially in sandals. After an hour of picking our way along the trail with tiny, tentative steps between numerous photo ops, The Geek had plenty of fun pics enhanced by late-afternoon sunshine but we were nowhere close to 10,000 steps. We made of the difference with a stroll along Lake Paulina and by circling the parking lot as darkness fell and the mosquitoes rose.

By the time we got back to town, night had fallen and La Pine had already rolled up the streets. Well past dinnertime, we cruised the main drag twice and found the limited selection of bars and restaurants shuttered. Nighttime roadwork had created a monumental traffic jam on northbound Highway 97, so Bend was not an option.

IMG_2712Resigned to choosing between McDonald’s and Taco Bell, we chose the home of the Potato-Rito. Unfortunately, the fare at The Bell tastes best accompanied by the view at the beachfront franchise back home on the Coastside. There’s no place like home.

Oh … about that namesake beer. The Deschutes Brewery up the road in Bend makes a pretty bad-ass dark beer – Obsidian Stout. For when you grow weary of yet another not particularly bad-ass IPA.

“Who Knew?” is an occasional feature of www.CoastsideSlacking.com that spotlights roadside wonders and oddities that might be worth a gawk if you’re in the neighborhood.

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