I would say at least a third of my time as the Oregon Desert Trail Coordinator is spent in eastern Oregon. Much of what I’m trying to accomplish on the ODT revolves around creating a trail culture in the small desert communities of Oregon’s dry side, and also working within those communities to see how the ODT can meet their recreation needs, or perhaps identify other recreation opportunities in those areas.
Wednesday morning I woke at 6am, sipped at several cups of hot black coffee, and packed for a few days on the road. I loaded up the 1994 Jeep Cherokee (one of the only ONDA rigs with studded tires) and by 7am was pulling away from the house. The highway south towards La Pine was busy with morning commuter traffic, and as the miles sped by and the elevation slightly increased, the snow started to blanket the forest with white. We’ve had a very mild winter this year, but the snow and rain have started to fall this March, providing some much needed moisture in the desert.
Just south of the small forested town of La Pine, I made a left turn onto highway 31, one of the few paved roads that heads south east. If you keep following this road, eventually it will dump you out in Reno, NV, but before that some of the iconic scenes of the desert appear: Fort Rock (where 10,000 year old sagebrush slippers were found in a cave in 1938), Hagar Mountain (a pointy iconic mountain with a fire tower lookout you can rent), Summer Lake and Winter Rim (words can’t do this area justice, just EPIC) and the popular Summer Lake Hotsprings, the town of Paisley (a charming little town at the base of the massive Fremont National Forest) and Abert Rim (one of the largest fault block mountains in the country, a 30 mile long fault that rises 2,500’ above the highway below). I turned before the highway reached the tall town of Lakeview (Oregon’s highest elevation city) and took road 140 towards Adel, a spot on the map not many will pass.
The goal of this trip was to check in with some of the small communities that provide services to hikers in Adel and Plush, meet with a new trail angel in Plush who wants to help out hikers, hike a potential alternate route into the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge from the base of Hart Mountain, soak in the Hart Mountain Hotsprings, head to Lakeview for to give a presentation about the Oregon Desert Trail to the Lakeview Chapter of the American Association of University Women, and then head back to Summer Lake the next day for a meeting with another potential trail angel who wants to help with water caching in one of the drier sections of the ODT.
A lot of driving, yes, but of the many trips I’ve made to this part of Oregon in the past 2.5 years, I never get tired of the drive. After leaving the last bits of forest behind on Wednesday morning, the snow became deeper and highlighted all the ruffles of sagebrush that carpeted the landscape, and BOOM made the ridges and faults of Winter Rim and Abert Rim just explode with beauty. Before I got that far though, outside of Silver Lake I had to slow for a group of cows being ushered down the highway by four cowboys moving their stock to some spring grazing grounds (probably). Ranching is still one of the dominate industries in south east Oregon, although I think recreation will continue to help diversify the economy out here.
When I turned off on the road to Adel, I started to look at my phone for reception. I needed to call in for a conference call for a new organization I was a part of, an organization of conservation, recreation, and outdoor industry folks intent on advocating for more funding and protection of our landscape. Although the remoteness of this part of Oregon is real, there is an awful lot of cell phone reception out here (Verizon!). I passed the Warner Ski Area, but the lift wasn’t running today. I don’t think they’ve had enough snow to open more than a few days this year. The road followed Deep Creek, a waterway Kirk and I have had our eyes on for a few years; just a few miles before Adel the creek plunges over a 20’ tumble of boulders in a waterfall that Kirk is itching to run in his kayak.
I found my sweet spot for the cell phone, and noted the pull-off on the road. I would return after my lunch in Plush for my phone call. On to the Hart Mountain Store. This little oasis is an important stop on the Oregon Desert Trail. The route essentially goes through town, and has almost everything a hiker would need…all in one place. The store can be your resupply (if you aren’t picky), restaurant, bar, post office, gas station, and community gathering place. When I hiked through in 2016 I spent the better part of a day here eating a massive double bacon cheeseburger, drinking a few beers, and reading a book I grabbed from their take-one-leave-one shelf before heading off to the cozy tiny house a local couple rents out (Hart Mountain Cabin). Plush is also close to a hot spot for the Oregon Sunstone, a orangish/pinkish stone that features in many pieces of local jewelry. In the store you can buy some of the sunstone creations, in addition to a variety of other random and interesting items.
I ordered the French Dip, and Joelle, my trail angel to be, the chilli mac. Joelle was volunteering nights this week to help the refuge trap and monitor sage grouse, our iconic “canary in the coalmine” bird that indicates the health of the Sagebrush Steppe landscape. As a biologist her previous work was primarily among shore-birds, but she was enjoying this new drier landscape and the different life found within.
After lunch I left Dave (owner of the Hart Mountain Store) with a few more ODT brochures for the store counter, and a fresh copy of the Town Guide.
I jumped back in the Jeep and headed back towards the pull-out near Adel for my conference call (Plush is one of the only communities out here with absolutely no cell phone reception. Which is quite refreshing I must say!). Ah technology. Many of the folks were calling in from Portland, some from Bend, and others, I’m not sure where. We talked policy, the new Oregon Office of Outdoor Recreation, future events, and so forth.
About two hours later I drove up to the Adel store to fill up the tank with gas. Cody, the new owners’ son, poured me one of the Oregon IPAs they had on tap, and I caught up on a little laptop work and ate a few tater-tots. I also gave him a copy of the Town Guide; his parents had purchased the store last fall and soon after I had stopped in to say hello, and explained they were now an ODT trail town. The family had moved down from Redmond (near Bend) and were enjoying the quieter pace of life in the Oregon Outback. I had updated the information on the store, and wanted to leave them with a copy of the guide.
Then back to the car. I had my sights set on camping at the Hart Mountain Hot Springs, a free campground deep in the Hart Mountain Refuge, but the snow had been falling, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to drive into the spot. The hot springs are on top of Hart Mountain, another large fault block mountain, and Plush and Adel sit in the valley below. I drove up the long grade to the refuge Headquarters almost 2,000’ above the valley. The snow was falling heavily and I couldn’t see any car tracks ahead of me. At the headquarters I would turn off onto a smaller road for another 5 miles to the campground, but after looking at the large flakes falling heavily from the sky, decided not to go. While I knew I could get in there, and the forecast only said about an inch of snow was expected…the snow doesn’t always obey the forecast, and I decided to head to a campground at the base of the mountain instead. No soaking for me this time, but I’ve enjoyed the steaming waters before.
I pulled into the quiet site just before dark to park and get all cozy in the back of the jeep. I brought my -20 degree sleeping bag, paco pad (4” inflatable foam pad Kirk and I use for river trips), and down pillow. Roughing it? Not really! I read for a few hours before turning off my headlamp for the night. There were no lights in any direction, and if it hadn’t been snowing, I would have been able to see the stars brighter than many places in the country.