Introducing the Columbia Plateau Route

I’ve got a new adventure on deck…a 135-mile hike along the John Day River this spring. 

This trip will lead me to obscure desert canyons, remote game trails threading through rocky cliff bands, and along the banks of a river I have paddled countless times. 

“I didn’t realize there was a trail that long beside Oregon’s longest free-flowing river,” you might be saying to yourself. 

Well, there isn’t.

This is a route. A route that has been carefully pieced together over years and many scouting trips (20 and counting!) by intrepid hiker, Scott Nechemias.

Scott and I have been chatting about his Columbia Plateau Route (well, by chatting I mean primarily communicating through Instagram DMs) for years now…our paths originally crossed with the Oregon Desert Trail. He is someone who likes to look at a topo map, find something that looks compelling in the terrain, and then find a way to get there on two feet (or a packraft). That’s in line with what the Oregon Desert Trail tries to do, so we’ve shared different trip ideas over the years. Scott has also been hiking part of what I hope will be an Oregon Desert Trail to Blue Mountains Trail connector…(much excite!)

So the Columbia Plateau Route…when piecing this hike together, he started with an idea to find some stable backpacking weather in Oregon in the off-season, in this case between November and May. This Portland-based backpacker set his sights on north central Oregon. “I realized that if you drew a box from the Cascades, bounded by the Columbia River, all the way east to the Umatilla Forest and south to the Ochocos, you have a quarter of Oregon that has no trail longer than 20 miles,” he explained (this is beside the Deschutes River Canyon where “trail” is an old railroad bed). “This is a massive area where no one writes about backpacking. The John Day River has a whole corridor of wilderness study areas, plenty of access to water, and gives you a way to keep moving on public land.”

Scott is another hiker like myself who sees connections and opportunities everywhere – if you aren’t afraid to get off the trail and wander through a bit of sagebrush. He already has a route scouted from the end of this route from the town of Mitchell to the western terminus of the Oregon Desert Trail at the Badlands Wilderness (I’m so stoked for that!!). There are an incredible amount of options out there to connect all of these trails and routes, and in a way, I think this is just the beginning of route development around the country, especially when planning tools like Cal Topo makes it so easy.

The start to the Columbia Plateau Route (CPR) has 2 options, one from the popular Cottonwood Canyon State Park, and the other from a more obscure spot on Highway 207. From there the path heads south. “Why south?” I asked him, “Part of me feels like if you are going northbound, you should do it in a raft,” he said. “You might feel silly walking that direction when you can just float,” he added.


Why make the trip harder than it has to be? As it is, the CPR has multiple river crossings…which will probably limit the number of people who want to take on this kind of multi-sport adventure. The John Day River can be gentle and shallow in the summer and fall…two years ago when Kirk and I spent the month of June trying to travel from the source to the mouth we watched water levels quickly drop in an early heat wave, but in the spring this free-flowing river can spike to incredible flood heights. A spring hiker along the CPR will need to cross the river in a boat, note: this is not a river to ford. For the task, Scott is going to send me a very small and light packraft (I won’t be using my 8lb heavy whitewater packraft) to use on the fords and I’ll balance precariously over my backpack on these short paddles through the canyon. It should be an adventure!

While I’m on this journey I plan to explore many different aspects of this area. Much of the John Day River is a Wild and Scenic River (and there is current legislation to add more river miles to this program – in fact, I nominated 51 waterways for consideration), ONDA (my former employer, and current client) works in this region and is very interested in preserving the wilderness qualities of the John Day River and uplands – some of that work includes protecting the headwaters which are critical to steelhead, Chinook salmon, bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout, and interior redband trout. They have been building “beaverhoods” and beaver dam analogs at Cottonwood Canyon State Park and Pine Creek Conservation Area (tribal properties of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs), and I’ve even led a “how to hike a route” stewardship trip into Spring Basin Wilderness a few years back. 

The hike passes through the following designated areas:

  • Lower John Day Wilderness Study Area
  • Thirty Mile Wilderness Study Area
  • North Pole Ridge Wilderness Study Area
  • Spring Basin Wilderness
  • Pine Creek Conservation Area
  • Pat’s Cabin Wilderness Study Area
  • Sutton Mountain Wilderness Study Area (there are exciting things afoot for the Sutton Mountain area! Read more here)

In fact, the Greater Hells Canyon Council also works in the John Day River watershed. Remember the Blue Mountains Trail?? I started that hike in the town of John Day, and hiked along the headwaters in the Elkhorn Mountains, and along the North Fork of the John Day too. 

I think one of the things I love most about this next adventure of mine is that it isn’t new territory. I’ve hiked, paddled, camped, and explored parts of this area so many times I can’t even begin to count the trips. But, this will also be an entirely new way for me to experience this river canyon: on foot, solo, hiking long days, and spending some quality “deep time” in an area that few have. Of course, that doesn’t include the millennia that people lived and traveled in these canyons since time immemorial; there is a rich cultural history of indigenous peoples in this area, along with the long recent history of settlement in these canyons. There are patches of private land throughout the hike, pieces of old homesteads, farms, ranching operations, and active operations as well. I’ve recently connected with the very helpful folks at the Oregon Frontier Chamber of Commerce and will be taking some local history literature with me on the hike, I’m looking forward to diving into all aspects of the John Day Territory. There are many relationships to this place I want to learn about as I’m building upon my own.

I’ll also pass by many project sites that ONDA has been involved in for decades:

  • At Clarno, my halfway resupply area, I’ll be walking by the Clarno Nursery, officially named the Clarno Hardwood Propagation Facility. This area is a collaborative project between the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Up to 50,000 willows, cottonwoods and other native trees are harvested annually from this facility for restoration projects around the northwest. ONDA volunteers head out to the nursery a few times each spring to harvest cottonwood and willow sticks that will later be used in riparian plantings in places like Cottonwood Canyon State Park, South Fork of the Crooked River, and nearby in the Pine Creek Conservation Area. 
  • A short distance away from Clarno is Camp Hancock, a science camp for middle schoolers, and the location of many years of ONDA’s annual meeting. 
  • The area is also home to the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds. This is a stunning local that features volcanic lahars, or mudflows, that formed 54-40 million years ago in a lush semi-tropical rainforest environment. Tiny four-toed horses, huge rhino-like brontotheres, crocodilians, and meat-eating creodonts that once roamed ancient jungles are now found in the rocks of the Clarno Unit, as well as an incredibly diverse range of plant life. Leaves, fruits, nuts, seeds, and petrified wood from 173 species of trees, vines, shrubs, and other plants have been found here thus far. ONDA has partnered with the National Park Service, which manages this area, on many projects in the past – and if you haven’t gone hiking under the iconic Palisades found there, I highly recommend the trip.

Ok, what else…

Let’s go back to my conversation with Scott. 

How did he decide where the route would go…other than the obvious: avoid private land areas, and walk along the river until you get cliffed out and either have to go up, or go across. 

“All the way down from Cottonwood Canyon I tried to look for the best (or most interesting features) of each area. The routing changed a little bit when I put it together all in one hike because if you have hiked all the way from Cottonwood Canyon, you have been through the river bends and cliffs, so hiking along the river by Spring Basin doesn’t make sense. You may as well have the views and the transition into a more wooded area. I want the route to have a different character as you go,” he said. “I really want people to have a sense of transition into the Ochocos and Blue Mountains along the way.”

So just how did he piece it together? The route maker’s best friend these days is Cal Topo (as mentioned above). Scott would identify cool terrain on the topographic layer of the mapping software, then look at the satellite view to make sure there were no hidden cliffs that don’t show up in the spaces between contour lines or thick vegetation that would be a nightmare to hike through, then zoom out with the slope angle shading on and features would pop out: either features to visit, or features to avoid.

“I think what is there now constitutes the best route along the river, but I’ll probably add a few alternates in places,” he said. “On a personal level, I’m out there again and again because I like to explore –  inflate my packraft, float for a few miles, then explore a side canyon that I’ve never done before. There are so many side canyons and so many folds in the terrain that you can keep hiking out there and see something different each time. I have a lot more hiking I want to do out there, but as far as the Columbia Plateau Route goes, this is the best line.”

I did some quick math, and the breakdown of the route reveals 5% of the route is trail, 40% is road (primarily 2-track dirt roads with 4% on maintained roads), and the remaining 55% percent is cross-country hiking…up and down from the river and walking along the water. I don’t see that it will be navigationally challenging, but I’ll still use my smartphone and gps app to make helpful notes, blog each day, and take photos. I’ll also carry my InReach satellite beacon in case of emergencies…especially because I know there will be plenty of areas without cell phone reception.

“The ideal person for the route is someone who is an intermediate to advanced backpacker, is comfortable navigating and being alone, and is looking for something that is a little more of a Hayduke/ Escalante type of experience that is available to them in November through May…that is a time of year that people really struggle to find something to hike,” Scott explained. 

“One of the things I want to do is put together some section hike trips as well from some of the access points like Cottonwood Canyon, Thirtymile, Spring Basin, or Sutton Mountain. I think there are opportunities to make really good 2-3 night trips for those who don’t want to hike the whole route.

“Overall I want people to get a better handle on a part of Oregon that is not well-known.”

For me, I want to deepen my relationship to this place, and my favorite way to do that is to walk. Walk day after day at a pace where my brain can play and my body can thrive. I’m not going to be pushing 20-mile days (unless it feels really good!), instead, I’m going to do what I’ve really enjoyed doing on my hikes recently: hike a moderate distance, let my body make decisions, and bring plenty of reading, snacks, and curiosity to fill in the time that the135 miles will take to hike. 

I can’t wait!

This hike is also a fundraiser for the Trail Keepers of Oregon (TKO).

If you are so inclined, you can donate on my fundraising page. TKO works to enhance the Oregon hiking experience through stewardship, advocacy, outreach & education. Founded in 2007, TKO began as an all-volunteer effort to maintain and improve hiking trails throughout Oregon, and has since expanded to eleven staff members who lead and manage more than 3,000 volunteer Trailkeepers each year. In 2022, TKO volunteers dedicated more than 17,500 hours to stewarding Oregon’s trails.  

I have had TKO trip leaders on my Oregon Desert Trail maintenance trips over the years, and from first-hand experience, they are doing an incredible job training leaders, and managing trails all over the state. They also host the Oregon Trails Coalition non–profit (I’m now the incoming Chair for the organization!).

More coming soon on the Oregon Trails Coalition Signature Trails Report (lots of exciting things to share with you on this), and I also want to plug Scott’s upcoming talk, Ultralight in the High Desert, at the Mountain Shop in Portland on May 16.

There are so many wonderful things happening, and I haven’t even begun to download from the whirlwind of activity from the International Trails Summit last week!

So, stay tuned for blog posts from the Columbia Plateau Route coming soon. I hope you have some fun spring adventures planned as well.

If anyone has any reading/podcast/audiobook suggestions on the area/history/indigenous perspectives – please let me know!

Thru-hiking in a Big Snow Year

Some of you participated in the panel discussion a few weeks ago about Thru-hiking in a Big Snow Year, and since then Treeline Review published a very detailed blog post written by another panelist, Giggles. I’d highly recommend checking it out!

The video of our chat was recorded and you can watch it here:

Thanks to Treeline Review for providing this critical information!

If you haven’t visited their website before, they offer very detailed reviews on some of the products we all use in the backcountry…their latest is on portable solar chargers…something I have not had success with over the years, but I’m closely following the topic as I’d love to carry an efficient solar charger instead of the very heavy power banks I have been using over the last decade.

Podcasting it up

I’ve had the good fortune to guest on a few podcasts recently about my new business.

The Trail Show

I always love chatting with the folks over at The Trail Show. Skip to 20:30 for my interview, but don’t miss the interview right after with Salty on her amazing Grand Canyon Traverse!


I enjoy my conversations with Lori at the Hike podcast. I’ve been on in the past to talk about the Oregon Desert Trail and Blue Mountains Trail, and this time we covered my new business.

I have more podcasts booked this year, so stay tuned!

I’m launched

Well, the American Trails webinar last week went really well! I had an audience from all over the world and was thrilled to learn about all the interest out there from trail organizations and conservation groups about engaging the recreation community in conservation issues.

But first! Have you filled out my hiker survey yet?

  • Have you hiked a trail and wished the planning was easier?
  • Would a different or improved resource have helped you on the trail?
  • Are you concerned about environmental issues affecting your trail experience?
  • What will the future of thru-hiking look like with accelerated climate change?

*A long-distance hiker doesn’t need to have completed a thru-hike. You are the best person to determine if you are a long-distance hiker. Some folks hike 30 miles in a day; others hike 30 miles in 3-5 days. If you spend more than 2 nights on trail, no matter your daily mileage, I’d love to hear from you.

And please enjoy the video from my presentation last week:

Pioneering Path for Long-Distance Trail Blazer

How wonderful to see this article come out in our local business paper!

I worked for Cascade Publications (home to Cascade Business News and Cascade Arts & Entertainment) for over four years, before the last 7+ years of the Oregon Desert Trail, before my hike of the Continental Divide Trail.

I was the A&E Editor and can attribute a lot of my design and writing chops to designing a 40-page art magazine once a month for years, and writing twice as many feature stories for both publications during that time. A hard publishing deadline is one of the best teachers!

I feel so lucky to be doing this work, and I couldn’t have gotten here without years of sweat, tears (yes, those deadlines sometimes provoked tears!), and just showing up day after day. There are so many metaphors I could insert here about how hiking is like life…blah blah blah, but it’s all true.

One step at a time.

Don’t get lazy.

How you live your days is how you live your life. – Annie Dillard

Activating the Trail Community in Conservation Issues

This Thursday I will be giving a free online presentation for American Trails, Activating the Trail Community in Conservation Issues.

I will explore ways to empower and activate trail users on your local trails.

Register and join me at 10am (Pacific Time)

The talk will be recorded, so if you are interested but can’t attend, you can still register and receive a recording following the event.

Hope to see some of you there!

Next Steps in my Quest to become Professional Hikertrash

I’ve been quiet on the blog since coming home from the Appalachian Trail last summer, but all has not been quiet, in fact, I’ve been dreaming and scheming…sometimes for hours every day. Why? I have figured out my next step in hiking-as-a-profession…I’m starting a long-distance trail consulting business!

This business idea is a natural evolution of what I’ve been thinking and doing for the past seven years (since starting work on the Oregon Desert Trail in 2015), but it goes deeper than that. I could say it’s a natural evolution of what I’ve been thinking about for over 20 years now.

Back in the late 90’s when I was navigating my way through a bachelor’s degree in communications and looking at my choice of major and minor (graphic design & writing), I was well suited to glide into the slick world of advertising. Through ad campaigns and persuasive TV commercials, I could have made my mark with clever visuals and turns of phrases, but this niggling desire to have my 40 hours a week count towards change in the world…positive change in the world…redirected my vision. Instead of moving up to Chicago to work for a fancy ad agency, I hitched my cart to international development in the Peace Corps.

There was a fair amount of flailing about in Burkina Faso, West Africa. I spent long hours, weeks, and months sweating in my village, wondering at my life choices thus far, and sinking into loneliness and cultural bewilderment…but I also learned to show up each day, chit-chat in a new language, and find meaning in the work. Then there were the books. I read hundreds of books during the two years I spent in the village of Zogore…one of the most pivotal being There are Mountains to Climb about a woman’s hike on the Appalachian Trail. 

That book helped direct my attention once again, and I set off on my attempted Appalachian Trail thru-hike on the first day of spring, 2002. Even when I reached Katadhin five months and two days later, I didn’t know how the long-trail experience would become the narrative thread to my career and life all these years later, but I definitely became comfortable with challenge, with being uncomfortable, and with trying new things. I was someone who wondered what was over the next mountain and enjoyed the steps it took to get me there. Curiosity was, and continues to be, my constant companion.

So I started thinking about change. How can I change the world for the better with my skills and interests? I narrowed down my focus to information design…specifically, I enrolled in grad school in London in the Design Futures program at Goldsmiths College. Design Futures was, and is, very idealistic. It asked us: How can we create a better world through design? Or better yet: How can we design a better world? It was the perfect next step for my thinking…and I had the fresh experience of half a year spent outside to marinate the ideas of broad cultural change…of systems design.

My dissertation focused on museum exhibits…before grad school, I had completed an internship at the Smithsonian in Washington DC where I played with the idea of information design within museum exhibits. I loved the idea that in an exhibit, a person could walk through a three-dimensional space and come out the other side having had an experience, perhaps one that would influence the way they see the world, or at the very least, present some new information or art that communicated something of importance…information design! But I took that idea a step further and posited that we needed to remove the museum exhibit from the museum, we needed to create experiences – that is where the true influence and learning will come from…an interactive, full-body, curated three-dimensional space with a theme. Then I called it the Eco-Interplay Ethic. Now I call it a long-distance trail.

In the years between grad school and starting to develop the Oregon Desert Trail (my real application of these ideas into trail form), I hiked many more miles, worked professionally on trails and as a graphic designer and writer, and continued to explore the intersection of hiking, extended time in nature, cultural change, and design.

Over the past few years I have hiked a series of trails and routes where I wanted more: I wanted maps to show exactly the features and information I needed, I wanted a data book that made it easy for me to plan the day’s mileage and overall flow of the hike, I wanted resources that would streamline my planning and hiking experience. So I created them. I had been creating trail resources for the Oregon Desert Trail for years now, refining and editing the materials so that hikers would have everything they needed to be successful on the 750-mile hike. But what the Oregon Desert Trail also offered, was an opportunity to embed environmental and public lands information into the hiking experience. The ODT was created to connect the recreation community to conservation issues along the route, I was designing my “museum exhibit.” 

When the Greater Hells Canyon Council started re-envisioning the Blue Mountains Trail and wanted to develop a similar concept to the Oregon Desert Trail, things started to align in my mind. Trails could be a more intentional path to engaging hikers with the issues affecting the trail…can long-distance hikers be the advocates that environmental and conservation organizations need? 


In this business, I will improve the hiking experience on long-distance trails through developing new/enhanced/better trail resources like maps, guidebooks, and digital tools. I will help trails with community, hiker, agency, and stakeholder development. I will create systems to better manage trail information updates, trail maintenance needs, and hiker expectations. Basically, I will be the creative problem solver for long-distance trail organizations and developers and go even further if my interests align with the trail organization. I will embed environmental and conservation information into the trail materials to activate the recreation community in stewarding and participating in the issues that affect that particular trail. And the real ulterior motive? Help hikers see they are connected to the world we hike through, that what affects the forests and rivers affects us too, and maybe, just maybe, we will make different decisions based on those connections.

And the really good news? ONDA and the Oregon Desert Trail is my first client…I will continue to manage the route and help hikers be successful out there.

Through this blog you have come along with me on many of my long-distance hikes over the years, and I hope you will come along with me in this new venture as well. I will explore this new direction in my professional life through this blog, and don’t worry, there will be many more morning coffee-induced blog posts coming! One of the best ways I will know what a trail needs is to hike it. 🙂

I am planning a fun online launch party on March 8. Please come if you are interested! As part of the launch, I am also hosting a business shower. This is the first (and probably only) time I will be asking for financial support from my community. One of the fun things about working as a volunteer and for non-profit organizations for much of my adult life is I don’t have a massive savings account…even $5 will offset the cost of my business phone number for a few weeks.

If you do want to come, please shoot me an email…I have some important updates that I’ll be sharing with folks via email before and after the event (including some party favors!) so please give me a heads up so you get the full experience. And I’m doing everything I can to make it an enjoyable experience.

Thank you for sticking with me on this blog through the many challenges and opportunities long-distance hiking has put in my path. There is so much more to come. 

Off Trail Podcast

I recorded a new conversation recently with Off Trail Podcast (scroll to the bottom to get to the recording).

The show’s host, Ryan “Constantine” Bunting is quite an impressive dude. He started hiking in 2016 on the Appalachian Trail, and went on to hike the PCT in 2017 and the CDT in 2018…since then has gone on to hike all 11 National Scenic Trails, culminating with a speed record on the 4,830 mile North Country Trail in 2021 and has hiked over 22,000 miles and counting.

I like how he described our conversation:

We begin the show with what it means to identify as a thru-hiker. Renee has been involved in the outdoor, backpacking, thru-hiking world for 20+ years now, and we dive into what it means to her to be a thru-hiker, and whether or not that definition has changed over the years.

We dive deeper into time itself and as she describes it, “Deep Time.” Is there a finite amount of time needed to reach this type of time and what are the conditions that it is found? Along the way we go through her time in the outdoors and her progression into who she has become today. We start with her initial thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail back in 2002, and how the fire that began there was never quenched. Travelling forward through a masters degree to her next thru-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2006, we chat the thoughts when she reached the point many in the outdoors eventually reach, the question of, “How can I make hiking my life.”

We discuss the growth from a hiker into making hiking your life. We chat Wilderness First Responder courses, meeting other hikers involved in the industry, and following your curiosity.

We go into all things Blue Mountains Trail and Oregon Desert Trail. The trail systems are located in the state of Oregon, which Renee has an important role in the decisions of trail routing, conservation, and trail awareness. We discuss the missions of both trails, and how one goes about bringing the thought of conservation to the forefront of each hiker’s minds and most importantly actions. Is it the maps, the trail association, the individual’s responsibility, the preparation, the information along the way, what are the ways and how does it become a reality? We discuss what a trail means when sometimes the very point of a “trail” is to not become a “trail.”

We chat a pair of scissors and $5 per cut of hair “fundraising,” the immensity of time in 6 weeks to build 30′ of trail, and the beauty of alternates.

Listen today!