Oregon’s High Desert
Amid an Outbreak

Renee Patrick

The sun on our faces, the scent of sagebrush carried by a breeze, a distant call of raptors flying overhead, and the crunch of bare earth below our feet.

We feel the pull of Oregon’s wilder side each and every day. And we know that the high desert is calling to many now.

If you were thinking about doing the social distancing that has been mandated by the outbreak of COVID-19 in Oregon’s high desert, we urge you to be especially thoughtful about the broader impacts of your decisions on local communities. The wide-open spaces of Oregon’s high desert could provide a natural place to practice the social distancing, and, at this time, most Oregon parks and trails remain open with safe, responsible recreation encouraged, but it is essential to consider the impact you could have by traveling through rural communities and plan carefully to avoid exposing others to the virus.


What defines Oregon’s high desert?

What defines Oregon’s high desert?

Bounded by the Cascade Mountains to the west and the Blue Mountains to the north, Oregon’s high desert covers approximately 24,000 square miles. Annual rainfall in the high desert varies from 5 to 14 inches. The average elevation is 4,000 feet; at 9,733 feet, the summit of Steens Mountain is the highest point in Oregon’s high desert. The terrain of the high desert was mostly formed by a series of lava flows that occurred between 30 and 10 million years ago.

Sources: The Oregon Encyclopedia; Wikipedia  


Helen Harbin, ONDA Board Member

Helen Harbin, ONDA Board Member

“I connect with Oregon’s high desert through my feet, my eyes, my sense of smell, and all the things I hear. Getting out there is a whole body experience.” Supporting ONDA, Helen says, not only connects her with wild landscapes, but is also a good investment. “I felt like if I gave them $20, they might squeeze $23 out of it.”


Stewardship Fence Building Timelapse

Stewardship Fence Building Timelapse

David Eddleston

Mark Darnell

Jim Davis   Website

Greg Burke   Website

Normally, the financial benefits that travelers from larger urban centers bring are welcomed in the gateway communities that serve as re-supply points for gas, food and other provisions. Today, there’s the risk that travelers could bring an unwelcome visitor if they unknowingly carry COVID-19 into rural communities. Please be mindful that rural communities might have less access to healthcare or extra supplies to restock their local stores or home storage shelves.

We feel strongly that spending time outside is positive for everyone’s physical and mental wellness, and we want to encourage everyone to channel their desires to be outside toward the safest possible activities. You might choose to go for a walk in your nearest open space or natural area, or relish your yard. Pick your outdoor partners wisely and do not carpool.

Being prudent may mean postponing any trip to eastern Oregon until the worst of this current health care crisis passes. In that case, this is a great time to flip through your Wild Desert Calendar, listen to our online collection of desert soundscapes, read inspirational stories about our desert conservation community and peruse our online Visitor’s Guides to plan for future excursions once our community health risks are lower.

If you do head out, take extra care to bring your own food and supplies, pack out your waste, and continue to be vigilant about your personal care, especially handwashing. Traveling to Oregon’s high desert always demands a level of self-sufficiency, but never more so than now. Just as you would check the weather or road conditions before heading out, add the CDC updates and Oregon Health Authority updates to the resources you are checking.

At Oregon Natural Desert Association, we are taking recommendations from health care professionals seriously and prioritizing the health and safety of our entire community. Keep up that vigorous hand-washing and check in with your friends, family and neighbors to see what assistance you can provide. Thank you for standing with our desert conservation community as we prioritize the health of each and every person.