Wonders by Day and Night

John Waller   Website

Author: Scott Bowler  |  Published: January 14, 2022  |  Category: Where-to   

A  month-by-month guide to appreciating Oregon’s high desert

As the tenth largest state in the union, Oregon offers plenty of ground to cover and more than half of this large state falls is considered high desert. You could spend ages exploring Oregon’s vast dry side and still not take it all in.  This set of monthly tips will introduce you to, or remind you of, some of the great natural marvels to be found in the public lands of the high desert, as well as the skies above them.

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Central Oregon’s “Backyard Wilderness”

Central Oregon’s “Backyard Wilderness”

Our quest to protect the Oregon Badlands

Located just 15 miles east of Bend, Oregon Badlands is a 30,000-acre wilderness area filled with fascinating lava flows and ancient juniper trees Arriving in the Badlands, so named for its rugged and harsh terrain, can feel like stepping

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South Fork Crooked River and Birds

South Fork Crooked River and Birds

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Sarah Graham, Sage Sustainers Member

Sarah Graham, Sage Sustainers Member

“I contribute to ONDA monthly because it adds up to a larger annual gift than what I’d be able to comfortably afford if I were to do a simple one-time donation annually. I’m able to give more to ONDA this way and have greater impact which is important to me, and my dog Polly.”

JANUARY 

By Day:  Make yourself some hot coffee, tea or cocoa and head out for a wintertime hike on the Dry River Canyon Trail in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness. In spring and summer, this trail is closed to protect nesting falcons, which makes a winter visit a good bet to enjoy the unusual geology and solitude this trail offers. For another idea, make your way through the snow-dusted sagebrush steppe to pay a visit to Crystal Crane Summer Lake Hot Springs, near Burns. This privately-managed hot spring facility is available for day use. 

By Night: With night falling early, perhaps you’ll want to stick around your hot spring (Crystal Crane also offers overnight accommodation options) and enjoy the stars from your perch in these soothing waters. Look for the Winter Hexagon, a collection of some of the brightest stars in the winter constellations, all surrounding Betelgeuse, the red giant star that makes up the right shoulder of Orion, going clockwise from Rigel/Orion, Sirius/Camus Major, Procyon/Camus Minor, Pollux and Castor/Gemini, Capella/Auriga, Aldebaran/Taurus. 

Succor Creek State Natural Area

Sean Bagshaw   Website

FEBRUARY 

By Day: Strap on some cross country skis or snowshoes, or hike in low snow areas, and go exploring in the Owyhee Canyonlands, an area that is often too hot to enjoy come midsummer. Succor Creek State Natural Area, east of Lake Owyhee, can be a good bet for winter exploring—as the road is generally pretty good due to local usage. Inquiring locally about road conditions (with BLM office in Vale, or with Friends of the Owyhee) may yield other ideas and suggestions. And, remember, for ANY eastern adventure in winter, preparation is key. Have proper winter tires, an air compressor, a patch kit, a good shovel, et cetera!

By Night: Orion is high in the sky now for perfect viewing. Pull out your binoculars and, looking near Orion’s belt/sword, you might be able to see the Orion Nebula, which will look like a fuzzy greenish cloudy spot.  

MARCH 

By Day: As waterways warm up, waterfowl really start massing and courtship begins. Especially interesting now thru early April are the grebes and the mergansers, especially at large lakes and marshes with open water in Klamath, Harney, Goose Lake, and Warner basins.

By Night: Look for Leo, in the eastern sky, and it’s brightest star, Regulus—which is actually not “a” star at all, but two pairs of stars orbiting near one another.

Cottonwood Canyon State Park

Mark Darnell

APRIL 

By Day: Make a trek to the John Day River Basin to catch early season wildflowers, such as the bright yellow blooms of arrowleaf balsamroot and the spectacular magenta flowered hedgehog cactus which can be seen in the Spring Basin Wilderness, on Sutton Mountain and throughout the basin. Cottonwood Canyon State Park, a special place year-round, is particularly pleasant to hike and bird-watch in April. 

By Night: April is a great time to “set your bearings” with the constellation Ursa Major the Big Dipper, because the two stars at the edge of the “cup” point to the North Star, or Polaris, which in turn forms the end of the handle of Ursa Minor the Little Dipper. While you’re looking at the dippers, use the arc of the handle of Ursa Major to point you over to Arcturus.

MAY

By Day: The rivers that flow into Harney Lake Basin, including the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge at the base of Steens Mountain, make the area a truly fantastic hotspot to go birding. Loads of waterfowl and many varieties of Passerines make migration stopovers here, and many more will stay and nest. There are few places in the country that offer as diverse birding as here, and May is peak time. Likewise visit the Warner Wetlands, below Hart Mountain, to see loads of waterfowl, or explore other of the large lake basins.

By Night: Look up into a fully dark night sky now to enjoy the inside view of our home galaxy, the Milky Way. Did you know that the name Milky Way comes from a Greek myth about the goddess Hera, who sprayed milk across the sky? 

JUNE 

By Day: Enjoy the long hours of daylight this month, leading up the summer solstice on June 21, by taking a hike along the Oregon Desert Trail route. Here are 21 day hikes from which to choose. 

By Night: June skies bring us good viewing into our home galaxy’s center. Look for Scorpius, in the southern sky, with its bright star Antares at the heart. 

Steens Mountain Wilderness

BLM Oregon-Washington

JULY 

By Day: By midsummer, wildflowers are blanketing the ground on Steens Mountain. Visit Steens this month to enjoy colorful fields of blooms. You’ll see brassy yellow Oregon sunshine and balsamroot, purple-blue lupine, pale pink phlox and many more.

By Night: Next to Scorpius to the east, Sagittarius makes for good viewing this month, and, like Scorpius, it too contains many star clusters and other objects that binoculars can facilitate viewing. Interestingly, the center of our home galaxy lies just about exactly between these two constellations. Look, too, for the globular star cluster in the center of Hercules, especially with good optics.

AUGUST

By Day: Oh yeah, it’s hot. What a perfect time to head out across Christmas Valley and go visit Crack in the Ground, or explore some of the lava tubes and ice caves around the Newberry Mountain complex. These geological wonders hold dense, cold air all year long and make a great spot to explore on the hottest days.

By Night: The Perseid meteor shower happens this month, and while the peak is usually August 12, you can often see them for a week or so before and after —a nd while the best viewing is in the middle of the night, of course, start looking up as soon as it’s dark.

SEPTEMBER 

By Day: Visit the marshlands of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in September when fall migration is at its peak to experience a profusion of birds that depend on this extraordinary desert ecosystem. At this time of year, you may be lucky enough to see any of the most famous refuge visitors, including sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, white-faced ibis, American white pelicans, great and snowy egrets, great horned owls, eared grebes, and a wide variety of warblers. And, if it’s golden aspen groves you desire, plan a late September trip to Steens Mountain

By Night: It’s a great time to view the three bright starts of the Summer Triangle: Vega, in Lyra the Harp, Deneb, in Cygnus the Swan, and Altair, in Aquila the Eagle. Around the “square” in the center of Pegasus, from left to right, one can see three other cool dark-sky objects: the Persius double star cluster, the Andromeda galaxy, and the M15 globular cluster. Staying at the Malheur Field Station will give you great access to both birds and stars.  

Hart Mountain

Mark Darnell   Website

OCTOBER

By Day: The chartreuse, golden, and rust-red hues of changing aspen are the scene-stealers this month. And, after their leaves have fallen, the bare branches of these deciduous trees and others provide great structural patterns, standing out against the first snows. You’ll find stellar aspen groves, and some delightful hot springs, at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge

By Night: The Orionid meteor shower — debris from Comet Halley — are visible most of October into early November, peaking about the 24th. If it’s really dark and you have good optics, you might be able to find our closest neighboring galaxy: Andromeda, located to the right of Cassiopeia.

NOVEMBER

By Day: It’s once again time to get outside into the snow and look for tracks, which provide a window into wildlife behavior we often won’t otherwise see. Fresh snowfalls this month, or really any time in the winter, are the best times to look for tracks of mammals and birds as they explore and forage for food. The Summer Lake Wildlife Area can be an amazing spot; when it’s cool enough, you can wander quite far along the eastern edge of the playa. 

By Night:  Booking a cabin or a tent site at Summer Lake Hot Springs Resort will give you access to the playa and a great perch from which to watch the sky above. Looking east in the night sky, you can see The Pleiades, a little star cluster in Taurus, visible now into March. They’ve been noted by virtually every culture on Earth, and have often been used as a vision test. If you can see all seven individual stars, you’d make a great hunter (and you’ve found really dark skies!)

DECEMBER

By Day: On December 21, we experience the winter solstice — meaning that the sun appears to be standing still. While daylight is in short supply, head to the Flatiron Rock Trail in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness. The trails here isn’t too long, the snow is generally not too deep, and you can admire interesting rock formations and  the ancient juniper trees which will likely be visited by loads of birds that have come for the juniper berries. 

By Night: It’s time to mark the start of winter with the arrival in the night sky of Orion, and it’s red giant Betelgeuse, from the Arabic Yad al-Jawaza, meaning “shoulder of the mighty one.” Last year, Betelgeuse dimmed significantly, fueling speculation that it was collapsing on the way to becoming a supernova. Although astronomers now think that interstellar gas clouds caused the dimming, it’s still the best candidate for that massive explosion. Keep looking up.