One fateful night in 2010, Brent Fenty, then Oregon Natural Desert Association’s executive director, couldn’t sleep.
He lay awake, wrestling with a question: how do we introduce more people to the desert treasures he grew up exploring? For this avid outdoorsman and PCT thru-hiker, a trail that connected all the highlights of Oregon’s high desert might just be what the high desert explorers needed.
By connecting the remote and stunning regions in Oregon’s high desert like the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, the Steens Mountain, and the Owyhee Canyonlands with a trail, hikers could be immersed in the lands ONDA has been striving to protect for 30 years. Perhaps introducing more people to these amazing landscapes could help foster a sense of responsibility to protect, defend, and restore Oregon’s high desert for generations to come.
What arose as a wisp of an idea in 2010, soon became a dream for a new long-distance trail, and then that dream began to become reality in 2011. From 2011 to 2014, Oregon Desert Trail Coordinator Jeremy Fox kicked off the development by taking stock of the existing infrastructure that crossed the desert, using ONDA conservation successes and priorities across eastern Oregon as a guiding framework.
Several existing trail systems provided the backbone of the ODT including the Fremont National Recreation Trail, Steens Mountain Wilderness Trails, and Desert Trail. The trail took shape not as a straight line from one point of interest to another, but as a winding line through the scenic and remote landscapes of southeastern Oregon.
After thousands of hours of volunteer and staff work inventorying and ground-truthing the route, the Oregon Desert Trail emerged as an immersive desert experience that can be explored through cross-country travel, old roads, and existing trail.
2013: Sage Clegg became the first to complete the entire route, and through her weeks of hiking and biking across the high desert and detailed feedback, ONDA was able to further refine the trail and develop a map-set and guidebook.
2014: Trail materials were released to the public. Three hikers successfully completed the Oregon Desert Trail.
2015: One hiker completed the route using traditional navigation (map and compass only). ONDA hired a new Oregon Desert Trail Coordinator, Renee Patrick, who had just completed a successful Continental Divide Trail thru-hike. With over 10,000 miles hiked on long distance trails, Renee’s extensive outdoor experiences are helping her to further establish the Oregon Desert Trail as a premier desert backpacking experience.
2016: The number of completed thru-hikes doubled. Five new trail resources were released to the public, and ONDA built partnerships with community stakeholders and agency partners.
2017: ONDA built on previous successes by adding three more trail resources and revising all materials to include a guide to land designations and inventories along the route, along with suggested actions interested hikers can take to help conserve the high desert. More than 100 hikers experienced sections of the trail, 6 completed the route including the first two successful east-to-west thru-hikes, and 45 volunteers spent a combined 810 hours on trail-related projects.
2018: 10 hikers completed the entire route, including the inspiring UltraPedestrians who linked together the Oregon Desert Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Pacific Northwest Trail and Idaho Centennial Trail in a 2,600 mile loop they dubbed the UpNorth Loop. 78 volunteers spent a combined 1,628 hours on trail-related projects.
2019: ONDA released updated maps and guidebook to include multi-sport options along the route, a skills rating to qualify the difficulty of navigation, water availability and terrain per section, and improved driving directions to each section start and end. 7 hikers completed the entire route, and 71 volunteers spent a combined 1,653 hours on trail-related projects.
2020: Due to the global pandemic we discouraged hikers from traveling along the Oregon Desert Trail.
2021: Eager hikers hit the trail in the spring of 2021 with multiple hikers completing the entire route.
- Keep the route a route: The Oregon Desert Trail is a “virtual trail,” and completing the route in its entirety is a very challenging backcountry adventure. We believe there is a place for a remote route like this in the growing list of long distance backpacking experiences. Instead of building trail, we see the Oregon Desert Trail as an opportunity to teach hikers and other quiet recreationists how to responsibly travel through our eastern Oregon desert landscapes.
- Helping more hikers really get to know Oregon’s desert: To hike a section or more of the ODT, hikers need to be present and tuned into their surroundings in order to be successful. This level of attention provides an opportunity for hikers to understand the desert on a deeper level…and really know Oregon’s desert landscapes. We want to facilitate the hiking experience to provide a truly immersive adventure so that hikers/bikers/equestrians/boaters/skiers can learn about the geology, flora and fauna, Native American and homesteading history, and more about the present livelihoods and culture of eastern Oregon.
- Encourage the use of alternate routes: Alternates can help diversify impacts, especially on cross-country sections, and also give hikers a “choose your own adventure” type of experience. As long as hikers remain on public land, we encourage them to make the route their own, explore the mountains, valleys, canyons, and rivers in the desert, and let us know about them! As more people spend more time in eastern Oregon and make the route their own, we can continue to share data and water information in the form of trail alternates. We don’t need to connect to all the amazing places in the desert (sometimes they are best left a secret) but we can provide interesting route options for those looking to go off the beaten path.
- Connect hikers and other forms of quiet recreation to ONDA’s conservation work: Oregon Natural Desert Association’s mission is to protect, restore and defend Oregon’s desert areas, and hikers can help us in these efforts. We’ve developed a series of conservation actions hikers can take while on the route, and after traveling through our incredible high desert landscapes we hope folks will be inspired to join us in our work as a member or a volunteer on a future stewardship trip.