Discover the Desert in a Day

Author: Renee Patrick  |  Published: March 29, 2024  | Category: Where-To

This article originally appeared in The Bulletin on March 22, 2024.


These short hikes will give you a taste of the desert wonders found along Oregon Natural Desert Association’s 750-mile Oregon Desert Trail

Let’s face it: Backpacking the challenging and often remote Oregon Desert Trail in southeastern Oregon may not make your list of things to do this year, or ever. The trail is an ambitious, 750-mile route that stitches together existing hiking trails, old Jeep tracks and historic wagon roads on public lands and rights-of-way stretched across the entirety of Oregon’s High Desert.

View from the Fred Riddle Trail overlook. ONDA volunteers worked to reestablish a segment of this trail found on the edge of Little Blitzen Gorge. Photo: Renee Patrick

Aside from the time it takes to hike the entire distance or embark on a multi-day trip, the remoteness of much of the Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) paired with the arid climate of the region causes even the most intrepid hiker to plan carefully before committing to a major trek. In fact, while hundreds of day hikers annually enjoy sections of the ODT, only about around 10 thru-hikers complete the entire route per year.

Fortunately, those who embark on desert hikes of any distance or duration are richly rewarded. Oregon Natural Desert Association developed the ODT to showcase the most spectacular natural areas of southeastern Oregon, connecting these stunning spots with a navigable path that immerses hikers in the diverse public lands ONDA has been protecting and restoring since the 1980s.

To accommodate day trippers and backpackers alike, the ODT allows people of varying interests and abilities to get a taste of Oregon’s sagebrush sea on one of the numerous day hikes along the route. Try out one of our six suggestions for a hearty, single day adventure in Oregon’s High Desert.

Central Oregon backcountry

Oregon Badlands Wilderness (nine miles one way): One of only three wilderness areas in the High Desert, the Badlands contains 30,000 acres of fascinating lava flows, some of the oldest trees in Oregon, bright displays of desert wildflowers and castle-like rock formations. Try out the first nine miles of the Oregon Desert Trail from the Tumulus Trailhead to Flatiron Rock Trailhead; arrange for a shuttle to hike the full traverse or do an out-and-back from either trailhead.

Crack in the Ground (two miles one way): Crack-in-the-Ground is an ancient volcanic fissure over two miles long and up to 70 feet deep. An established 2-mile trail along the fissure’s bottom offers a unique hike that is also part of the ODT. From Christmas Valley, head east on the Christmas Valley Highway for approximately one mile. Turn north (left) onto Crack-in-the-Ground Road and continue for about seven miles, being sure to turn left onto Lava Craters Road, following signs to Crack-in-the-Ground and a parking area with facilities.

Crack in the Ground is a literal hidden gem of a hike. Photo: Renee Patrick

 

Diablo Rim (5.5 miles one way): Diablo Rim is a large, heavily faulted uplift on the east side of Summer Lake. The rim is segmented into many narrow longitudinal sections with a number of distinctive highpoints. Access Diablo Peak from the town of Summer Lake: turn onto Thousand Springs Lane just north of the rest area in town. Follow this road about 6miles to a fork in the road and turn right (south). Drive another 1.2 miles and park before a slight rise in the road, and before reaching the Thousand Springs Ranch. Head cross country towards Cat Camp Draw and follow that up to Diablo Peak.

Steens Mountain and the Greater Hart-Sheldon

Steens Mountain Wilderness; Fred Riddle Trail (2.75 miles one way): Oregon Natural Desert Association volunteers worked hard to reestablish a segment of this trail found on the western edge of the Little Blitzen Gorge. Enjoy occasional shade from the stately juniper trees that line the trail as you make your way to an incredible view into the gorge and a log bench volunteers maneuvered into place for an ideal lunch break. Access the trail from South Steens Campground; after crossing the Little Blitzen River, turn left and follow the trail up a series of switchbacks to the viewpoint.

Steens Mountain Wilderness; Wildhorse Lake (1.25 miles one way): Wildhorse Lake fills the bottom of a deep cirque with high surrounding walls on three sides, leaving open one side for an incredible view of the horizon beyond. This treeless bowl is streaked with tiny creeks and even tinier rivulets that flow only from snowmelt or seasonal rainfall. You begin by heading downhill from the back of the Steens Mountain Summit parking area through a field of lava rock. As the trail descends toward the lake, it becomes steep and loose in places, so be sure to proceed carefully. Access the parking area from the Steens Loop Road, about 25 miles from Page Springs Campground.

Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge; DeGarmo Canyon (1.5 miles one way): From the base of Hart Mountain, you can access this beautiful canyon complete with wildflowers, wildlife and waterfalls. The hike begins by entering a narrow slot canyon with a stream crossing about 50 yards upstream of the first small waterfall you encounter. From Plush, take County Highway 3-12 (Hart Mountain Road) north toward the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge for about 10 miles. Turn right (east) onto a small dirt road just south of the DeGarmo Creek crossing. Follow the road for about .5 miles, keeping right at the .2-mile mark and left at the .3-mile mark until you reach a small parking area near DeGarmo Creek. If you do not have a high clearance vehicle, you can park along the highway and walk the extra .5 miles.

The DeGarmo Canyon Hike is stunning in the winter. Photo: Renee Patrick

 

ONDA aims for the ODT to introduce people to Oregon’s desert wonders and that these experiences will inspire them to protect and restore the essential lands, waters and wildlife of the region for generations to come. Use our trove of resources to plan your trip — and please let ONDA know what you enjoyed about your time on the ODT and in Oregon’s remarkable desert. And please remember to always travel safely and responsibly.

 

—Renee Patrick is the Oregon Desert Trail Adviser at Oregon Natural Desert Association. She was part of the team responsible for establishing this trail showcasing the wonders, and conservation opportunities, of Oregon’s high desert. 

 

voices

John Cunningham, ONDA member and volunteer

John Cunningham, ONDA member and volunteer

Restoration is hard slow work. It takes hold, or it doesn’t, in fits and starts. The immensity of the need can be discouraging, but we must carry on. I am so thankful ONDA carries on.

listen

Great Basin Spadefoot Toads – a sleepy chorus

Great Basin Spadefoot Toads – a sleepy chorus

voices

Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva, ODT thru-hiker 2017

Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva, ODT thru-hiker 2017

“To me, it’s a thru-hike in an isolated place that promotes a conversation in land management, ethics and usage. Hiking across a vast and remote landscape and having a random and chance encounter with cowboys and hunters to discuss how ‘all of us’ should treat the land, how we all have a responsibility, no matter our political leanings, really showed me the pulse of the people in rural areas, especially here out west.”