Linking desert jewels

Trail will showcase an often unseen Oregon

The sun sets over a desert butte near Willow Creek Hot Springs at the edge of the Trout Creek Mountains in southeast Oregon. The Oregon Desert Trail will link existing trails with cross-country travel across open terrain to connect a 750-mile corridor through public land. Enlarge photo

Terry Richard/The Oregonian

The sun sets over a desert butte near Willow Creek Hot Springs at the edge of the Trout Creek Mountains in southeast Oregon. The Oregon Desert Trail will link existing trails with cross-country travel across open terrain to connect a 750-mile corridor through public land.

TROUT CREEK MOUNTAINS, Ore. (AP)

Stars sparkle like jewels in the night sky over the Oregon desert, the vast southeastern landscape that makes up a quarter of the state.

Jewels are evident by day, too, from Hart Mountain’s rich wildlife habitat to the Owyhee River’s colorful canyons.

These special settings, rough on the edges but so rewarding for those who love them, soon may be connected by a trail.

And not just any trail.

The Oregon Desert Trail will be 750 miles long, a nonmotorized route for hikers, horseback riders and, in part, for cyclists. A mapped trail, with water holes, campsites and waypoints identified, will entice more visitors to learn about, to enjoy and to care for this expansive part of the state.

The trail’s route has been scouted the last two summers by staff and volunteers from the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association.

When the project comes to fruition, perhaps within a year or two, Oregon’s desert jewels will be linked by a continuous corridor on public land. An actual trail, like one in a forest, need not be built because the route will link existing tracks with cross-country travel across open terrain.

The trail will extend from near Bend to near Idaho, with a southward dip almost to the Nevada border.

The route is not designed to be easy. It will have long sections where the only water is what a hiker has cached in advance or gets from prearranged meetings along the way. Many miles will be lonely and forlorn, though rewarding for anyone strong enough and possessing the right skills to cover the miles at an appropriate time of year.

All that’s needed is the mapping.

Why would a place so remote, so far off well-traveled paths need a designated hiking corridor?

Some places along the Oregon Desert Trail will never be attractive to most human visitors. Those places will be hiked, biked or ridden on horseback by rare individuals or small groups bent on doing the entire route to fulfill a challenge.

Most visitors, however, will gravitate to the crown jewels the trail will connect, among them the Oregon Badlands Wilderness, Diablo Peak, Fremont National Forest, Steens Mountain, the Pueblo Mountains and the Trout Creek Mountains.

The proposed desert trail in Oregon is modeled after the 800-mile Hayduke Trail of Utah and Arizona, which connects North America’s string of desert jewels: Arches, Canyonlands, Capital Reef, Grand Staircase, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon and Zion.

Oregon’s trail won’t be in that league, but it will provide a better respite from 21st-century life than those national parks with their million-plus visitors.

The idea for the Oregon Desert Trail originated with Brent Fenty, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. He dispatched his team, supplemented by volunteers who join the association’s trips, to scout the route beginning last year.

The entire way was explored by the end of last month, leaving winter for mapping and writing a proposal to present to land managers. Formal approval is desired but not required because the route is on public land.

“This trail will thread a lot of amazing places together,” Fenty said, admitting that some of those places will always be a challenge to reach. “The basic philosophy is for people to get to know these places, to love them and to work to protect them.

“There is this treasure in Oregon’s backyard, but much of it is not protected for future generations.”

Much of the land the trail will cross has either no protected status or is classified as wilderness study areas. Congress has resolved appropriate uses on only a small part of Oregon’s southeast desert, Steens Mountain in 2000 and the Oregon Badlands in 2009. More than 5 million acres await resolution.

Remnants of burned sagebrush stretch as far as the eye can see, to the crest of the closest hills and across the distant plains. Wildfires were especially vicious this summer in remote southeast Oregon, scarring much of the route of the desert trail.

Nearly 1 million acres burned in southern Harney and Malheur counties.

A month after the flames subsided, a half-dozen hikers traveled to the Trout Creek Mountains, site of the 460,000-acre Holloway Fire in August, to scout two sections of the trail where it will enter and leave the remote mountains that spill across the Nevada border.

One member of the group has been an off-and-on lifelong resident of the Oregon desert, having recently retired as state field veterinarian for eastern Oregon.

“Fire out here is part of the natural system,” said Julie Weikel, who lives 25 miles south of Burns at the Narrows. “It’s just too bad so much had to go up at once.”

She said that walking through the desert is a lot easier now, with so much brush and woody debris burned to the roots by three major blazes.

“You’re going to see some magnificent sights out here the next couple of years,” she said. “With enough rain, the spring wildflowers will be incredible.”

New shoots of green were growing just weeks after the fire, even without rain, from willows, aspens and greasewood.

Fire is but one part of the desert experience, which includes solitude and quiet, sweet smells of sage after a rain, wildlife, daily cycles of the sun and sky, winds kicking up dust devils, night skies filled with stars.

And the hunt for water.

Members of the exploratory group had no trouble in that regard because they set up camp at Willow Creek Hot Springs, a small Bureau of Land Management campground that escaped the fire’s fury. The hot springs are a 450-mile drive from Portland, 30 miles from the nearest community of Fields and five miles from its closest neighbor, the landmark Whitehorse Ranch.

The hot springs’ twin warm and cool pools are the perfect soaking place to wash off dirt from a day in the desert.

One member of the team rose early one morning, walked a hundred yards from camp to the top of a small hill and peered down on five beavers in Willow Creek.

While driving to a hiking location, trip leader Jeremy Fox slowed to let a rattlesnake cross the dusty track. The 3-foot snake was going from the burned side of the road to the unburned side.

If ever there was a time to feel sympathy for a rattler, this was it, because the snake must have been hungry.

At the hiking destination, Fox explained to the team how and when to take digital photos, how to make and record global positioning data. The Oregon Natural Desert Association will use the results to map the trail and load waypoints onto a website to guide users to parking areas, hiking corridors, water holes and campsites.

“We don’t want to put someone in these places who is unprepared,” Fox said. “We have to make 100 percent sure our maps are accurate. We want trail users to safely experience the whole package, or at least as much as they want.”

And as anyone who has been out there knows, the Oregon desert has much to offer those who seek the experience.

Free-roaming horses are seen along the south loop road on Steens Mountain in Oregon on a section being mapped for the Oregon Desert Trail. Enlarge photo

Terry Richard/The Oregonian

Free-roaming horses are seen along the south loop road on Steens Mountain in Oregon on a section being mapped for the Oregon Desert Trail.

A rattlesnake moves across a bulldozed road along the route of the Oregon Desert Trail. Enlarge photo

Terry Richard/The Oregonian

A rattlesnake moves across a bulldozed road along the route of the Oregon Desert Trail.

An irrigated crop circle in the Alvord Desert can be seen in the distance as a mountain cliff in the foreground is lit by the evening sun in Oregon. Enlarge photo

Terry Richard/The Oregonian

An irrigated crop circle in the Alvord Desert can be seen in the distance as a mountain cliff in the foreground is lit by the evening sun in Oregon.

A scouting party from the Oregon Natural Desert Association works on determining a route for the Oregon Desert Trail in the Trout Creek Mountains of southeast Oregon. Enlarge photo

Terry Richard/The Oregonian

A scouting party from the Oregon Natural Desert Association works on determining a route for the Oregon Desert Trail in the Trout Creek Mountains of southeast Oregon.

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