Science & Environment

Adventure hiking on the Oregon Desert Trail

By Ed Jahn (OPB)
May 11, 2021 12 p.m.

There is an Oregon; let’s call it the “easy” Oregon, dripping in Instagrammy moss and waterfalls and shaded by a towering, RV-sheltering spruce at your favorite booked-out-all-summer Oregon State Park campground.

Then there is Oregon’s parched, foot-blistering and sun-raked opposite.


Deciding which Oregon to seek out for a hike is perhaps a test of how weary you are of congested, high-country parking lots, parties in our hot springs and the travails of navigating I-5 level trail jams on any hike in the Columbia River Gorge. Maybe sharing the path with a thousand selfie-snapping friends suits you.

Or maybe, you’re ready for the Oregon Desert Trail.

Here, you will welcome suffering. You will embrace the angst of trudging for miles, thirsty and red-rashed by prickly pear, hoping your pre-staged cache of water will still be there when you finish a 20-mile day of stomping, alone, through the knee-high sage of Christmas Valley or over the stark, bony rocks of the Pueblo Mountains. Sure, you can go the easy route by exploring a few day hike sections. But the real you wants to do the whole, 750-mile trail while singing loudly, bothering no one, on a months-long journey that sees 10-degree lows and 100-degree highs in equal measure. You’ll do it because you seek the thrill of campsites that do not cost $33 dollars a night and require reservations booked months in advance. Here, you camp where you can. By the cow patties and under the almost-shade of a 9-foot juniper. At the end of each day, you will welcome the cold stare of a million stars that seem somehow new, because, in your workaday world, the stars have been scared away by a ceaseless blue-and-white dome of urban light.

Oh, and you will get blisters. And you will truly be on your own. Unlike the well-trodden Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail, the Oregon Desert Trail is best described as a “make your own adventure” trek. The Oregon Natural Desert Association is kind enough to suggest some routes but read them with a chuckle because, on a landscape of this scale, the best-intentioned suggestions can be derailed by a hail storm, a blitz of lightning or a stubborn herd of cows blocking your path. Trail signs are limited, shelters are nonexistent, and there will not be a highway of fellow travelers to point out the “you are here” arrow on a government billboard in the tumbleweeds.

Your trail will be hard. And beautiful. The reward will be a place of your own in the wild where you can fall asleep to the lullaby of coyotes, or perhaps even a wandering wolf.