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.


Related Stories

Mule packer Steve Morris descends a mountainside in the Eagle Cap Wilderness.

Take A Virtual Road Trip To Eastern Oregon

From granite peaks to high desert, "Oregon Field Guide" takes you to some of Eastern Oregon's most stunning places with stories about wild horses, desert gliding, white-water rafting and more.

An African Hawk Eagle, part of the High Desert Museum's raptor collection.

Bend Museum Shows Off the Wild Side of Its Captive Birds

Biologist Jim Dawson wants birds to be birds, not trained performers at the High Desert Museum in Bend. No three-ring bird show there. Instead, he puts microchipped birds in the forest where they can show people what they do--naturally.