science environment

Take A Virtual Road Trip To Eastern Oregon

By Aaron Scott (OPB)
April 18, 2020 1 p.m.

In the last few weeks, "Oregon Field Guide" has driven up the Cascades, down the coast, and around Southern Oregon to take you on a tour through some of our best stories. Because we're all stuck at home in this beautiful weather, and the least we can do is road trip from the couch.


So this week, we're heading east. Starting in the Wallowa Mountains, we're going to wander down eastern Oregon, from granite peaks to canyons to high desert, traveling by mule, raft, foot and glider.

Trek The Wallowa Mountains With Legendary Mule Packer

Wallowa Mountains

One of my favorite shoots in the past few years was of Steve Morris, a mule packer in the Wallowas. He brings all sorts of people deep into the largest wilderness in Oregon, the Eagle Cap.

The country is expansive, and the climb's intense. I'm not sure how much Steve liked me, as I begged him to stay for the great evening light in the high country — because he knew we had to ride down the dark. As I rode down the steep granite paths, I put my trust in my mule; she could see better than I could. Sparks flashed from her shoes scraping the rock, and I was struck by the power in doing things the way people have been doing for generations; and there is solitude in a string of animals, skillfully finding their way through the wilderness. — Michael Bendixen, camera/editor

Blue Mountains, Malheur National Forest

We'd come to the Blue Mountains in Eastern Oregon to find an invasive fungus. Scientists call it the honey mushroom or shoestring fungus. Most people call it the humongous fungus. It pokes little heads up all over the trees it's sucking the life out of. But most of it spreads on spindly filaments under the soil.

What’s really unfathomable is the fact that every little mushroom head for hundreds of acres is not just the same type of fungus: it is the same fungus. One single organism that covers over three square miles.

Equally impressive, this particular fungus is likely more than 2,000 years old! — Vince Patton, producer

Owyhee Canyon

Geology was a class I slept through. For most of my life, I thought rocks were boring. But then I went to the Owyhee River, a place where lava flows, landslides and the remnants of craters create a visual layer cake of Oregon volcanic history. Did you know that the same hot-spot that fuels Yellowstone’s geysers and hot spots once percolated under southeast Oregon? Think about that as you drift past towers of red Rhyolite, and shoot rapids shaped by old lava dams that failed.

Everything in view begs the question: what happened here? We didn't have all the answers, so on this trip, we brought along expert geologist, Dr. Elizabeth Safran to help tell the story. — Ed Jahn, producer

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge


The Malheur Wildlife Refuge is about 30 miles south of Burns, Oregon. The marshy refuge is surrounded by hundreds of square miles of dry sage brush and is a migratory rest stop for thousands of birds. I was there with Steve Amen about 30 years ago to film another story in the area. One evening, I dumped Steve at the motel in Burns and went out to film the sunset at Malheur and came back with this footage. I spent much of the time capturing all of the great sound there, too. — Todd Sonflieth, camera/editor

Alvord Desert

Oregon’s Alvord playa in the sparsely populated southeast corner of Oregon is the ultimate place to stretch your legs on a long road trip. Here is a vastness that is unlike anything else in the state. The playa, essentially a pan-flat dry lakebed about 12 miles by 7 miles wide, is like a giant blank canvas inviting creativity and wonder.

Some people test rocket propelled vehicles here. Some people make art. Some race landsailers. And others soar in gliders, riding the thermals fueled by heat rising from the desert floor. — Ed Jahn, producer

East Steens Road

To drive the East Steens Road north out of Fields, Oregon, is to feel like you are stuck in place, as if spinning your wheels in mud. The major features of the landscape — the Steens Mountain escarpment on the left, the endless sage desert on the right, loom with such vastness that the general picture out the car window seems to barely change, even as you drive, at speed, for 20 minutes. The land makes you feel small, vulnerable — a reminder to travelers coming from the cozy, sheltering forests of Western Oregon, in particular, that out here, you are exposed and on your own.

And when the road finally crests a rocky break many miles north of town, and the blank slate that is the Alvord Playa appears like an endless sandy mirage, that sense of insignificance is made complete.

And yet, there is another side to life in the Alvord. One that happens on the scale of inches, where life skitters among the sagebrush in fleeting glimpses. The horned lizards, whiptail lizards, ants and scorpions may go unnoticed by travelers whose gaze is drawn up and out, but this is home to one of the greatest concentrations of lizard species in the West. Look down, and you will find wonder here, too. — Ed Jahn, producer

Racing Mustangs

South Of  Steens Mountain

If you say “Hollywood,” most people think of glitz, glamour and movies. But in wild horse circles, “Hollywood” conjures visions of a herd of wild mustangs in southeastern Oregon south of  Steens Mountain.

This was not a phrase I expected to hear when reporting a documentary about whether there are too many wild horses to be sustained on public lands, but it turns out that this herd is one of the most visible herds in the country. Wild horse fans know they have a great chance of seeing and photographing mustangs at certain times of year.

The Hollywood Herd has grown so accustomed to people and their tripods they don't balk and flee. They virtually pose for the paparazzi. — Vince Patton, producer

The Trail That’s Not A Trail

Pueblo Mountains

Since the Oregon Desert Trail is 750 miles long, we decided to focus our filming on a small 30-mile slice of the route that winds through the Pueblo Mountains to capture the beauty and challenges of the trail. Our small crew met Renee Patrick, the Oregon Desert Trail coordinator, in Fields, Oregon, and drove a rugged "road" as far as our four-wheel drive could take us. Then we began our trek on foot with packs filled with gear.

What struck me most about this trip was the sheer magnitude of the landscape and the remoteness. We didn’t see a single person for three days – just mesmerizing vistas you could stare at for hours, accompanied by desert winds and a humbling sense of space.

I was awed by and grateful for Renee's navigation skills, as it all looked to me like a place to get really lost. Her passion for trail life was contagious, and the experience gave me a taste for why some are compelled to experience solitary and challenging treks like these. — Danika Sandoz, producer