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The Trail That's Not A Trail Through The Oregon Desert

Oregon's newest long-distance trail charts a rugged course through the heart of the desert.

Photo: Todd Sonflieth/OPB

Sage Clegg folded her body against a tower of basalt and turned the GoPro on herself. The shade was a small defense against the blistering heat in the depth of Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands.

“I’m definitely on edge today. Not only have I almost stepped on nine rattlesnakes, it’s also just really stressful travel,” Clegg said, tilting the camera down to her legs and revealing a field of flame-red prick marks rising in response to a brush with stinging nettle. “I really wish I wasn’t alone right now.”  

Clegg’s nearly 800-mile trek on the Oregon Desert Trail in 2013 took its toll, but by the end of that summer, she had become the first person to complete the entire route. Her pioneering effort put Oregon’s newest long-distance trail on the map. And yet, today, only a small handful of others have successfully managed to repeat her accomplishment.

Watch the full “Oregon Field Guide” story.

The Trail That’s Not A Trail  

The Oregon Desert Trail, or ODT, began as an effort put forward by the Oregon Natural Desert Association in 2010 to entice people to experience, or simply acknowledge, the vast public lands and striking features of Oregon’s desert outback. On paper, the ODT starts near Bend and winds its way southeast in a vague “W” shape as it links hidden jewels like Crack In The Ground, the Owyhee Canyonlands and Steens Mountain with outposts like Christmas Valley, Fields and Frenchglen.

But on the ground there is no one set path to follow. There are no trailheads, no route signs, no designated campsites. Travelers can follow roads, or paths, or set a compass and hike cross-country between points.

Unlike the Pacific Crest Trail, where a rutted path through the forest can feel like a hiker’s highway, the choose-your-own-adventure quality of the ODT is meant to encourage exploration.

Map of the Oregon Desert Trail.

Map of the Oregon Desert Trail.

MacGregor Campbell/OPB

“Your feet are not going to be walking on the same exact spot that my feet were walking on,” Clegg said. “On the Oregon Desert Trail you have the opportunity for it really to be your own hike.”  

Clegg came to the ODT with experience. She earned the triple crown of American hiking by completing the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail and Pacific Crest Trail in just 18 months. But as Clegg hiked and biked her way along the Oregon Desert Trail, she found the kind of gripping solitude that can be hard to find on other long-distance trails. In the labyrinth canyons of the Owyhee, Clegg went days without seeing another soul. “That loneliness just started to creep in for me out there in the Owyhee … I feel like I’m the only person in the world right now,” she said.  

Sage Clegg in the Owyhee Canyonlands.

Sage Clegg in the Owyhee Canyonlands.

Wahoo Films/Wahoo Films

Water Is King   

The Oregon Desert Trail runs through a region that receives mere fractions of an inch of rain each month of the summer. There is no glacial runoff here. Clegg kept track of water sources and landmarks to help the Oregon Natural Desert Association create maps and guides for future travelers. In some cases, there are stretches of more than 90 miles that don’t pass a natural water source.

ONDA encourages hikers to plan ahead and place caches of water in advance along waterless sections. They also warn that maps can be deceiving. Seasonal streams indicated on a map may not be running when hikers pass through. Water that does exist in areas with heavy grazing can be, at best, unappetizing. Clegg brought a water purifier, but after some mishaps on the trail she was forced to drink ruddy, algae-covered liquid from a cow tank.

“I mean heat is something I can deal with as long as I have water,” she said. “Getting lost is something I can deal with as long as I have water. Running out of food is something I can deal with as long as I have water. Water just kind of ruled my day.” 

Cow tank along the Oregon Desert Trail.

Cow tank along the Oregon Desert Trail.

Sage Clegg

What Basin And Range Feels Like  

Along the trail, Clegg endured snakes, blisters and thirst as well as snowstorms followed by long stretches of 100-degree heat.

Then there’s the terrain, which can be as brutal as any hike in the Cascades.

“The Oregon desert is not flat at all,” Clegg explained. “Basically, you walk up and over a big mountain range and then there’s the flat spaces between them.”

A total of seven mountain ranges stand between the start and finish of the Oregon Desert Trail. Trekkers also navigate the steepest volcanic canyon in North America in the Owyhee Canyonlands, a place Clegg likened to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mount Doom from “The Lord of the Rings.”

The Oregon Desert trail passes through the geologic wonderland of southeast Oregon.

The Oregon Desert trail passes through the geologic wonderland of southeast Oregon.

Wahoo Films

So why do it?

“I’m so in the moment and life feels so vibrant because it’s being threatened all the time,” Clegg said. “That makes me feel really alive and for some reason helps amplify everything else about that area.”  

Solitude Earned   

The Oregon Desert Trail passes through spectacular desert scenery in a state where wilderness icons such as the Mount Hood and Three Sisters areas often steal the show. As a crush of new arrivals pours into Oregon looking for the next adventure, the Oregon Desert Trail may entice, but it can’t be taken lightly.

Sage Clegg was the first person to hike the nearly 800-mile Oregon Desert Trail.

Sage Clegg was the first person to hike the nearly 800-mile Oregon Desert Trail.

Wahoo Films

Day hikers can tackle the trail in sections, and biking and skiing are also options. But for those planning to tackle the entire route as a thru-hike, the “trail that’s not a trail,” as Clegg refers to it, is like the guide who leads without holding your hand.

“You can get away with kind of cruddy planning in the Cascades and probably be fine or at least bump into another person,” Clegg warned. “It’s a necessity on the Oregon Desert Trail to be ready.”

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