The Oregon Desert Trail is just that, complete with canyons and rattlesnakes
I felt every drop of sweat make its way down my face, neck and back as I stared down the rattlesnake, its beady eyes locked with mine, daring me to move. At this point, a few miles into my solo-backpacking trip through Oregon’s remote desert, I considered turning around and heading the several miles back to my car. After I caught my breath, I shook off the idea. Testing myself, I thought, is exactly what I signed up for.
Though Oregon is often depicted in terms of Douglas firfilled forests, the truth is that half the state is a water-starved desert. The Oregon Desert Trail, a 750-mile, W-shaped path, weaves through the state’s most arid landscape. The trail shows off some of the state’s unsung attractions, including the Oregon Badlands, Lost Forest, Owyhee Canyonlands and picturesque Steens Mountain, a single mountain that stretches more than 9,000 feet high and 50 miles north to south.
The trail is unusual in many ways. A big one: It isn’t really a trail. Waypoints on a map will help guide you, but the route isn’t marked. One-third of the route is cross-country, so a GPS device and compass skills are necessary; finding your own way gives the journey a choose-yourown adventure quality.
Because I’m not a thru-hiker, I settled on a 22-mile loop that traversed one of the canyons that makes up the Owyhee Canyonlands, an area affectionately called “Oregon’s Grand Can- yon.” Tucked in the southeast corner of the state, the undeveloped area is also one of the largest unprotected areas in the American West.
I spent the night before my hike at Birch Creek Historic Ranch. Homesteaded around 1900, the property along the Owyhee River is now a popular spot for rafters. The next day, I left the ranch on foot and followed an old jeep road to an open field before reconnecting with the river. The scenery was so breathtaking that more than once I stopped abruptly and said “wow,” even though no one was around to hear it. Craggy red rocks jutted out from the sloped canyon wall, creating magnificent spires and rock formations that looked like a petrified crash of a wave.
After only a few hours of hiking, though, I felt the desert’s ruthless effects. It was, in a word, grueling. The first 6 miles, which on a path would normally take me about three hours, took eight. With the glaring sun beating down on me, rattlesnakes restarting my heart and extra time and energy spent calculating my next step, I was exhausted by the end of the day. I was also out of water. In practice, instead of three liters a day, I’d gone through three liters in half a day.
After setting up my tent along a rare bit of flat, sandy ground, I decided to turn my three-day trip into an overnight out-and-back. I was learning an important lesson of the desert: Water is king.
The experience left me with a new appreciation for this part of the state and for hiking without the ease and comfort of a trail. Doing just a small portion of the Oregon Desert Trail reminded me of nature’s riotous side and challenged me in the best way. It pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to trudge a path full of lurking rattlesnakes and stunning star-filled skies that was uniquely mine.
Remnants of Morrison Ranch, homesteaded around 1900, still stand near where the author started her journey at Birch Creek Historic Ranch on a bend of the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon.
The Pillars of Rome are a rock formation near the community of Rome, Oregon.