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Planning A Dreamy Oregon Desert Trip?

Author: Lace Thornberg

September 06, 2018

Have you ever seen a gorgeous photo of a wild place and thought, “I want to go there … NOW”? Maybe you’re even daydreaming about the awesome scenes from southeastern Oregon on Outdoor Research’s Instagram this week. Hang on just a minute—you’re going to need a bit of know-how before you punch these destinations into Google Maps and hit the road. The key to having an amazing adventure in Oregon’s high desert is being prepared. The Owyhee is unforgiving and, at the same time, fragile. And many of the wonders of Oregon’s high desert lie well off the beaten track and the Owyhee Canyonlands, in particular, offer up some of the wildest terrain you’ll find in the Lower 48.

Exploring this remarkable region calls for an extra measure of planning before you strike out, a few unique precautions while you’re there, and good stewardship throughout your trip and when you’ve returned home. Here are a few hard-won tips from the Oregon Natural Desert Association to set you up for a successful, safe adventure.

Prepare to be self-sufficient.
One of the great perks of visiting the Owyhee Canyonlands is the solitude. But, not seeing anyone for miles or days also means there’s no one to help you out of a jam. Once you leave the blacktop you will not find any services or amenities. Be sure to top off your gas tank when leaving gateway communities like Jordan Valley and Rome, Oregon, keeping in mind that stores aren’t open 24-7 in these small towns.

Driving conditions in the Owyhee are challenging. Roads are often unmaintained, rocky and rutted. The main road into Leslie Gulch is one of the only roads you can travel on year round in the Owyhee. For most Owyhee adventures, you’ll need a high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle. Be particularly careful after rainfall. Even half an inch of precipitation makes the road surface extremely slippery. The Owyhee’s sticky ‘gumbo’ mud builds up in tire treads and makes road conditions similar to driving on ice – only you can also get stuck deep in the mud.

Each vehicle should contain a spare gas can, a full-size spare tire (no donuts!), towing straps/chains, a jack, some flat boards, Fix-a-Flat, a lug wrench, jumper cables and a five-gallon water jug, in addition to all of your drinking water which should be calculated at 3 liters a day per person.

In arid Eastern Oregon, your body may require more water than usual and sources can be many miles apart, so it’s best carry more water than you think you’ll need. Water filters are recommended, and chemical or UV water treatments can also be useful. If you’re hiking or backpacking for multiple days, you may want to treat particularly muddy water in multiple ways. Drink mixes offer the electrolytes your body needs absorb water and also help mask the not-so-sparkling flavor of some desert water.

Be aware of the lack of water, wide temperature swings and other hazards, including rattlesnakes. Hiking in the spring or fall, and early or late in the day, can help provide safer, more comfortable temperatures. Carrying abundant water will help you to navigate stretches that offer no reliable water. In addition to the Ten Essentials, a number of items will help hikers negotiate the unique high desert environment, such as tall gaiters and hiking poles, which keep nasty invasives like cheat grass out of your socks and provide additional protection from snakes and ticks.

Do your research—because conditions change.
The public lands in the Owyhee Canyonlands are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, so call the Vale BLM (541-473-3144), for the most current information on road conditions and fire restrictions. Your best bets are to pick up the Malheur River and Owyhee Country recreation maps and to check wildowyhee.org and onda.org for trip suggestions. It is critical to read the advice you find closely and pay attention to any notes on water scarcity or challenging terrain. 

Oh, and more thing: You might get a little patch of reception here and there if you have Verizon service, but don’t rely on your cell-phone for communication or navigation in any part of the Owyhee.

See ONDA’s Desert Travel Tips for more advice.

You’re going to need to break out your compass.
Many recreational opportunities in the Owyhee rely on cross-country travel, rather than well-defined trails or roads, so people who want to immerse themselves in the high desert need solid navigation skills. As Oregon Desert Trail Coordinator Renee Patrick notes, “When you can read a topo map and translate it to the features you are navigating through, a whole new world opens up.” Picking a point on a ridgeline and making for it is exciting and liberating, just be sure you can also find your way back to your car when you want to.

Treat cultural sites with respect.
Archaeologists have documented more than 500 cultural sites throughout the Owyhee. These sites are sacred. Treat them as such. Don’t take arrowheads. Enjoy the petroglyphs; don’t add to them or chip away from them. If you see any evidence of vandalism, let the Vale BLM know.

Cross fences with caution.
You may encounter fences while hiking the Oregon Desert Trail and elsewhere in the Owyhee, and that doesn’t mean you’ve left public land. Many high desert landscapes are also used for grazing and ranching and these fences keep cattle where they belong. If you encounter gates, leave them as you find them.

Share your love by not geotagging.
These are some of the most rugged and remote public lands in the American West, but they’re also some of the most vulnerable, and it’s up to those who have come to know and love the Owyhee to speak up for its protection. Sharing photos and videos from your trip via social media is a great way to intrigue and educate more people about this unique area – but in our digital era, this can also impact remote, fragile places that can be damaged by rapid increases in visitation. To help limit impacts and practice leave-no-trace ethics, refrain from using precise geotags and locations for hidden gems you find in the Owyhee—especially for sacred cultural sites.  

Use your voice to make an impact.
One of the most important and effective way that you can help your public lands is to provide comments during a public planning process. And, for lands in the Owyhee, you’ve got that once- in-a-generation chance right now. Find details, read “A New Plan for 5 Million Acres.”

Ready to do even more? Try inviting a new friend along next time you venture out onto public lands, and consider joining an organization like Oregon Natural Desert Association that’s working hard to protect, defend and restore the landscapes you love. There are so many ways to advocate not only for the Owyhee Canyonlands, but for all wild lands that deserve protection. Look to your experience for inspiration.

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Photos by Tim Neville, Curtis Reeser and Tyson Fisher.

Lace Thornberg

Lace Thornberg manages communications for Oregon Natural Desert Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring public lands in

Oregon’s high desert.