Dreaming Of Solitude And Stars? Hike The Oregon Desert Trail
I woke to the sound of yipping and sharp barks echoing off the cliffs around me. Dogs? No, I was backpacking deep in the Oregon desert … it must be coyotes. I scanned the canyon and found a high-speed chase unfolding before my eyes. Two coyotes were racing up the hillside with two more close on their tails. I burrowed deeper into my sleeping bag while watching the show. The blur of fur streaked across my view for a good 10 minutes and I laughed at the spectacle—I’ve seen something surprising every day on the Oregon Desert Trail.
I decided to section-hike this 750-mile route across the Oregon desert, not only because it’s a fantastic way to discover my backyard in Bend, Oregon, but also because I had just started a new job as the Oregon Desert Trail Coordinator. To learn what one of the newest long-distance trails in the country needed to help it get established, I did the only obvious thing: hike it. My coyote variety show was about 400 miles into the endeavor, in the remote Owyhee River canyon, just one of the unique and spectacular regions along the route.
Founded by a conservation organization, the Oregon Natural Desert Association, the Oregon Desert Trail connects remote mountains, canyons and dry lakebeds with a mixture of trail, old roads, and cross-country travel. Places like the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Steens Mountain and the Owyhee Canyonlands immerse hikers in the very land ONDA has been striving to protect for 30 years. Perhaps by introducing more people to these amazing landscapes, the Oregon Desert Trail could help foster a sense of responsibility: responsibility to help protect, defend, and restore Oregon’s high desert for generations to come.
Now that fall is approaching, I’m eager to shoulder the pack and head out into the desert for the final 300 miles. Cooler autumn days are the perfect time to explore eastern Oregon. Solitude is abundant, and if you’ve struggled through the heavy traffic of other long distance trails, the Oregon Desert Trail will be a breath of fresh air. Literally.
How does one hike a route versus a trail? At this stage, Oregon Desert Trail hikers need to be experienced with map and compass and/or very comfortable using a GPS device, since the route is unmarked and requires quite a bit of off-trail cross-country travel. If you’re looking to break free from a traditional trail experience, this is the hike for you. There is freedom in the desert—freedom to make your own routes, to explore a nearby butte or canyon, and truly dive into the landscape, since there’s no official trail.
What can one expect on a day, week or month on the Oregon Desert Trail?
True solitude. It’s hard to find real solitude on the major trails these days with the recent popularity surge in long-distance hiking.
Hot springs. Soak the aches and pains of a day on the trail in one of the numerous hot springs along the trail.
History. The oldest human remains in North America have been found in this part of the desert, dating to some 14,000 years ago!
Habitat. The high desert is the perfect habitat for hundreds of different desert species like pronghorn, sage grouse, mule deer and jackrabbits.
Stars. The southeastern corner of Oregon has one of the last uninterrupted night-skies left in the country.
Rad rocks. Volcanos and plate tectonics play a big part in what makes this part of Oregon unique including the largest fault-block mountains in the country along Abert Rim and Steens Mountain.
Trail towns. Many of the 16 communities along the ODT are tiny, but offer amazing hospitality and are a great resource for learning more about the area.
The ODT can more accurately be called a route, instead of a trail, since about 30 percent of the 750 miles consist of cross-country travel, over 50 percent follows old roads that cross the desert, and the rest is on well-defined single track. Don’t let the lack of trail markers dissuade you from experiencing the remote beauty of the Oregon desert—we’ve put together a variety of resources to help you plan and navigate a trip on Oregon Desert Trail.
The trail is broken down into four regions, with each region spanning about 160 to 200 miles. Those four regions are divided into 25 sections, each with detailed maps indicating the type of tread (cross country, trail, or road), waypoints, mileage between waypoints, water sources, trail town info and declination information.
It’s nice to have a play-by-play account of what you will encounter in each section of the trail, and the guidebook will tell you to “take a left at that tree,” or “look out for pictographs around the next corner.” It references the waypoints on the maps and the databook, and includes a bunch of helpful information on planning your hike.
The databook includes information found on the maps and in the ODT guidebook. In addition, a water chart ranks water sources from reliable to questionable to unreliable, and is color coded to match the maps. Included is historical data from the past five seasons that hikers have been inventorying or hiking the trail, with a column for this year’s hikers to include their information on water sources. Better yet? It’s a Google Sheet; hikers who like to use their smart phones can download and update the chart electronically while they’re hiking. Once connected to data or Wifi again, the info will update automatically for the next hikers.
You don’t NEED a GPS to hike this trail, but they sure are helpful. We have downloadable waypoints you can use.
Hiking Project Website & App
This is the age of the app, and the thanks to the website and mobile app, the Hiking Project, the first 270 miles of the trail are available for free with remaining miles due to be uploaded by the end of the year. Included are elevation profiles, a slimmed down version of the guidebook and a real-time view of where you are on the route at all times. Important junctions between cross-country and trail sections are marked, as well as water sources…and all match up with the waypoints and info you will find in our other ODT resources.
Water Cache Guidelines & Maps
The first 160 miles of the ODT are fairly dry, but luckily the hikers who have already completed the trail gave us detailed notes and maps on where they successfully cached their water. We also drafted some caching guidelines because caching can be a tricky thing if you’ve never done it before. Depending on how many miles you like to hike in a day, you may want to cache more than what’s suggested, and as time goes by and more people head out into the desert, we should have more information available.
There are 16 communities along or near the trail that can provide important services to hikers along their journey. Town can be a generous term in some cases as many of these spots consist of a single store/gas station/restaurant/bar/post office all in one building. The guide is available in draft form, and when complete will offer maps of each town with a directory of where you can eat, resupply, sleep, and more so tired hikers will know where to find the closest nachos, pizza and beer.
Gear for the ODT:
Exposure is no joke in the desert—you won’t find any trees in some sections. So a sun shirt is a great investment. Outdoor Research makes the Reflection Shirt, which is lightweight, and includes UPF 50+ protection in the fabric. And always carry lots of sunscreen.
Eastern Oregon can be quite dry much of the year and hikers may find they don’t have to set up any shelter at all (hint: cowboy camping provides great views of the night sky), but it can rain, snow, or storm almost any month of the year. It’s a good idea to carry at least a lightweight tarp. Something like the MSR 12oz Thru-Hiker 70 Wing is a good option, or even the 4oz ZPacks Hexamid Pocket Tarp.
Much of the terrain on the Oregon Desert Trail can be rocky. It’s a volcanic landscape and there are multiple sections with jagged lava rock to navigate. But in truth, over 50 percent of the route is on old dirt roads in the middle of the desert. Taking two pairs of footwear can be a good idea, 1) to give your feet a break from the long miles in the same pair of shoes, and 2) because you can. A rugged shoe like the Oboz Luna can hold up to the miles, and taking a second light weight sandal like the Luna Leadville Trail or a pair of Chacos can be a relief when walking along those old roads.
Most of your other backpacking items are similar to what you would take on any multi-day trip, but there are a few miscellaneous things that will be really helpful to have on this route. Gaiters like the Outdoor Research Veraglas Gaiters are a great way to protect your legs on the cross-country sections. It’s surprising how much cell phone reception can be found along the route, but in several of the more remote spots along the trail including the 175-mile section along the Owyhee River Canyon, it’s nice to have a satellite GPS device like the Delorme InReach Explorer.