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The Thru-Hike You’ve Never Heard Of: The Oregon Desert Trail

Presented by MSR Gear

04.26.18

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The Thru-Hike You’ve Never Heard Of: The Oregon Desert Trail
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  • A sunny afternoon on Steens Mountain.- The Thru-Hike You’ve Never Heard Of: The Oregon Desert Trail
  • Looking down at Wildhorse Lake from the Steens Mountain Summit.- The Thru-Hike You’ve Never Heard Of: The Oregon Desert Trail
  • Yarrow grows near the summit of Steens Mountain.- The Thru-Hike You’ve Never Heard Of: The Oregon Desert Trail
  • Steens Mountain (9,734 ft) from the Alvord Desert's northern end.- The Thru-Hike You’ve Never Heard Of: The Oregon Desert Trail
  • Alvord Desert and Steens Mountain (9,734 ft).- The Thru-Hike You’ve Never Heard Of: The Oregon Desert Trail
  • Steens Mountain (9,734 ft) from the Alvord Desert.- The Thru-Hike You’ve Never Heard Of: The Oregon Desert Trail
  • Alvord Desert.- The Thru-Hike You’ve Never Heard Of: The Oregon Desert Trail
  • Soaking tubs outside the hot-springs-filled pool in the barn, Summer Lake Hot Springs.- The Thru-Hike You’ve Never Heard Of: The Oregon Desert Trail
  • Summer Lake Hot Springs.- The Thru-Hike You’ve Never Heard Of: The Oregon Desert Trail
  • Alvord Hot Springs.- The Thru-Hike You’ve Never Heard Of: The Oregon Desert Trail
  • Approaching Alvord Hot Springs.- The Thru-Hike You’ve Never Heard Of: The Oregon Desert Trail
  • Camping just north of Rye Grass on the Owyhee River.- The Thru-Hike You’ve Never Heard Of: The Oregon Desert Trail
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The quintessential Oregon that comes to mind for many is one of wet, lush forests, rocky coastlines, and snowy peaks, but on the other side of the Cascade Mountains lies a high desert landscape that covers almost half of the state. For Brent Fenty, Oregon Natural Desert Association’s (ONDA) executive director, this immense desert has captivated him since childhood, and one sleepless night a few years ago he began imagining a way to connect the highlights of this amazing landscape.

Photo by Tyson Gillard.

As a backpacker and experienced PCT thru-hiker, Brent immediately envisioned a trail where hikers, bikers, and even horseback riders could traverse the stunning vistas of the Oregon desert. At the same time, the trail would highlight some areas ONDA has been successful in protecting, or is currently trying to protect, like the Oregon Badlands, Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Steens Mountain Wilderness, and the Owyhee Canyonlands.

Volunteers hit the ground in 2011 to start creating the 750-mile route, and over the following few years the Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) emerged as an immersive desert experience that can be explored through cross-country travel, old roads, and existing trail.

By nature, the ODT is a remote backpacking experience.

The desert in this part of the country is sparsely populated, and one will be much more likely to see herds of pronghorn antelope and the well-camouflaged sage grouse than other people. And if you like star-gazing, this is the trail for you. The southeastern corner of Oregon has one of the last uninterrupted night skies left in the country. No light pollution means unparalleled views of the Milky Way and stars thicker than you can imagine.

Interested in geology?

The ODT winds around the edge of the Great Basin, an area where any rainfall drains internally instead of reaching the sea. It is marked by massive fault block mountains. From Abert Rim, which rises 2,490 feet from the valley floor and stretches 30 miles long, to Steens Mountain, a 50-mile long mountain which stands a stunning 5,553 feet above the Alvord Desert, a dry lake bed that covers 84 square miles, the Oregon Desert Trail hits these highlights and more.

Perhaps you like hot springs?

The trail passes near the developed Summer Lake Hotsprings and Hunters Hotsprings as well as Hart Mountain Hotsprings, Alvord Hotsprings, and several soaking pools in the Owyhee Canyonlands. There is nothing better than a soak after a long day of hiking, and the ODT provides!

Alvord Hot Springs. Photo by Tyson Gillard.

There are challenges to a trail of this type.

At this stage, Oregon Desert Trail hikers need to be experienced with a map and compass or very comfortable using a GPS device because the route is unmarked and contains quite a bit of cross-country travel. However, for those 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 near-by butte or canyon, and truly immerse yourself in a trail that isn’t quite a trail.

Finding water in the desert.

Water can be quite elusive in this part of the state, and hikers need to be prepared for long distances between water sources, or to cache water for themselves. Water availability is perhaps the most important aspect of hiking the Oregon Desert Trail, but resources will soon be available for hikers that will give them access to historical data on reliable, questionable, and unreliable sources along the trail, as well as water caching guidelines.

The first 200 miles of the trail have been added to the popular mapping website and app, The Hiking Project, with other sections due to be included soon. The Hiking Project’s app allows hikers to follow the route on their smartphones, even while out of cellphone or data range, and it marks important waypoints like junctions between cross country routes and trail along with water sources.

Camping on the Owyhee River. Photo by Kat Dierickx.

By the time hikers reach the Owyhee Canyonlands area, some 550 miles into the route, it might be time to put away the boots and get out the packraft; the last 200 miles of the trail trace the Owyhee River’s path through what has been called “Oregon’s Grand Canyon.” Find out more about ONDA’s efforts to protect this amazing and remote ecosystem, and the grand finale to the Oregon Desert Trail.

With an iconic trail like the Pacific Crest Trail just over the mountains from the Oregon Desert Trail, why choose the desert?

  1. True solitude: It’s hard to find real solitude on the major trails these days with the recent popularity surge in long-distance hiking.
  2. Hot springs: Soak the aches and pains of a day on the trail in one of the numerous hot springs along the trail.
  3. History: The oldest human remains in North America have been found in this part of the desert, dating some 14,000 years ago!
  4. Habitat: The high desert is the perfect habitat for hundreds of different desert species like pronghorn, sage grouse, mule deer, and jackrabbits.
  5. Trail towns: Many of the 16 communities along the ODT are tiny, but they offer amazing hospitality and are a great resource for learning more about the area.

In short: for a real adventure, think of the Oregon Desert Trail. Take a look at the incredible adventures in the Southeast corner of Oregon, and start planning an unforgettable trek!

This article was published in collaboration with MSR Gear.

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At MSR, we are engineers, tinkerers and passionate outdoor users–each with strong perspectives on how a product should work based on our own experiences in the wild places we love. But collectively, we believe that innovative solutions are bred by challenging convention, and that functionality, simplicity and reliability are the governing elements of enduring design.

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