A Hidden Desert Gem 3

Oregon Desert Trail

Never-ending skies wait to erupt into a powerful downfall as hikers march over rolling hills. Wild mustangs and antelope roam through fields of green and gold flowers. A glorious sunrise illuminates a slot canyon and greets the day. While this nature scene plays out everyday somewhere in the backcountry, it’s hardly the first thing people think of when picturing a desert. A little closer to the truth are thoughts of miles and miles of sand and sagebrush stretched out across a barren wasteland.

“Hiking a long distance trail is an immersive experience.” – Renee Patrick

In an effort to change people’s minds about the natural areas that lie east of Bend, the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) began creating the Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) in 2011. The trail’s western terminus lies in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness, with the eastern terminus in the Lake Owyhee State Park, near the Idaho border. Along the way, it winds through the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Steens Mountain and the Owyhee Canyonlands.

“The ODT provides a framework to explore our public lands, and discover first-hand why ONDA has been working for 30 years to restore and protect these landscapes,” says Oregon Desert Trail Coordinator Renee Patrick.

The 750-mile ODT is referred to as a “virtual route,” meaning there are no trail markers and often no visible trail. Therefore, hikers must have solid navigational skills to complete a thru-hike of the entire trail. In fact, more than a third of the route consists of cross country travel and more than half follows old two-track jeep and wagon roads. Since it’s inception, only 10 hikers have completed the full route.

“Hiking a long distance trail is an immersive experience,” explains Patrick, who, in November of last year, became the tenth hiker to finish the trail. “After you spend weeks or months walking across the desert, our hope is that hikers will develop a deeper connection to these places and want to participate in the conservation work ONDA is doing.”

The route will continue to be refined as more people explore it and report back to ONDA with their feedback. The area is constantly changing, thus making news of landmarks—such as water holes—an important part of maintaining the trail. ONDA has asked federal agencies to consider designating the Oregon Desert Trail as a National Recreation Trail “Connecting Trail” linking the existing Fremont National Recreation Trail and the Oregon High Desert National Recreation Trail. A formal adoption of the route allows for signage and inclusion on federal maps.