Oregon's high desert – that vast expanse of sagebrush between Bend and Boise, Idaho, – is a truly spectacular place with wonders that reveal themselves through frequent visits and close, quiet observation. While many people confine their desert visits to the spring and fall to avoid summer's heat and winter's cold, the desert is enjoyable year-round when you know where to go and what to do. And, there's more to do than you might think!
With one idea per month, this list offers a starting point, with further investigation required. Start your research on Oregon Natural Desert Association's website, ONDA.org.
Possibly even more magical than it is in the woods, snow in the desert is gorgeous, and actually makes it easier to travel in many places. You can hike, snowshoe, or cross-country ski on nearly any public land, on or off trail. Biking is especially easy and rewarding on back roads. Five cool zones are Winter Rim, Abert Rim, the western flanks of Steens Mountain, Warner Valley and Sutton Mountain Wilderness Study Area.
The Alvord Desert Playa, below the east face of Steens Mountain, offers an expansive landscape of geologic wonders to explore – carefully! While the playa may look like fun to drive on, that's only possible late in summer; winter mud swallows cars. Borax Lakes and Mickey Hot Springs, at opposite ends of the playa, are amazing, delicate and fascinating to admire – but NOT safe for soaking. Cold enhances the steam, too, making the scenery even more intriguing. The playa is fragile and threatened with overuse/abuse: please, leave NO trace of your visit.
The Oregon Desert Trail
Much of the Oregon Desert Trail route traverses mountain ranges that can be snow-covered through May, but there are lower elevation sections as well. With its longer daylight hours, cooler temperatures and early wildflowers, March is a great time to hike those stretches or bike the back roads of the route.
Loads of interesting wildflower species bloom from early March through July, depending upon elevation and precipitation. Try these areas: the Upper Crooked River Basin (April-June), Steens Mountain (June-Aug), Owyhee Uplands and Leslie Gulch (March-June), Oregon Badlands Wilderness (March-May), Sutton Mountain (March-June), Spring Basin Wilderness (April-June), and the Oregon Canyon Mountains (May-July), or the easily accessible Sagehen Hill Nature Trail near Hines.
Springtime Bird Migration
An impressive array of bird life migrates through the desert from April into early June, with a May peak. Notable hot spots include: Malheur Wildlife Refuge, the Warner Wetlands below Hart Mountain, Lake Abert, Summer Lake, Fields Station and the banks of the Owyhee, Malheur, Silvies and Crooked Rivers.
In June, how about a geology field trip to hunt for obsidian, petrified wood, thunder eggs, opals and agates? Two places to collect are Obsidian Buttes and the sunstone digging areas north of Warner Valley. As water levels drop, try rockhounding in the tributaries to the lower John Day River between Clarno and Mitchell, or throughout Owyhee country.
Swimming in the desert? You betcha! Many desert lakes and rivers have warmed up quite a bit by July, so get out for a swim, or tubing, pack rafting, or even paddle boarding and kayaking. The Lake Owyhee area (via Leslie Gulch access road or via a backpacking trip into the Honeycombs area) and the John Day River Basin are especially scenic.
In August, pack the camping gear. For sure, it's hot, but higher elevations offer pleasant temperatures. For fantastic backpacking and day hiking, explore the high lakes and ridge lines of the Steens, the Pueblos or the Owyhee Uplands. More options: hike DeGarmo Canyon to Hart Mountain summit, mountain bike Winter Rim, backpack the Trout Creek Mountains, or explore the upper Crooked, Silvies, Malheur and John Day Rivers.
Autumnal Bird Migration
As September heralds fall, southbound bird migrations bring sandhill cranes, swans, songbirds and waterfowl. Explore riparian areas, especially Malheur Wildlife Refuge around Burns, Lakes Abert and Summer, and any montane meadows.
Golden Aspen Groves
In October, enjoy fall color in the glorious aspen groves on Steens Mountain, the edge of Winter Rim, along the upper Crooked River, and the Trout Creek and Oregon Canyon Mountains.
November is prime time to soak up a desert sunset while soaking in a hot spring. Developed hot springs are located at Summer Lake Hot Spring Resort, Crane Hot Springs, the Alvord Desert Hot Springs and the Hot Springs Campground on Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge.
Close out your year of wonders with stargazing in some of the darkest skies in the country. Head to the Malheur area, Alvord Desert or the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, or gaze from any of the high plains below the mountain ridges throughout the region.
Important Note on Safety
As you figure out how to reach the places mentioned, know that venturing into the high desert demands a high level of preparation and self-sufficiency, and that you and your vehicle must be up to your chosen trek.
—Scott Bowler is a volunteer with Oregon Natural Desert Association, a nonprofit organization that protects and restores Oregon’s high desert public lands and waters.