I felt every drop of sweat make its way down my face, neck and back as I stared down the rattlesnake, its beady eyes locked with mine, daring me to move. A few miles into my solo-backpacking trip through Oregon’s remote desert, I considered turning around and heading the several miles back to my car. After I caught my breath, I shook off the idea. Testing myself, I thought, is why I was here.
Travel Oregon had released an elaborate, animated advertisement featuring lush rivers, snow-peaked mountains, miles of vineyards and coastline, and breathtaking Crater Lake. I couldn’t help thinking: false advertising.
Though Oregon often is depicted in terms of Douglas fir-filled forests, half the state is a water-starved desert. Although I knew the desert was here, I never had explored it. Then I learned of the Oregon Desert Trail, a 750-mile, W-shaped path that weaves through the state’s most arid landscape. It shows off some of the state’s unsung attractions, including the Oregon Badlands, Lost Forest, Owyhee Canyonlands and picturesque Steens Mountain, which stretches more than 9,000 feet high.
Created by the Oregon Natural Desert Association conservation group to spur appreciation for the lands it is trying to protect, the trail is unusual in many ways. It isn’t really a trail. Waypoints on a map will help guide you, but the route isn’t marked. One-third of the route is cross-country, so a GPS device and compass skills are necessary; finding your own way gives the journey a choose-your-own adventure quality.
Carving through the state’s least-populated areas, the trail is also remote. But that’s part of its appeal. Wildlife biologist and thru-hiker Sage Clegg, the first person to hike the trail end to end, said she only saw other people when she went into a nearby town to resupply. Because she’s witnessed hikers clogging the Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails — in what’s known as the “Wild” effect, for the popular book-turned-movie — she appreciated the contrast.
“I love a lonely trail,” she said. “It helps me be able to interact with the natural world as if it were something that I could actually communicate with.”
The trail’s stewards also see its location as part of its charm. “You might hear people say, ‘There’s nothing out there; it’s a wasteland,’” trail coordinator Renee Patrick said. “We don’t think it’s wasteland. It’s one of the most remote places left in our country, and we want people to experience that firsthand.”
I’m not a thru-hiker, so I settled on a 22-mile loop that traversed one of the canyons in Owyhee Canyonlands, an area affectionately called “Oregon’s Grand Canyon.” Tucked in the state’s southeast corner, the undeveloped area is also one of the largest unprotected areas in the West. I planned three days for the loop.
I spent the night before my hike at Birch Creek Historic Ranch. Homesteaded around 1900, the property along the Owyhee River is now a popular spot for rafters. I was disappointed that it was cloudy when darkness fell, because the region is one of the larger pockets of land untouched by light pollution, according to the 2016 New World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness. In the middle of the night, however, loud bullfrogs alerted me to the cloudless sky. The dark, empty backdrop allowed the stars the perfect stage to dazzle, and the moon shone down on me like a headlight.
The next day, I left the ranch on foot and followed an old jeep road to an open field before reconnecting with the river. The scenery was so breathtaking that more than once I stopped abruptly and said “wow,” even though no one was around to hear it. Craggy red rocks jutted from the sloped canyon wall, creating magnificent spires and rock formations that looked like a petrified crash of a wave.
After only a few hours of hiking, though, I felt the desert’s ruthless effects. It was grueling. The first 6 miles, which on a path would take me about three hours, took eight. At times, the steep canyon walls emptied straight into the river, and my options were to hop along boulder-sized lava rocks, machete my way through thick reeds of grass taller than me or scramble up the hillside and walk at a slant, using the sagebrush to help keep me perpendicular. Each proved difficult.
With the glaring sun beating down, rattlesnakes restarting my heart and extra time and energy spent calculating my next step, I was exhausted by the end of the day. I was also out of water. I’d gone through 3 liters in half a day. I could refill, but the next night of my planned loop was nowhere near a reliable water source, meaning the 7 liters I could carry wouldn’t be enough to see me through.
After setting up my tent along a rare bit of flat, sandy ground, I decided to turn my three-day trip into an overnight out-and-back. I was learning an important lesson of the desert: Water is king. Clegg and other hikers who have done the entire trail had to cache water throughout, especially in the more remote pockets.
Sitting at camp and feeling a bit clobbered by the hostile landscape — I would encounter three more rattlesnakes on my way back — I looked up to catch the sun setting on a circular rock towering on a hill across the river. In the golden hue, it reminded me of the Colosseum. Rock formations like this one, and another reminiscent of ancient pillars, make it easy to see why a nearby town is named Rome. After hiking out the next day, I drove in that direction, stopping for a night at a bed-and-breakfast.
On what would have been the third day of the loop, I set out to find an area that would give me a taste of the cross-country hiking I had missed. I settled on a stretch of the Oregon Desert Trail near Rome, which turned out to be a dot on the map that I would have blown by if not for a lone business along U.S. 95.
After scaling a hill, I was met with flatland. The only thing in sight was miles and miles of sagebrush. The level ground made it a much easier hike, but after about an hour, I picked up on what made this part of the trail difficult: keeping track of where you are going. Moving left and right to navigate the sagebrush, and without a mountain, river or highway as a reference point, it was hard to maintain my intended direction. More than once I glanced down at my GPS to learn I was headed in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go.
Doing a small portion of the Oregon Desert Trail reminded me of nature’s riotous side and challenged me in the best way. It pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to trudge a path full of lurking rattlesnakes and stunning star-filled skies that was uniquely mine.