Trail Dust: Oregon Desert Trail

Updated: Jul 25


The new year is upon us, and for me, that's an exciting mark on my calendar. While many think that winter is still in charge, I challenge you to re-think your calendar. In my humble opinion, spring in the desert is much sooner than our typical calendar tells us. By the time March rolls around, most of the desert is rushing headlong into spring! So, I try to take advantage of every possible moment of good weather during this time of year. Last year, our group had 7 days on the South Fork of the Owyhee River in late March. Despite battling crazy weather (after all, it's the Owyhee), we still had an absolutely amazing trip. Let's get planning your adventures sooner rather than later.

In my last post, I briefly mentioned the Oregon Desert Trail (ODT). This route starts near Bend and, moving in a large counterclockwise direction, winds through an amazing array of public lands and finishes at Lake Owyhee State Park approximately 750 miles later. The true beauty of this “route”—because it’s a route, not a trail—is that a huge and spectacular portion of it lies right here in our backyard! People travel from all over the country to hike where we tend to spend our weekends. I get a big kick out of that! There are a number of really amazing routes similar to this all over the northwest. Here in Oregon, the Oregon Backcountry Discovery Route is a well-known example. We have an opportunity to explore the state off-road! The bottom line is that are numerous amazing adventures waiting to be had not too far from home.


Since it’s longer than a typical hike, the ODT mimics other long-distance trails or routes—like the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail—and is broken down into smaller parts that typically run numerically from the beginning of the route to its end. In this case, the 750-mile ODT is broken into 4 regions, which are then divided into 25 sections. The trail begins Section 1 at the Tumulus Trailhead in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness and finishes with Section 25 at Lake Owyhee State Park. My excitement stems from the fact that the entirety of Region 4 is basically in our backyard. Sections 20–25 encompass an enormous amount of real estate. So much of this route can be paralleled by alternate means of travel, all the while visiting some of the most amazing places along the route. It's a true win-win. It also offers a rare opportunity for setting up a logistically amazing adventure without having to leave home!


Taking a closer look at Sections 20–25, we find 6 sections that cover over 200 miles of the route in our beloved Owyhee Desert! How incredible is that? Beginning near McDermitt and heading towards Anderson Crossing, the route enters the Owyhee River drainage and follows it all the way to Owyhee State Park. This is a tremendous example of some of the wildest and most remote chunks of land anywhere in the west. You can find even more information about and resources for the ODT from Friends of the Owyhee’s dear friends and organization partner, the Oregon Natural Desert Association.

I often get asked how hikers can hike for hundreds of miles. The answer is pretty simple: great planning. A well-conceived plan is essential when traveling—especially by foot—in the desert, and even more so when that desert is the Owyhee. In addition, hiking in the desert brings its own set of rules and an added degree of stress due to one simple thing: water. So simple and yet so crucial. If there is one thing the Owyhee gives up begrudgingly, it would be its water. There might not be anything quite so frustrating as to be low on water, only to see the river far below in the canyon, inaccessible and so far out of reach. Water sources are not often reliable in the desert, and planning and route finding are critical. Part of the planning involves using resources such as a water chart. This resource maps out all of the potential water sources over the entire route. Being able to get to the next water source is obviously critical. Mileage or data books are mapped out to help with mileage and daily hiking goals. These and many other resources and techniques for backpacking will be the focus of FOTO's upcoming class on Modern Backpacking in March. (A shameless but necessary plug!) Today's technology and information bonanza is such a tremendous advantage when it comes to learning about new locations, new ideas, and new equipment. Modern hiking and backpacking are a far cry from your grandfather's Boy Scout trips!


When I first learned about the ODT, I was super motivated. I immediately did some research on Section 25, the route from Leslie Gulch to Owyhee State Park. Literally, within a few weeks, I had made plans and was dropped off at the Juniper Gulch parking spot and away I went. I was super excited and the adrenaline was pumping as I climbed up and out of the valley floor and began a two-day hike through an amazing display of dark and silent canyons, wide-open views, and geological wonders! The quiet and the feeling of being so far removed from everyone covered me as I made my way through the route. By evening, I had made a small camp for my tarp on the leeward side of Owyhee Ridge. As the sun set, I watched the reservoir far below fade to dark, finally blending into the night. The following day, I made my way over the final stretches to reach Lake Owyhee State Park. I was elated that I had accomplished this hike. I was so incredibly moved by the way the route worked its way throughout the desert, taking what the terrain gave, never trying to bully or push its way through. It was truly one of the most enjoyable and memorable hikes I have ever done. Since then, I have repeated the route with friends, and they have marveled at this wonderful opportunity we have right here so close.


I'm a firm believer in using the right tool for the job. With that in mind, I want to let folks know that I am not just a hiker. I know my words reflect this mode of travel, and for this example, it works. It's important that folks know that I am not a hiking snob. I own a customized 4-wheel drive rig designed to get me in trouble in the Owyhee, and I use a side-by-side on our property, without which we wouldn't get half the work done that's needed. I have owned and toured with dual-sport motorcycles and even raced the desert series on dirt bikes. So even though hiking is my passion, I realize that this resource is so enormous that all manner of use is necessary. My hope is that my reflections and observations will be yet another arrow in your quiver that you can use on your own adventures in the Owyhee. Hopefully, it will also help keep that Owyhee Karma on your side!


Until next time, I hope you get sand in your shoes!

 

After starting technical climbing at age 12 and backpacking at 14, Steve Silva has been an avid outdoor adventurer his whole life. His constant chasing of bigger and bigger climbs has led him all over North America, from the gargantuan walls of his home in Yosemite to high-altitude volcanoes in Mexico to chilly peaks in Canada. Steve's love for backpacking adventures has taken him throughout most of Idaho, along the John Muir Trail, the High Sierra Route, and a large section of the Hayduke Trail. He's been a long-time fan of the Owyhee desert, having boated through most of the main canyons and tributaries of the Owyhee River. Steve's passion for this landscape inspired him to write a guidebook titled Get Lost!: Adventure Tours in the Owyhee Desert. Now an expert in off-trail hiking, planning, and logistics, he loves teaching more people how to hike easily and more comfortably than they've ever known.


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