My sister, Tally, and I love to adventure together. We've trekked the Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru, climbed down canyons in the Baja, and spent New Years howling with the coyotes under the full moon in Utah. This trip, we stuck closer to home exploring the "Oregon Outback" in Southeast Oregon, with no less reward than some of our more ambitious excursions.
This remote, high desert area of Oregon belongs to the Northern Paiute, the snake people, whose descendants have lived here for at least 14,000 years according to archaeological findings, including woven sage bark sandals and fossilized feces (oldest poo in North America!). At first glance, the landscape is seemingly monotonous - sagebrush, grass, pine, dust, rock, farmland - yet we seemed to awake to a vastly different horizon every day, with an abundant diversity of flora and geological formations. This land has been recognized for its unique offerings, with designated national forests, BLM land, and multiple wildlife refuges like Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, named a "mecca" for birdwatchers.
We started our trip with three nights at Fremont Point Cabin, a recently built cabin that replaced a burned down lookout tower atop Winter Ridge overlooking Summer Lake. We watched incredible sunrises and sunsets and experienced the first rain the county had in over 90 days, in the form of sidesweeping sheets of rain. The lake below was a surreal mirror to the changing weather patterns, letting us know that there were blue skies somewhere, even if we were fogged in at the moment.
We descended down the ridge and made a quick stop at Summer Lake Hot Springs to soak before driving up to Drake Peak Lookout Tower in the Fremont-Winema National Forest for the night. The soak (and hot shower) were as replenishing to our bodies as the rain storm the night before was to the land. As hyper-aware as we were of rattlesnake presence, we were not expecting a chummy bull snake to try to get in the hot springs with us (no picture, too busy both freaking out and watching in fascination)! We soaked indoors after that, a charming pool beneath the Christmas-light-adorned rafters of a 1930's barn. Drake Peak offered another beautiful sunset and warm desert winds that turned chilly enough once the sun disappeared that we justified firing up the quaint wood-stove in the cabin.
The next day we sought out the mysterious "Glass House" helicoptered in by a winemaker that sits along Hart Ridge and was donated to BLM after the winemaker's wife got sick of snakes and the sweltering heat. We put the Tacoma to the test on deeply rutted sandy roads that became gradually impassable with vegetation. After reaching a barbed wire gate with No Trespassing signs, we turned around - the Glass House remains an enigma. However, we scored by chancing upon some remarkable petroglyphs.
Our route to the Alvord Desert took us briefly into Nevada where we took a spontaneous detour to seek out some colorful sandstone formations spotted along the highway in the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. The Virgin Valley area we explored is known for containing black opals and fire opals (so exquisite, some are displayed at the Smithsonian!). The area is dotted with private opal mine claims where you can pay to dig, or freely collect up to seven pounds of opals from the refuge if found on the surface area. After giving up on finding any gemstones, but happy with a pocket full of unique rocks, we continued east to camp out on the expansive Alvord Desert. This 84 sq mile playa is free to camp on, just drive out as far as you want and set down roots. There were many other campers around us, but they looked as small as ants in the distance, or at times, obscured in a heat mirage. We slept in the truck bed under the stars with the milky way in full glory.
We escaped the desert heat early the next morning and headed up the Steen Mountains which backdrop the desert with a particular form of jagged grandness. The Steen Mountains Loop is the tallest road in Oregon, providing vistas of both the desert below and lush gorges and valleys between the peaks. Our goal for the night was a quick but steep hike down to Wild Horse Lake to camp alongside its shores at 9,700 feet elevation. The rocky switchbacks descended through colorful rock gardens that looked like a cutout from a landscaping magazine and led to damp green meadows flush with a rainbow of wildflowers. It had been a long time since I'd seen so many hummingbirds and bumblebees and this little environmentalist holding out hope for all our endangered species was humming praises. Swimming was quite cold, especially with the howling winds whipping through the valley that sat like the bottom of a bowl in the mountains, but we were so refreshed by water, color, wind, after being on the dry playa. Our last night sleeping like giddy kids under the fluorescent cosmos prepared us for a hell of a climb up to the car the next morning and a long but scenic drive home through aspen stands, pine forests, and more sagebrush, keeping our eyes eternally peeled for wild mustangs, pronghorns, big-horned sheep, and antelope while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix played in the background.