Dawn’s Oregon 150 Challenge: Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge
When reference is made to ‘wide open spaces’, many people think of Texas, which, in its own right, is a big chunk of real estate. However, if you REALLY want to find an experience that provides for breathtaking panoramas, has an abundance of wildlife, and offers up one of Oregon’s unique experiences, you’ll need to delve a little deeper into Oregon’s chest of recreational treasures. (That, and a four-wheel drive/high clearance vehicle!)
Four hundred miles southeast of Portland, remote Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge is the only refuge of its kind in the United States. The 278,000-acre refuge is completely free of domestic livestock and was originally created to develop a safe haven for remnant herds of pronghorn antelope.
Getting there requires a commitment, but the rewards are many. Located outside the southeastern Oregon town of Lakeview (which is 65 miles away), Hart Mountain is best (and most impressively) accessed by driving south of Burns on Hwy 205, passing through Frenchglen, and continuing south about ten miles to the turn-off towards Hart Mountain, which is a clearly marked right turn – you can’t miss it!
Here, our adventure began right where the pavement ends. A 52-mile bumpy but very scenic road takes you through past isolated ranches, marshy pastures, desert landscape, and limitless big sky before starting the climb towards Hart Mountain. Keep an eye out for antelope- they didn’t name make this area an antelope refuge without a reason!
Finding antelope might be harder than you think… the tawny coloring of their body blends in very well with the muted desert background. A good way to spot the animals is to look for their white rear ends- which provide some contrast. I spotted several herds, and at one point, we had stopped to observe a herd to our right when on a hillside not far away to our left, I spotted movement. I couldn’t believe it when a pronghorn buck came down the hillside, crossed literally 10 feet in front of our car, and bounded its way towards the herd! Amazing!!
In addition to being an antelope preserve, the refuge serves as home to more than 300 species of wildlife. Other species include California bighorn sheep, mule deer, sage grouse, and redband trout, and we saw a lot of meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds and jackrabbits, who scurried along the roadside to disappear under sagebrush right at the last minute as we passed by.
After this 52-mile trek, we reached the refuge headquarters, an oasis in the desert nestled about a quarter of the way below the top of the mountain. Here, we filled up on water and took care of restroom necessities. Visitors need to be aware that there is no store and staff don’t sell fuel or food (nor do they providing towing services), so it is very important to have plenty of fuel, food and water and a good high-clearance vehicle (with operable spare tire) before attempting this trip!
At the headquarters, there’s a well-signed junction, and we followed the road straight towards the Hot Springs, just four miles ahead. This was another delightful adventure! One of Oregon’s best-kept secrets, Antelope Hot Springs, is cradled in a mountainous fold on Hart Mountain, and features a large hot spring outdoors. Located in a quiet grove of aspens, the hot springs are somewhat developed with a concrete wall surrounding it, (which blocked the wind) and pool-like ladder climbing down into the water. The quick dip was very invigorating, and we didn’t see a single soul the entire time! Before leaving, we took a quick look at the campground which was pleasantly shaded, but decided to keep going to explore more of the refuge.
Returning back to the Headquarters then veering west, we continued in a sea of sagebrush, mesas and miles of scenery. Passing several watering holes, we spotted a few more antelope as we seemingly kept climbing. Hart Mountain is actually a giant fault block mountain/ridge line, and when we reached the edge at the Campbell Lake Overlook, our jaws dropped just like the cliffs in front of us. The view was incredible and just seemed so… Pleistocene. Laid out across the horizon and below us was a very primitive and primal scene- this land has been largely untouched since the history of man began.
Far below lay the Warner Wetlands, remnants themselves of a vast inland ocean, and collection point for the area’s watershed. All of the moisture captured by the mountain range above gets channeled to the marshes below.
The road crept its way along the edge of the ridge line, carefully wending its way down to the valley floor below. Once we got down to the bottom, lake after lake in this otherwise dry and arid desert was alive with abundant wildlife. It was amazing! I saw more pelicans (white) than I had ever seen before.
We stopped the car and just watched these birds gaggling fish down their massive gullets by the beakfull. Boy, I thought, this must be heaven for them with such plentiful food! Tree and cliff swallows swooped and turned with acrobatic efficiency in so many maneuvers that made me dizzy. Their prey: mosquitoes and other insects, which were in great numbers as well, as I realized when I started scratching my arms.
The sense of space, the wildlife, and getting a sense of a wild, untouched land really had a big impact on me from this visit. Everyone thinks of Oregon as rainy, but there are 2/3 of the state that are actually very arid/desert-like. Somewhere I read that the corner of Southeastern Oregon near where I was standing is one of the least populated places on earth, per square mile. With the exception of unincorporated Plush, the closest town is Lakeview (population: 2,720) which is 65 miles away. Knowing that still-wild places on earth like Hart Mountain are being protected and preserved is important part of Oregon’s heritage and uniqueness.