High Desert Discovery Scenic Byway
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The High Desert of Harney County is a far cry from the Oregon west of the Cascades. Covered with juniper and sagebrush and dotted with dramatic mountain ranges, this is true frontier country, a remnant of the wild west.
The High Desert Discovery Scenic Byway guides you through the heart of this sparsely populated region, offering broad panoramas of wide-open spaces so seldom encountered today. This Byway serves as a gateway to awe-inspiring Steens Mountain, the Diamond Craters, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, the Pete French Round Barn and the Alvord Desert. Its austere beauty offers incredible solitude; alone in the high desert, you feel a bit like a cowboy or pioneer from another era. As a modern day pioneer exploring this frontier, plan accordingly as basic services are few and far between.
Burns To The Refuge
The High Desert Discovery Scenic Byway begins at Burns, which rests at the junction of Highways 20, 78 and 395. From Burns, proceed south on Highway 205. Wright’s Point provides stunning views of the Blue Mountains to the north and Steens Mountain to the south. At the Narrows interpretive site, Mud Lake and Harney Lake offer pleasant vistas to the west. To the east, Malheur Lake and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge presents a veritable oasis amidst the arid range lands. The Refuge stretches 39 miles wide and 40 miles long, and is home to 320 bird species. Spring is the most spectacular season. Northern pintails and tundra swans begin to arrive followed by sandhill cranes and large concentrations of snow, Ross’ and white-fronted geese. Waterfowl, shorebirds and songbirds hit high number peaks as well. As the flurry of migration settles, broods of trumpeter swans and other waterfowl can be seen on most Refuge ponds and migrant shorebirds congregate on mud flats and alkali playas. Activity increases again in the fall as migration begins. One of the Refuge’s greatest attractions occurs when greater sandhill cranes “stage,” or gather, in the southern Blitzen Valley. Also look for large flocks of ducks, Canada geese and tundra swans. Winter is the quietest season at the Refuge although a variety of raptors, including bald eagles and rough-legged hawks can be seen.
On To Frenchglen
Skirting the marshes of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, you’ll soon pass the turnoff for the Diamond Loop Tour Route, which leads to the Pete French Round Barn. Continue to follow the route that parallels ancient basalt flows until you reach the southern end of the Blitzen Valley and the community of Frenchglen. Frenchglen provides services for Steens Mountain visitors and is the point of departure for the Steens Loop Tour Route. You may also access the Donner und Blitzen River from here which offers excellent angling for redband trout, a species of rainbow trout indigenous to the high desert region. Other outdoor activities within the area include hiking, horseback riding, camping, birding, and winter recreation. One of the focal points of Frenchglen is the historic Frenchglen Hotel which was built in the mid-1920s and remodeled in 1938 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It’s an excellent example of American Foursquare architecture and is still open today, providing lodging and family-style meals.
Catlow Rim to Fields
Heading south from Frenchglen, you’ll soon pass the turnoff for the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. This primitive road leads to the 275,000 acres of high-desert habitat that was set aside in 1936 to provide spring, summer and fall range for the region’s pronghorn antelope herds. Continuing south, Route 205 parallels Catlow Rim and Catlow Valley, home to some of the region’s wild horse herds and bighorn sheep which can frequently be seen from the road. The High Desert Discovery Byway ends in the ranching community of Fields. At the turn of the 20th century, borax was collected around Borax Lake, providing a significant source of revenue. Fields is an excellent staging area for outdoor adventures in the nearby Trout Creek and Pueblo Mountains. The privately-owned Alvord Hot Springs is currently open for public use. Fields offers some essential traveler’s services such as food, gas and lodging. From here, you can loop north on the East Steens Tour Route, which ends back in Burns.
Mr. French and Mr. Glen
In the 1850s, word of the lush grassland around current day Frenchglen attracted stockmen, who moved their cattle to the region. Among them was John W. “Peter” French, who arrived from California in 1872 with 1,000 head under the auspices of Hugh Glen, a wealthy California stock owner and his father-in-law. French soon fenced the entire Blitzen River Valley for his herd numbering over 40,000. Some valley residents resented French and his empire. In 1897, he was allegedly shot and killed by a homesteader named Ed Oliver over a fencing dispute; Oliver was acquitted.
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Keep in mind many of the routes listed here travel through remote areas where gas stations are few and far between. And since road and weather conditions can be hazardous, even into summer, we urge you to call 800-977-6368 or check Trip Check before starting out.