Oregon may claim the best craggy coasts, misty forests and icy volcanoes around, but venture east of the Cascades and you enter the wild high desert, a magnificent land of yawning canyons and windswept steppes where the sky’s so big and blue, you swear you can feel it on your shoulders.
May marks a special time to visit, too, as the desert sheds its winter skin and transitions into a world bursting with life. The pronghorn antelope have their babies, the balsamroot explodes like sundrops and once-dry canyons ring with the rumble of hidden waterfalls.
“The desert takes its sweet time,” says Jim Davis, a Bend-based photographer who compiles images for the Oregon Natural Desert Association and the Wild Desert Calendar, the state’s only calendar dedicated to showcasing the beauty of the high desert. “But by May,” he says, “things are really kicking into gear.”
Hike a Canyon, Find Some Waterfalls
Situated between the Southeastern Oregon town of Plush, population 39, and the entrance to the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge sits DeGarmo Canyon, a spectacular slot canyon offering shade and cool compassion to those willing to hike. Davis says he’s found robust blooms of paintbrushes, penstemons and desert evening primrose in there, which makes for wonderful photographs.
The hike itself can be as short as about 1.4 miles round-trip or as long as you really want, depending on when you decide to turn around. Almost immediately you’ll come to a smaller, 10-foot-high waterfall, but you should continue about 0.7 miles to reach the hike’s showpiece, a 35-foot-high cascade. Be on the lookout for the flashing eyes of the American dipper — the only truly aquatic songbird in the U.S. — as it hunts for bugs. Afterward, head into Plush for charbroiled burgers at the Hart Mountain Store.
Warner Valley Overlook
The last ice age brought a massive lake to the eastern edge of the Warner Mountains near Lakeview, the vestiges of which you can see today as a chain of lakes that stretches north to south for 40 miles like pearls in a necklace. Thousands of birds flock here on their way north (or south) every year.
The Warner Valley Overlook sits perched above this natural treasure off the Hart Mountain Frenchglen Road south of Campbell Lake. Pro tip: Davis says the overlook makes for great sunset photography. Try to catch it on a full moon and you may spot reflections in the lake below.
Heart Lake Reservoir sits toward the southern end of the chain. There you’ll find the Hart Bar Interpretive Site, where you can learn about the wetlands and take a 1.5-mile loop hike on the Warner Wetlands birding trail to look for American coots, egrets and maybe even white-faced ibises. During wetter years, the 10-mile-long Warner Valley Canoe Trail links Turpin Lake with Stone Corral and Campbell lakes.
Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge
Here’s an awesome fact to wow your dinner party guests: North America’s fastest land animal is the pronghorn — with speeds up to 60 mph. The reason they can run so fast is thanks to the hungry American cheetah that scientists think may have once chased them. True, the big cats are gone, but the antelope remain and the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge is the nation’s premier place to see them.
May is calving season, too, so your chances of seeing a baby are much higher this time of year. Davis recommends you swing by the refuge visitor center to get tips on where to go, and be sure to bring good binoculars or a large telephoto lens to observe the animals respectfully from a distance.
Along the way, look for balsamroot blossoming on the hillsides, and remember: Wildflowers will bloom in stages starting at lower elevations first, so head upwards if you’re coming later in the spring. Make sure to stay on designated trails and show your respect for the flora, fauna and wildlife by keeping your distance.
If You Go:
This is remote, rugged country, and spring rains can turn dirt roads into tire-sucking gumbo, so know the limitations of your vehicle before venturing off paved routes. Bring water and the rest of your Ten Essentials and don’t rely on your cellphone to get you out of trouble. Service can be spotty out here.