High Desert Discoveries

June 22, 2012 (Updated July 27, 2017)

I’m a big fan of Oregon’s wide-open spaces, especially east of the Cascade Mountains – where the distances are great and the people are few. My love affair with the high desert runs deep; my fondest childhood memories are rooted in family times centered on camping or fishing adventures.

At the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, you can begin to build your own family memories by letting the “voice” on the radio guide you across new territory that will take your breath away.

Tom Hall, the man who recorded a unique audio tour guide to help you discover a wildlife wonderland in Southeastern Oregon, is that voice. You can check out his CD anytime and enjoy a personalized tour of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

“Everything on the Malheur Wildlife Refuge tends to be in movement this time of year,” noted Hall, a longtime refuge volunteer. “It is constant motion out here and the trick for the visitor is to catch up with the wildlife to see and learn more. The CD gives the visitor an extra edge to enjoy the place.”

Tom’s advice: bring binoculars and a bird identification book because the sheer number and variety of nesting birds is staggering.

“You will easily see forty or fifty different species on a spring-summer weekend,” noted Hall. “A bird book is a really good thing because you’re going to see a lot of unusual birds like avocets, stilts, white-faced ibis and then plentiful waterfowl like redheads, mallards, canvasbacks. We have an island of pelicans where there will be ten-twenty thousand white pelicans rafted up together. It’s incredible to see so many birds and so many species too.”

Spring’s coolness still washes over this remote rimrock country, where history hangs around longer than most places. Piute Indians lived off the land 11,000 years ago and moved between Malhuer and Harney Lakes with the seasons. The native peoples were followed by relative newcomers in the 19th century: miners, trappers and pioneers who settled and built towns that rose above the desert.

Signs of those times are still visible too – at a place where western hospitality is served daily at the Frenchglen Hotel. Built in the early 20th century, Frenchglen Hotel wasn’t designed for luxury, but as a rest stop for travelers on the long journey across the high desert. The bedrooms are small, but the hospitality is large and warm in the family-style dining area, where three meals a day are prepared and served to visitors who choose to enjoy a laid-back stay.

Nearby, the Peter French Round Barn Heritage Site is another state park and a must-stop for visitors who want to explore a one-of-a-kind barn design. The barn was designed and built in 1880 by Peter French, a cattle baron who built a sprawling cattle empire that dominated the region for more than 25 years. Several giant juniper posts support a stable, while an outer circular track provided a wintertime exercise area for the horses.

Just down the road, you can stroll even further back in time at Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area, a BLM-managed site that spreads across 17,000 acres. Oregon’s roadside geology is worth a pause here, where you can easily imagine a time thousands of years ago when lava exploded, churned and oozed out of the ground for more than 15,000 years.

It is a geologic wonder that will connect you with an interesting chapter of Oregon’s volcanic past. In fact, there’s so much to see in a timeless landscape where distances are great, people are few and Tom Hall insisted that visitors bring one thing when they come:

“Patience! You cannot come here in a day and take all this in – you cannot take it all in a weekend. Sally and I have been here five years and there’s still so much to see. Plenty to enjoy outdoors in the wide-open spaces.”

About The

Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.