I started to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into after the sun dipped below Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains. There was not a single light in sight besides our own headlamps as we set up our camera gear, serenaded by coyotes yipping to the moonless sky.
My husband, Camden — a meteorologist and landscape photographer — and I had come to Zumwalt Prairie Preserve precisely for those dark skies. It was late October and Oregon was expecting another shot at the aurora borealis. We’d ventured out in search of the elusive atmospheric phenomenon more popularly known as the Northern Lights. These otherworldly streams and curtains of colored lights in the night sky are caused by solar ions, electrically charged particles that travel in a gaseous stream. When magnetized high above the earth, the agitated particles light up in brilliant hues, much like a neon sign.
The best chances of seeing the aurora in the contiguous United States starts in late summer and continues through mid-spring, with the activity being greatest around the spring and autumn equinoxes on cold and dry nights. With a favorable forecast predicted and our growing interest in astro-photography, we hoped to catch a glimpse.
Heading Out to Zumwalt Prairie
Zumwalt, the largest remaining grassland of its type in North America, was an easy choice. Thirty minutes from the bustling Eastern Oregon outpost of Joseph, visitors can access it when the weather allows by a well-established gravel road. It has enough distance and elevation from the nearby Wallowa and Blue mountains to create ideal conditions for stargazing.
Within minutes of leaving Joseph’s downtown, we were rattling on the gravel of Zumwalt Road. Managed and protected by The Nature Conservancy, Zumwalt is a natural marvel for both its rich ecological diversity and its size, and it has largely remained unknown to most Oregonians. The 51-square-mile preserve is Oregon’s biggest private nature sanctuary, with 4,400 acres designated a National Natural Landmark.
Zumwalt seemed to transcend time itself. I wasn’t entirely convinced I wouldn’t see an oxen-powered wagon train meandering its way down the very road we were on. The only reminders of a human presence manifested in the form of worn, wooden fencing; a few decrepit frontier homesteads reclaimed by the elements; and the occasional “No Trespassing” sign.
The preserve does not encompass the entirety of the larger prairie itself. Private land owners there also practice conservation efforts and sustainable livestock grazing. This helps conserve the diverse plant ecosystem of native bunchgrasses and more than 100 species of wildflowers that appear from April through June — including threatened Spalding’s catchfly, silky lupine, camas, hoary balsamroot and goldenrod. Thriving within the expansive ecosystem of greenery are coyotes and any number of little mammals, songbirds and the highest-known concentration of breeding raptors in North America.
Hiking on the Preserve
To hike within the preserve, there are a few short but scenic options. Though the 1.8-mile out-and-back Canyon Vista Trail, with its sweeping views, and the 2.3-mile Patti’s Trail that crossed old homesteader fields were both appealing, our sights were set on the shorter, 700-foot elevation on the Harsin Butte Trail. We hoped it would have an excellent vantage point for a 360-degree view.
We quickly learned that it would be too difficult getting to the trail. The roads were largely impassable as we attempted to cross through a deep, muddy section of road — a route extremely rutted and untraversable by anything other than a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle. Seeing as our tire ruts and boot prints would leave a lasting impression and damage the prairie, we opted against hiking trails and decided to set up our camera gear on the shoulder of the road. I turned our car off and we were met only with the sounds of wind weaving through the grasses.
Almost in thanks, the prairie greeted us with one of the most spectacular sunsets we had ever seen. Dominating the horizon were the Seven Devils of Idaho and the Wallowas, rising up out of the bunchgrass like sentinels. My eyes wandered to a distant, disintegrating cabin. I wondered whose humble home it had once been and if they ever felt lonely surrounded by the windswept expanse of the prairie.
With alpenglow fading and the temperature quickly dropping, we set to making dinner from our car and taking in a tailgate view better than any luxury-hotel balcony could give.
As the sun went down, the world seemed to shrink to the small halo around our lantern. “You can’t study the darkness by flooding it with light,” conservationist and author Edward Abbey once said. I turned off the lantern and let the darkness descend.
200 Billion Stars Light the Night
As our eyes adjusted, we eagerly scanned the horizon in hopes of catching a glimpse of dancing ribbons of light. With no aurora in sight, we began to accept that we may not see it at all; the chances had been slim in the first place. Even without the aurora, the prairie began to put on its nightly spectacle.
The cold, clear night allowed the stars to shine with every ounce of light they had. Over 200 billion stars are contained within our home galaxy, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of them as I shivered in my old jacket. Camden alternated between blowing warm breath into his gloves and snapping the shutter on his camera.
With abundant light pollution across the U.S., dark-sky areas, be they designated International Dark Sky Places or not, are invaluable. Zumwalt is not designated as an official Dark Sky area like Prineville State Reservoir Park in Central Oregon but is a black zone, somewhere between a class two and three on the Bortle light-pollution scale. You can view the stars as though you had traveled back to a time before glowing cityscapes. Staring up at the sweeping Milky Way that stretched out farther than my peripheral vision could see, I wasn’t convinced that we hadn’t.
We tried to turn our lights on as little as possible, lest we lose our night-adjusted eyesight. Around us, coyotes howled and chatted to each other. We counted a few distinct packs based on the location of their serenading.
Something about their calls had my senses hyper-aware. As a human — arguably at the sophisticated, nature-taming top of the food chain — I had been deprived of my sense of sight almost completely. Thus, I tipped my hat to the coyotes as the superior species between the two of us in this environment and respected their boundaries. Whenever they seemed too close, we hopped in the car to listen to them pass without disturbance.
As the night wore on, it was clear that we wouldn’t be seeing any Northern Lights tonight, but we were not disappointed — the prairie had given us something magical regardless. In very few places have I felt like an observer to a wilderness that seemed unfazed by a human presence.
When we finally grew too tired and cold to continue staring at the stars, we packed up and made our way back to our campsite at Wallowa Lake State Park to crawl into a warm sleeping bag. Zumwalt is as timeless as it is complex, and it is comforting to know that it exists in our busy world beneath a star-filled sky.