Oregon Desert Trail

A crossing of Oregon's wildest desert landscapes along a loosely defined, unsigned, and sometimes untracked route from Bend to Lake Owyhee.

Hiking Severe

Distance
1226 km
Ascent
14 km
Descent
14 km
Duration
1 day +
Low Point
814 m
High Point
2.9 km
Gradient
VIEW ON MAP
Oregon Desert Trail Map

Description

The Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) is a journey across the arid mountains, canyons, and plains of Eastern Oregon, from the Badlands near Bend to the Owyhee Canyonlands near the Idaho border. The way in between is not an established trail, but a loosely defined route between landmarks. Some of the course is on dirt tracks and roads, but at least a third of the “trail” is pathless cross-country travel, where a single best line between points A and B doesn’t necessarily exist. There are no directional signs anywhere. Hikers must rely on maps, gps, and intuition to navigate. This ambiguity is by design, because the ODT is meant to be a “choose your own adventure” wilderness experience and an exercise in self reliance, in which no two travelers take the exact same steps or itinerary.

Therefore, the track mapped here is merely a rough guideline. If you plan to hike any section of the ODT, you must study topographic maps to learn the landmarks, and mark waypoints in your GPS device ahead of time. Hiking any distance on this trail is a serious undertaking, and one that increases exponentially in difficulty the more days you spend out. The ODT crosses extremely remote and rugged terrain, where water sources may be 50 miles apart, assuming you can find them. Populated areas are small, few, and far between, so you may not see another human for days, and help may be out of reach in an emergency. Long-distance hikers should prepare by scouting the tougher sections in advance, and by caching water and food in strategic locations. Only a handful of people have completed a thru hike of the ODT, but section hiking is becoming popular along certain stretches.

Beginning in the west, the first 100 miles of the ODT wander among the Central Oregon Volcanic Region, where rolling grasslands and ancient juniper forests are interrupted by basalt canyons, black lava-rock pinnacles, and plains of gray ash. This is an especially dry and dusty landscape, but rivers flow through some of the deeper gorges.

The Basin and Range forms a vast portion of Oregon, and more than 400 miles of the trail undulate through mountains and valleys that ripple the middle of the state. The western part of this region, dominated by wide-open sagebrush steppe ecosystem, is critical habitat for prairie species like pronghorn antelope and sage grouse. Here, the trail enters designated wildlife refuges where you are likely to see these and other native inhabitants. The eastern part of the Basin and Range is a land of even taller peaks, deeper canyons, and more expansive wilderness. The trail climbs Steens Mountain, a 50-mile-long massif more than 7,000 feet tall, carved with glacial valleys and often crowned with snow.

Finally, the trail enters the Owyhee Canyonlands, where it winds for more than 200 miles through an astonishingly-rugged landscape built up by erupting volcanoes and cut down by rushing rivers. Rapids churn through vertical gorges bound by soaring rock walls and steep talus slopes. In between canyon rims are wildlife-rich plains and plateaus, seemingly out of reach of civilization and nearly untouched by people. The eastern terminus of the ODT is at Lake Owyhee State Park, ending a heroic 750-mile crossing of Oregon’s least explored and most extreme landscapes.

Sources: https://onda.org/regions/oregon-desert-trail/ https://www.opb.org/television/programs/ofg/segment/oregon-desert-trail-hike-bike-ski-owyhee-steens/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OregonDesertTrail

Difficulty

Severe

Hiking challenging trails where simple scrambling, with the occasional use of the hands, is a distinct possibility. The trails are often filled with all manner of obstacles both small and large, and the hills are very steep. Obstacles and challenges are often unexpected and can be unpredictable.

Medium Exposure

2 out of 4

The trail contains some obstacles such as outcroppings and rock which could cause injury.

Remoteness

4 out of 4

In the high mountains or remote conditions, all individuals must be completely autonomous in every situation.

Best time to visit

April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November

Features

  • Wildlife
  • Picturesque
  • Dog friendly
  • Wild flowers
  • Water features
  • Forestry or heavy vegetation