Camping Guide: Desert Rambles

5 Essential Hikes in the Eastern Oregon Desert

From red-rock spires to aspen-shrouded hot springs, here's where to trek on the other side of the Cascades.

By ONDA and Benjamin Tepler May 22, 2018 Published in the June 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

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Steens Mountain

Bend’s Oregon Natural Desert Association fights for Oregon’s various desert habitats. That includes establishing the Steens Mountain Wilderness (the first designated wilderness in Oregon’s high desert) and building the Oregon Desert Trail. Here’s where ONDA’s in-the-know staff likes to hike and backpack in their own backyard.

Black Canyon to Sutton Mountain Summit, John Day River Basin

Length: 3 miles, Difficulty: Easy
Tucked into the east side of Sutton Mountain, Black Canyon holds plants found nowhere else in the world. The main canyon takes you up steep grassy hills, with expansive views from the 4,694-foot summit.

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Leslie Gulch

Image: Courtesy BLM

Leslie Gulch, Owyhee Canyonlands

Length: Up to 5 miles, Difficulty: Easy (difficult farther up the gulch)
Leslie Gulch is filled with geological wonders, from red-rock spires to honeycomb formations. Take the Juniper Gulch Trail for a straightforward out-and-back, or continue up the gulch for views of the surrounding Owyhee Canyonlands and Lake Owyhee. (And keep an eye out for California bighorn sheep!)

Alder Springs, Whychus-Deschutes

Length: 3 miles round-trip to Alder Springs or 6 miles round-trip to confluence with Deschutes River, Difficulty: Moderate
This hike to crisp, clear desert oasis Whychus Creek takes you through canyons, salmon and steelhead-filled waters and towering ponderosas. Be prepared to wade across the creek and continue on an unmaintained trail if you want to reach the Deschutes.

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A campfire in the Owyhee Canyonlands

Little Blitzen Gorge Trail, Steens Mountain

Length: 6–18.5 miles round-trip, Difficulty: Easy–moderately difficult
This day hike or overnighter through Steens Mountain Wilderness follows the Little Blitzen River up a U-shaped gorge, punctuated by wildflowers, wildlife, and waterfalls.

Warner Peak, Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge

Length: 11 miles round-trip, Difficulty: Moderately difficult
Wildlife and wide-open spaces are the draws for hiking Warner Peak, which rises above the headquarters of the Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. The hike begins and ends at the aspen-shrouded Hot Springs Campground—the ultimate spa treatment after a long trek.

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