A MINI GUIDE TO THE OREGON DESERT
September is the best time of year in Oregon. It’s the perfect time to visit the alpine, there’s so much great foraging at every elevation, the leaves start to turn but generally we are blessed with lovely weather and it’s enjoyable to be outdoors anywhere. My personal favorite, if I have to pick, is to spend September in the dry Oregon desert. You can count on cool nights, lots of wind, maybe a thunderstorm or a dust storm will roll through just to shake things up. The camping opportunities are abundant, the solitude is easy, and there are no reservations, no permits required, just show up and choose your own adventure. I love feeling free to move about as I please and I love the solitude the desert always provides. If you’d love to go get lost, too, but don’t know where to start, here are five places I’m dreaming of for the end-of-summer season.
Smith Rock State Park
Of course you’ve already been to Smith, maybe you grew up going there like myself, but consider this your reminder to check up on an old friend and get a little extra sunshine under your belt before you endure another long drab winter under the cloak of cloud cover in the valley. Once school is back in session, find a weekday to skip off and beat the crowds while you wander among the towering cliffs and spires, and admire the Crooked River as it winds it way around each bend. Watch for large, gentle bull snakes coiled in the shadows of a stately juniper or stretched lazily across the trail in the early morning sun. Lots of options and they are all scenic, so just go wander around and get lost. You won’t mind.
After a long hike and maybe a dip in the river, find yourself a rugged, dispersed camp at Skull Hollow or up near Grey’s Butte. If you don’t mind the extra mileage, hiking in to the park from Grey’s Butte is a nice way to pick up some extra solitude before and after you dance with the hoards in the core of the park. I love to trail run in from Grey’s Butte at dawn and try and beat the heat as I circumnavigate the park. Can you make it through the most popular areas before the crowds arrive? Good luck and Godspeed!
My friends, you cannot take a bad picture in this canyon if you tried. It is too darn scenic. Hike to a waterfall in the desert, travel off trail up canyon to a notch, pass beautiful shelter caves carved into red-violet rocks, descend into a valley on the mountaintop, where you’ll find a hot springs campground- all in one hike. It is a delightful sampling of high desert features like rock formations, secret waterfalls, caves, animals, aspen groves, and spectacular views of the valley below. Easily, DeGarmo is in my top five best hikes in Oregon list. What are the other four, you might ask? I’ll tell ya later. Don’t get me started. DeGarmo is too perfect to describe. Just look at these pictures and decide for yourself.
Mack’s Canyon and the Deschutes River Trail
The road to Mack’s is long. Bumpy, overused in the summer months by rafting outfitters and others, but in the “off-season” you can usually find a fair amount of peace and quiet. Might only be you and a few scattered fishermen, lurking the banks and standing sentinel on the fridges of the river, casting gracefully, patiently.
As you wind your way along the washboard road that follows this lower section of the river to its confluence with the mighty Columbia, you gain many epic views of this dramatic, towering canyon. Arriving in Mack’s Canyon always takes my breath away. Towering basalt landforms, talus fields and blankets of golden grasses that catch the eye and shimmer like velvet. The regal Deschutes, always a beautiful blue swath of water carving long around the headwalls and swirling in the depths. Spending time on the Deschutes is always good medicine.
The first miles of trail here, heading northward are mostly flat but the terrain is rugged, the bridges are out, you can expect to use your feet and hands to navigate through the gullies where train bridges once spanned these sometimes imposing creek chasms, but now you are on your own, scrambling, sliding and navigating back to the path again. Watch in the trees and along the rivers edges for hawks, osprey, eagles, herons and, my personal favorite, the pairs of blue-grey cranes. Keep a keen eye out, in the pastures and rolling hills, for bighorn sheep, mule deer, or maybe even the odd mountain goat or bear.
Hike as far as you’d like, take side trips up narrow canyons and down to the river on fishermen’s trails, and then return the way you came.
Is it a hike? No, not really. It’s more of a wander. Go wander around at Glass Buttes, pick up obsidian chips, camp amount beautiful ancient junipers, admire the beauty of an area most people foolishly consider “the most boring part of Oregon”. You and I know better, my dear. There is nothing boring about expansiveness. Nothing boring about easy, fun rock hounding. Nothing boring about treasure hunting for rare sheen obsidian chips with your friends. Dispersed camping here isn’t super private, but all the established camping areas are tidy and well kept. You’ll enjoy your time here, even just taking in the views.
Lost Forest and Shifting Sand Dunes
Is it a hike? Yes! Is there a trail? No. Will you see other hikers? Doubtful! Will you experience solitude? Umm, not really.
Mainly a Mecca for OHV enthusiasts, there’s still plenty for the rest of us to see and explore here in this massive complex of sand dunes. Park in the expansive staging area and take off on foot through the dunes. Roam the “Lost Forest” of seemingly misplaced Ponderosa pines, who are able to thrive in this dry environment thanks to moisture trapped underground by the ever changing dunes system. Forget about destinations out here. Just roam in the direction of the least number of people, admire the trees, watch birds wheeling in the sky, and return the way you came.
DeGarmo Canyon 42.47896, -119.78905
Mack’s Canyon 45.38802, -120.87473
Smith Rock 44.37712, -121.13303
Glass Buttes 43.55969, -120.00577
Lost Forest 43.37200, -120.32071