Outdoors Blog

The desert between Boise and Bend is the latest long-distance hiking destination

The scenery in the desert can surprise.
The scenery in the desert can surprise. Courtesy of Oregon Desert Trail

Anyone who’s driven from Boise to Bend has to wonder about Oregon’s latest long-distance hike — the Oregon Desert Trail.

But the highway, trail coordinator Renee Patrick said, misses the beauty of the desert.

“Not many folks know what’s out there,” Patrick said. “We tie into seven different mountain ranges — often those are 7,000, 8,000 feet. We go up and over Steens Mountain, which is over 9,500 feet, and drop 5,000 feet to the (desert) below. There’s cultural artifacts, arrowheads, pictographs. ... It’s kind of like a treasure hunt.”

Patrick was in Boise last week to promote the Oregon Desert Trail. She spoke to about 30 hikers who wanted to know more about her project.

The trail covers 750 miles in roughly a W-shape from the Oregon Badlands Wilderness east of Bend to Lake Owyhee State Park. The eastern terminus is about a two-hour drive from Boise. Patrick has traveled the entire trail in sections, including a pack-rafting trip on the Owyhee River at less than 300 cubic feet per second.

The route was designed to “hit the interesting places in the desert,” she said, and it’s not really a trail. Only 11 percent of the miles have actual trail. A third of the miles involve cross-country travel and the rest are on two-track roads, with few markers. Occasionally, pavement walking is required to access towns.

“A route vs. a trail is really interesting because you have to be more aware of where you are in order to be successful,” Patrick said. “Having to be present to make sure I’m not lost, I find myself having a deeper connection with my surroundings. I wanted to know more about where I was. I picked up some books about homesteading families and Native American history. I love the (Pacific Crest Trail), but it’s a trail where you don’t have to know where you are. You just walk. You don’t know what forest you’re in, what wilderness you’re in. ... The fact that it is difficult and you need solid navigation skills will attract people who have done this type of thing before.”

The Oregon Desert Trail, which is a project of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, has an extensive website (ONDA.org/OregonDesertTrail) to help hikers plan their trip. Patrick has started a community-sourced chart that allows hikers to update water levels along the trail for those who come behind them.

The best short stretch to tackle, Patrick said, is the 50 miles of trail that goes south from Paisley.

“It’s nice single track, there’s plenty of water, it’s signed, there’s trees,” she said. “If people want to start somewhere, that’s it.”

The trail also offers opportunities to bike, ride horses, ski and paddle.

“It’s really a multi-modal kind of experience,” Patrick said. “Recreation of those types is really new in some of these areas. We’re trying to cultivate that recreation mindset, that there are going to be some really hungry, dirty hikers coming through.”