Thursday, May 28, 2015

Oregon Desert Trail

Hiker: Sage Clegg, thru-hiking record holder and outdoor educator

executive summary by darmansjah

My list of top trails includes some official trails and routes, but it also includes many conceptual routes, like a loop around Montana that connects my favorite places. This summer, I will become the first person to thru-hike the brand-new, 750-mile Oregon Desert Trail (ODT). People always say deserts are wasteland, but I don't see them that way at all. Deserts are filled with creatures who have a zest for life, and I want to go spend time with them. Of course, my truly epic dream route would be to extend the ODT to meet with the Idaho Centennial Trail, to the Pacific Northwest Trail, to the Pacific Crest Trail, and walk down from the Cascades back to my door in Bend, a Pacific Northwest Dryside Loop. I don't know if I will ever turn this route into reality, but it has crept into my mind. —Sage Clegg

Length: 750 miles

The Details: The Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) was designed not so much as a thru-route but as a grand tour of the little visited but grand landscapes of Oregon’s eastern desert. At a lengthy 750 miles, the trail just scratches the surface of the largest desert in the U.S., the cold, sparsely populated sage steppes of the 190,000-square-mile Great Basin Desert that stretches into Idaho, Nevada, California, and Utah.

The ODT is the brainchild of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. Volunteers and staff from the small grassroots environmental organization made their dream of showcasing eastern Oregon’s wonders when they pieced together existing trails, jeep tracks, and overland routes through vast, dry stretches of mostly Bureau of Management lands, including numerous Wilderness Study Areas whose protection status is still up in the air.

Indeed, it is not a wasteland. The trail has a subtle beauty as it passes through endless stands of big basin and Wyoming sagebrush that provide habitat for songbirds and lekking areas for sage grouse as well as a riot of springtime wildflowers, some of them found only here.

The desert shelters rock blinds and other evidence of historic native tribes and even ancient Clovis cultures who once hunted here. It crosses the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge and winds under the looming mass of 9,733-foot-tall, 50-mile-long Steens Mountain.

But the most dramatic section may be the final miles in the Owyhee Canyonlands, a wilderness of soaring rhyolite canyon walls where the Yellowstone hot spot caldera exploded in a fury of magma 13.8 million to 12 million years ago before it slowly shifted east to its present location under the park.

It’s not an easy trail to complete, either. Despite stops in outpost towns like Fields and Rome, there are long stretches without water or the chance to resupply. Part of Clegg’s mission on the first hike of the new trail is to report on just how it works as a thru-hike and help ONDA improve it for future visitors. Though little of the desert is protected, it makes up a section of the largest roadless area in the continental United States, 1.9 million acres of untouched land spanning Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada.

When to Go: The side seasons of spring and fall. The sage steppes of the Great Basin Desert can be frigid and snowy in winter, and summer is a tough time to find water.

About Clegg: As a wildlife biologist, Sage Clegg spends a good part of the year in the field, most recently studying desert tortoises in California’s Mojave Desert. But in summer 2013 she will be exploring the cold desert of Oregon’s Great Basin.

Clegg is more than qualified for the trip—she holds the women’s speed record for completing the big three thru-hikes in the U.S. (the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Pacific Coast Trail), knocking out that triple crown of roughly 8,000 miles and a million vertical feet of elevation gain in just under 18 months. In 2011, she created her own route across California, the 1,200-mile Japhy Ryder Route from Death Valley to the Lost Coast. Her main objective on the ODT is not to beef up her hard-core hiking chops, however, but instead to draw attention to one of the last great untouched cores of wild lands in the Lower 48.

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