I’ve previously mentioned that this is one of our favorite trips. Often the best places are the most difficult to reach, so sit back, breathe deep, and enjoy the Oregon ‘Outback’. Our starting point is Lakeview, Oregon traveling north on Highway 395. Be sure to top off your fuel, your food, and your adventurous spirit. Approximately five miles ahead turn right on Highway 140 up the Warner canyon and over the north Warner Mountains. At the crest of this pass is a ski park complete with lift and cross country trails, should you travel this way in the winter. This will be the last of the pine forests and green meadows.
Many people are not acclimated to the high desert steppe lands dominated by sagebrush and bunch grass. It initially seems to be a foreboding, semi-arid wasteland of high plateaus, steep outcroppings, and alkali basins. This is true unless you allow your senses to take hold and truly experience the diversity of the ‘badlands’.
After descending the Warner’s there will be a sign to the left indicating the road to Plush and Hart Mountain – Oregon road 3-13. Plush is a very small town with a general store, fuel, and food. There’s a good picnic area adjoining the store. It will seem like a long ride from Lakeview to the western edge of the Great Basin, but in reality you’ve only traveled twenty some miles. The principal item of interest in the Plush area, aside from the dramatic scenery, are ‘sunstones’, a semi-precious mineral feldspar in a variety of colors, but mostly commonly white and light yellow. The rarer varieties are blue and lavender. The Plush ‘Diamond’ Works is a shop in town that processes and sells the stones. Should you care to explore for your own minerals, the BLM maintains a 2500 acre ‘Mineral Withdraw Area’ some twenty five miles north of Plush on the BLM road (don’t turn on road 3-12 to Hart Mt.) – follow the signs.
Heading out of Plush to the north you’ll come to road 3-12 and Warner Lake, part of a series of lakes that comprise Warner Wetlands Area of Critical Environmental Concern – quite a name for what the locals call ‘Potholes’. This is a critical part of the Pacific Flyway where most the migrating waterfowl stop over on their yearly sojourn to warmer climes. To the east are the huge, jutting cliffs of Hart Mountain. With some effort you may be able to spot bighorn sheep on the cliffs. These critters where hunted to extinction by the early settlers but re-introduced in the 1950’s by the Feds who transported 10 pairs of California Bighorns from Canada. It worked and today there’s said to be over 500 hugging the cliffs. A beautiful animal.
The paved road around the east side of the potholes turns into a fairly well graded gravel road near the base of Hart Mt. The route to Hart Mt. National Antelope Refuge ascends sharply up the side of this imposing mountain to the degree that I’ve had to put my truck in four wheel drive when towing a trailer to keep the rear tires from spinning loose of the gravel. The tow is very doable, but not for the faint of heart.
As you top the cliffs a vast plateau appears with the road running a straight course to the refuge headquarters. Don’t expect antelope to be jumping out at you, but some can usually be seen in the distance. Their coloration is a perfect match for the area so look closely. The refuge headquarters is a great place to stop and get your bearings. Along with restrooms and drinking water, the headquarters offers interpretive displays, brochures, maps, and general information about the 278,000 acre refuge.
There are two side trips that we enjoy. If you want a good view of the wildlife, particularly the antelope and mule deer, go north from the headquarters to Petroglyph Lake, some three miles down a decent gravel road, though the last half mile is somewhat rocky. Wallace Stegner, the father of western writing, once commented that the defining elements of the west are that it is ‘vast and arid’. This becomes no more self-evident than in this setting. Tracking wildlife centers on finding water. Petroglyph Lake is thus a beacon for the creatures that call this vast plateau home. Morning and evenings are the best times to see these guys. In the afternoon, when you won’t disturb the watering animals, walk around the lake to find the Native American petroglyphs on the bordering rocks for which the lake was named.
If you plan on spending the night or longer, the best place is Hot Springs Campground, about 4 miles south of the headquarters. It’s a very basic campground, but offers a somewhat developed hot spring. An evening soak in the warm water under the star filled sky is an unexpected treat in this dusty, dry environment.
The road to the Steens Mountain continues east from the headquarters to Frenchglen. The usually well maintained gravel road traverses some sixty miles of mostly flat, high plateau. Occasionally you’ll see a lonely ranch house in the distance, but mostly there’s no sign human impact. About half way there’s Rock Creek Reservoir, which we’ve never stopped to explore. I have noticed a few people parked at the edge – maybe fishing, picnicking, or swimming. Moving on you’ll come to Highway 205. Turn left on this welcome paved road and travel some seven miles to Frenchglen, our destination. And yes, they do have cold beer.