5 Must-Hike Spots in Oregon’s High Desert

You’ve never seen Oregon like this before.

Oregon is renowned for its iconic rocky coast and moss-dripped forests. But fewer folks know that nearly half the state is high desert—expansive, diverse, and full of hidden gems. From red-rock reminiscent of the Southwest to secluded canyon waterfalls, the terrain here is full of largely undiscovered surprises.

Here are five favorites for you to explore.

John Day River Basin

Location: Sutton Mountain’s Black Canyon
Length: Approximately 3 miles
Difficulty Rating: Easy with difficult addition

From waterfalls to plants that exist nowhere else in the world, Black Canyon makes for a fascinating visit. Black Canyon is tucked into the east side of Sutton Mountain, which rises 4,694 feet above the rolling hills of the John Day country. Wildflowers delight here in the spring, especially when the hedgehog cactus is blooming in April and May. At first, this hike offers a relatively flat bottom, with small offshoots from the main canyon. For those looking to work up a sweat, there are multiple access points along the way up steep grassy hills that lead to the expansive views from Sutton Mountain’s summit.

Owyhee Canyonlands

Location: Juniper Gulch Trail, Owyhee Canyonlands
Length: 1.6 miles, with additional 1.5-mile option for 3.1 total
Difficulty Rating: Easy, with a difficult addition

Oregon’s Owyhee is astoundingly diverse, and this hike takes place in its “wait, am I in Utah?” section. A geological wonderland filled with red-rock spires and honeycomb formations, the Juniper Gulch Trail in Leslie Gulch takes you through a sandy draw past caves and overhangs. From the well-marked trailhead, go 0.6 miles until the trail forks. Head right and take the path up the ridge to an amphitheater. Here, you should keep an eye out for California bighorn sheep and look south to glimpse Mahogany Mountain. This is an out-and-back hike, so turn around here if you want an easy hike.

But to get another great vista, keep left at the amphitheater and continue up the gulch for another 0.75 steep miles to the ridgeline. If you press on for the ridge, the hiking is very steep and difficult, but the views of the surrounding Owyhee Canyonlands and Lake Owyhee are worth the effort.

Whychus-Deschutes

Location: Lower Whychus Creek, Whychus-Deschutes
Length: 6 miles round trip to confluence with Deschutes River, or 3 miles round trip to Alder Springs
Difficulty Rating: Moderate

Experience the proverbial oasis in the high desert in this hike to crisp, clear Whychus Creek, following it to where it merges with the Deschutes River. The trail tracks along the canyon, geologic strata on display, and then descends to the greenery that flourishes on the creek bank. Salmon and steelhead swim here, thriving off the cold waters that pour into the creek from Alder Springs. Be prepared to wade across the creek to continue to the Deschutes confluence. The maintained trail ends at the Deschutes, where you can enjoy the cool shade of towering ponderosas and the deafening roar of the river.

Steens Mountain

Location: Little Blitzen Gorge Trail, Steens Mountain
Length: 3.1-9.3 miles, one-way
Difficulty Rating: Easy-moderately difficult

Alpine terrain in the desert? Look no further than Steens Mountain Wilderness, a 170,200-acre expanse of aspen stands and glacier-carved gorges, plus a shocker of a drop-off on the mountain’s east side. This particular trail follows the Little Blitzen River up just such a U-shaped gorge, punctuated by wildflowers, wildlife, and waterfalls. It can be approached as a day hike or an overnight backpack.

From the trailhead, descend a mile to a bridgeless creek crossing that can usually be accomplished without getting wet feet. Then turn right on a fainter, brushier route another 3.1 miles to 4-Mile Camp, a backpacking destination where big cottonwoods shade a streamside meadow. Adventurers can continue 3.8 miles up Little Blitzen Gorge to a fork at a rimrock knoll that divides the canyon. To the left, a steep, rough path climbs past a small waterfall to the Steens Mountain Loop Road. To the right, the main trail continues faintly upriver 2.4 miles to a 20-foot waterfall at the lip of the valley’s cirque.

Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge

Location: Warner Peak
Length: 3.1-9.3 miles, one-way
Difficulty Rating: Moderate-difficult

Wildlife and wide-open spaces are the draws for hiking Warner Peak, which rises above the headquarters of this wildlife refuge. The hike begins at the Hot Springs Campground, a delightful area of aspens, burbling creeks and, indeed, hot springs that will make for the perfect capstone for the journey. To begin, walk up Barnhardi Road, veer left at first junction and drop into Barnhardi Meadow. Hike west past the historic cabin and continue up the drainage to DeGarmo Notch or choose a slope on the south side of the drainage to ascend to the ridge—this is the most challenging part of the hike. Once on top of the ridge, you will see the radio tower to the south, indicating your destination: Warner Peak. Enjoy the see-forever views of nature at its near-purest.

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