The Land Observations and Advice Places To Go
The backcountry of southeast Oregon is vast. Llama packing here is a unique experience. Unpopulated public lands stretch over an area equal to several eastern states combined, providing unprecedented opportunities for solitude. This land, the northern end of the Basin and Range Province, a huge inland area comprising parts of California, Utah, Oregon and most of Nevada that has no outlet to the sea. In SE Oregon it is a country of extremes. The huge lakes of pleistocene times are now dry mudflats (playas) that lie baking in the sun between mountain ranges that were once nearly islands. The mountains are tilting blocks of the earth's crust that are being thrust ever higher. Their broken edges rise almost straight up to heights of nearly 10,000 feet on one side, while sloping gently away on the other. Incised into them are ancient glacial gorges and deep canyons that beg for exploration.
While much of the land is not designated as official Wilderness, it possesses nearly all the necessary characteristics. During your visit to Wilderness Study Areas and even the undesignated lands, it is highly unlikely that you will see anyone.
Foot travel through the area is virtually unrestricted. In fact, you will find official hiking trails only on Steens Mountain. While the Desert Trail does cross the area, it consists of a route marked by cairns, not tread. Most hiking involves cross-country walking, or following cattle, feral horse, wildlife or old jeep trails. The horse trails are particularly well defined. Do not be put off by the presence of jeep 'roads' shown on topographical maps. Many are faint 'two-tracks' that are rapidly fading away. Often, they are less defined than hiking trails in popular wilderness areas. Here, they make usable footpaths. Even those that are more defined and do get driven see very little use.
OBSERVATIONS AND ADVICE
The most important advice for anyone traveling in this country is to make sure that someone knows where you are going and when you expect to return. Hikers should be prepared to be entirely self-sufficient. Help is far away. While much of the area has cell phone signal, and you may be able to contact rescue services in an emergency, the nearest population centers are distant. Getting help can take many hours.
Vehicle travel off highway can be rough. Carrying a full set of repair items especially including spare tires, a jack, and hand pump is wise. Fuel is usually available at the hamlets of Frenchglen and Fields, but only during certain hours. Expect to pay a premium for it.The Steens Loop Road has been rebuilt and, as of fall 2013, is drivable all the way through. It is closed during periods of deep snow. Do not count on having access. It is best to inquire with the Burns District of the Bureau of Land Management when planning your trip.
Water is scarce here. Air dry enough to crackle sucks moisture right out of you. Expect to consume more than a gallon of water daily. There are few water sources, none of which should be counted on except the Donner und Blitzen River and its major tributaries. Just because a water course or spring is shown on a map is no guarantee that water is present. Large water containers and the ability to carry a full day's supply at all times is recommended. We often have a spare llama with us just to carry water and support items.
Sagebrush is ubiquitous. A tough plant, it often grows in dense stands that can shred naked knees. Long pants are recommended for hiking off trail. Insect repellant may be needed along creeks and in the canyons during warm seasons. It is a must during snowmelt. Creeks are generally fordable except during the spring snow melt. Sandals or sneakers are useful. This is basalt country and rocks are sharp against bare feet. Southeast Oregon is sagebrush steppe; 'desert' to most people. Sunlight is abundant and high elevations make it intense. Strong sunscreen is a must. Extra skin moisturing lotion to help offset effects of dry air is also helpful.
Rattlesnakes are common. Often a llama's reaction to a snake is to drop its head to inspect more closely. A resulting bite on the nose will cause the nasal passages to swell and, since llamas only breath through their nose, cut off their air supply. Small plastic tubes inserted in the passages can keep the airways open and prevent death. These should be included in any backcountry first aid kit. Llama boots may also come in handy since the ground often is very rocky and can make soft foot pads sore in a hurry.
Few light sources disturb this country at night. Starlight nearly casts shadows. The milky way is brilliant and star charts are fun to have along. During the day, expansive views and long distances make wildlife viewing easy. Binoculars are very useful.
PLACES TO GO
In our desert environment, conditions vary tremendously from year to year. Because water is a critical need and its presence is highly variable, one must be prepared to adjust trip itineraries. Certain areas provide excellent packing options, but within those areas routes must be adjusted to reflect current conditions. Drought, fire danager, cattle grazing and hunting seasons may be issures. The table to the left lists areas we enjoy visiting. Descriptions, images and sample itineraries may be accessed by clicking on the area name. These will provide you with a clear idea of what the area has to offer.