Finished your Triple Crown and not sure where to get your next thru-hike fix? While not as well-loved as the PCT, the Oregon Desert Trail shows off the intense scenic beauty of the high desert in southwest Oregon and deserves more attention. The ODT is a 750 mile W-shaped route with the western terminus in the Badlands of Central Oregon, east of Bend, and and the eastern terminus in the Owyhee Canyonlands in Lake Owyhee State Park near the Idaho border.
It’s a new route, vetted by thousands of volunteer hours beginning in 2011. It is a "virtual route" meaning there is no dedicated Oregon Desert Trail signage, so you need to show up prepared for the navigational challenge. In this backcountry, you will be able to experience the sublime solitude you dreamed about, but couldn’t find, on the crowded PCT and AT. You won’t have to fight anyone for the flattest, softest camping spots, but the terrain is so rough sometimes there aren’t very flat or soft spots.
There are hot springs and pictographs to enjoy, pronghorn antelope and sage grouse to view, and rattlesnakes to avoid. Unimpeded by light pollution, you’ll see more stars than you thought possible while challenging yourself to the limit. This is truly a hike for the experienced but it offers those special rewards reserved to those who persevere.
When to Hike
As a desert hike, shoulder seasons are the best time to get on the trail, though that means less stable weather with day and night extremes. In terms of water supply, springtime is the best time to hike the ODT, since the streams will be well-fed by snowmelt. (But that also means mosquitos!)
No matter which time time of the year you go, you can experience snow or 100+ degree days, or sometimes both in the same week. Deserts! They’re unpredictable. Here is some solid advice for keeping safe in the heat. (Ever heard of hyponatremia?) Like the desert animals, consider being active earlier or later in the day, and take some rest in shade during the hottest part.
Water is probably the ODT's biggest challenge due to a combination of several factors:
- Hot and dry desert environment requiring a high intake of water while not offering much in terms of natural resources
- Low-density population makes human-made water sources scarce
- Mix use of many areas that include cattle herding creates a constant environmental strain on the few water sources that exist.
Be prepared for long stretches without water that is impossible to carry all the time, so you'll need to cache it. The Oregon Natural Desert Association has created a water chart indicating reliable, questionable, and unreliable water sources along the way, make sure you use it. While both spring and fall have milder temperatures than the summer or winter, fall will be a lot drier. The first person to thru-hike the ODT in the fall carried 9L of water at the driest point, and you should expect to need similar quantities.
Many of the water sources are shared with cattle so a reliable water filter is a must, aim for a high volume one like the Sawyer Squeeze. Due to the high volume of water needed, opt for a 3L Vecto instead of a 2L one, and carry at least 2 of them.
The ODT passes through several towns, including Paisley, Plush, Frenchglen, Fields, and Rome (within 1 mile), where you can either buy supplies or have them mailed to Post Offices for you to pick up. The towns of Christmas Valley, Lakeview, and McDermitt are reached by alternate trail options. The greatest struggle is between the eastern terminus and Rome, where the nearest towns are more than 20 miles away and you may have to rely on hitching a ride. ONDA provides a resupply strategy here.
If you're not committed to thru-hiking the ODT all at once, you can section hike (or section paddle, horseback ride, or bike) as you please. This is a great project for local Oregonians to add to their bucket list with the goal of completing a section a year. ONDA has helpfully divided the ODT into 25 sections and created guides for each region.
The map below shows the sections and route.
The ODT has some particular concerns and so requires some specialized gear beyond a standard 3 seasons kit.
- Extreme heat, but also snow: Make sure you are ready for cold nights (even in summer) and hot days (even in winter). Sunscreen, UV protecting clothing, puffy jacket and a warm sleeping kit is recommended at all times.
- Lack of high vegetation (aka trees): Umbrellas can shield you from heat, but also precipitation and help avoid sun strokes. We recommend the Silver Shadow Trekking Umbrella from Six Moons Design.
- Rattlesnakes: Bring along gaiters. They're also useful for sharp plants.
- Strong winds: There aren't many-wind breaking trees in several sections of the trail. Tents can become kites. Some nights, sleeping in the open air or in a bivy sack may be your best option.
- No potable water/long distances without any water: You'll need more water storage that you usually carry. We recommend 3L Vectos and, of course, don't forget your filter.
- Unmarked route: Unlike the PCT, AT, or more established trails, some of the ODT is not labeled. Bring maps and a compass and know how to use them well. ONDA has provided GPS data for your phone or GPS device.
- Alternate options: At times, the ODT is more of a suggested route than a trail. Some explorers prefer to bikepack portions. You might want a packraft; the last 200 miles are along the Owyhee River.
- Lack of cellphone service: Be safe in very remote areas. Carry a beacon to alert rescuers in case you need to be evacuated.
In September, Cnoc Outdoors donates 10% of revenue from purchases on the website to an organization that strives to protect the wild beauty of the world and create inclusive, accessible outdoor adventures. For 2018, we are donating to the Oregon Natural Desert Association. The Executive Director of ONDA was the first to dream up the ODT. In addition to working on the ODT, some of the Oregon Natural Desert Association’s work has included obtaining legal protection for the Oregon Desert's lands and wildlife against dangers such as industrial-scale energy development and the intrusion by motorized vehicles.
Much of the information you will need for your desert adventure is available on the ONDA website. Check out their detailed guide before you head out to the trail. Oregon’s desert backcountry beckons.