In our gazeteer Southeast Oregon appeared to be an unremarkable expanse on the map. It was mostly lacking in color, indicative of little topographical variation, and lacked the clusters of variably sized city dots of the more densely populated Cascade spine and west coast. My inclination to explore was guided only by a stunning Instagram post about the Owyhee Canyonlands, 2.5 million acres of river gorges, red rock canyons, and high desert that is currently up for federal protection. We spent the rest of October and early November making slow tracks south and east of Bend towards Idaho and the City of Rocks. Here are the rest of the highlights.
Snow Day in Crater Lake: Despite residing in Washington for six years, I never made it to Oregon’s only National Park. We stopped here mainly to break up a long day of driving and didn’t have high expectations since most of the park is closed in the winter and visibility was non existent. But patience was rewarded at the Crater Rim as the clouds lifted revealing Wizard Island and lake waters that rival Tahoe in defining the color blue.
Ohwyhee Canyonlands & Echo Hot Springs: After seemingly endless driving though free range high desert, then down the 19 miles of washboard that lead to Leslie Gulch, we descended towards the Owyhee Reservoir and were gradually consumed by the towering rock formations that line the road. A short trail run on the Juniper Canyon trail, which follows a twisting wash through interesting geology, allowed for some much-needed leg stretching and energy burning before we prepared to leave Moby alone for the night and soak at the Echo Hot Springs.
The trail to Echo Hot Springs is currently a worn 4 mile jeep path that skirts the water as the reservoir is sadly at an all time low. Banks that were once lake bottom were carpeted with the silver carcasses of carp and an ankle-high army of plants with persistent marble-sized sticker balls that congregated on our shoelaces. As the area is open range, stubborn cows and their frequent patties were the only real obstacles encountered along our path.
But do not be deterred by my enchanting description of the walk to the springs – they are well worth the less than stellar approach. Considerate locals and frequent soakers have installed a poured cement tub and PVC pipe drainage system which keeps the soaking waters toasty and the tubs clean. We had the tubs to ourselves for the night and soaked beneath a brilliant, starry sky, free of light pollution and frequently streaked with the residual light of little dust bits hurtling through the atmosphere.
Beta on this and other hot springs in Oregon, British Columbia, Washington and Idaho can be found in the great book, Hiking Hot Springs in the Pacific Northwest.
The rest of our time in the Owyhee was spent reading in our Eno hammocks (thank you Danny Schneider and Evergreen Escapes!) while our gear dried and scouting potential climbs. Manufactured rock climbing is present here, though after pulling down some sizeable chunks while attempting to boulder, we found the overall rock quality a bit uninspiring.
What We’re Reading, What We’re Listening To, What We Learned
Though it wasn’t really a highlight, we coincidentally passed through the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge while listening to the Oregon Public Broadcasting podcast “This Land is Our Land.” This was about a week or so after the surprising “not guilty” verdict was reached in the Bundy trial. The podcast covers the occupation of the MNWF, provides background on the occupiers/terrorists and follows the trial from beginning to end. While I hate the outcome of the trial and the precedent that it sets, the podcast is an interesting and worthwhile listen, especially in regards to how many members of the local community felt about the occupiers, and where the prosecution may have erred.
Reading: The Galapagos – Kurt Vonnegut at his weirdest and best.
What we Learned: Lately we’ve spent a lot of time surrounded by all manner of beef cattle, some milling about in road-blocking herds and some that seem to be off on a solo mission. It’s led us to wonder, how do the ranchers round them all up to change seasonal grazing lands, how are changes to the herd total accounted for and why don’t more cattle wonder off and go rogue like the adventurous herd from Crested Butte that met their end at Conundrum Hot Springs?
According to one rancher that we asked, the cows just know. Every herd contains a few wizened old matriarch cows (not the bulls, can’t trust them) that feel the seasons a’changing in their ancient bones and know when it is time to descend to lower winter pasture. They remember the meet-up points where water and food is distributed and lead the rest of the herd that way. As for any unbranded cattle that come along, Edward Abbey asserts that the rules of ‘finders keepers’ apply, and thus the herd size is generally enlarged or maintained.
If you are in the know about cattle and have an answer to the contrary, please let us know. We clearly are not experts.