Oregon Desert Trail Overview

oregon desert tral

Oregon Desert Trail Overview

In the fall of 2018, I hiked the Oregon Desert Trail west-bound. I deeply enjoyed the vast open expanses and the lonesome nature of this route. I highly recommend it to other hikers, with advanced skill sets, who enjoy remote desert hiking. The present post is more of an overview of the trail, while this other post contains more photos and a few notes from my trail journal.

oregon desert trail

Distance & Location

The Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) is a 750-mile route through the high desert country of eastern Oregon. In the shape of a weird “W”, it’s made up of a network of trails, cross country travel, and two-track dirt roads. The termini are located in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness near Bend, Oregon, and in Lake Owyhee State Park, near the Idaho border.

oregeon desert trail xc

Terrain & Scenery

The ODT was developed by the Oregon Natural Desert Association as a means to promote conservation of Oregon’s spectacular high desert through low impact recreation. The trail traverses key natural areas including Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Steens Mountain, Abert and Diablo Rims, and the Owyhee Canyonlands.

From ONDA’s website:

“To craft this 750-mile route located on public land and public rights-of-way, ONDA stitched existing trails, old Jeep tracks, and historical wagon roads together with stretches of cross-country travel. Our aims are to improve access to the wonders of the desert and to let explorers take a choose-your-own-adventure approach to getting to know this region.

Sections of the trail can be explored on foot or on horseback, or by boat, bike, or even skis in the winter. Some sections offer easy walks along well-marked paths. Other areas require GPS skills, significant outdoor experience, and serious preparation, particularly for water sources.”

odt sunset

I believe that interacting with a landscape is the best way to form a relationship with that land and to care about protecting it. Most of us no longer spend our entire lives on one piece of land, or even in one geographical region. We therefore lack the strong connection to a place that comes from depending on a land for your food and water, building materials, etc.

Recreating in a place for an extended time period is one of the closest proxies we have to that relationship in modern times. Rather than closing off a wild space, allowing people only to be spectators, such as in a museum, we can create corridors of travel where people can connect with a landscape by being immersed in it for days, weeks, or months.

The best resource for hikers wishing to complete the ODT is ONDA’s website. The trail coordinator for the ODT, Renee Patrick, is an experienced thru-hiker, and the resources she’s created and compiled for the trail in just a few years is incredible. You’ll find GPS data, town guides, a water report, trail conditions, and much more.

oregon desert trail jordan canyon

Weather & Climate

Most ODT hikes are completed in the spring or fall. Each option has its own unique challenges and considerations. For example, water is more likely to be available in the spring than in the fall. However, if you start late enough, the fall is likely to be cooler. I also just find autumn to be a very pleasant time to be in the desert.

We completed our ODT thru-hike from September 1-30. The first week, daytime temperatures were in the high 80s and low 90s, but cooled down to high 50s and mid 60s later in the hike. Our nighttime temps ranged from low 20s to mid 40s. The only rain we experienced was a brief shower our last morning on trail. This meant I was able to cowboy camp every single night of the hike 🙂

oregon desert trail water

Water & Resupply Options

Water was one of our biggest challenges. 2018 was one of the hottest and driest years on record in Oregon. The water report, a Google spreadsheet, is found on ONDA’s website and is updated by hikers. You can make notes directly on the spreadsheet in the field and it will automatically update the master spreadsheet when you get to WiFi.

Notes from previous years are in the document and we found the data from 2015, another dry year, most closely reflected what we could expect in terms of reliability for water sources. We never counted on a source unless it was labeled ‘Reliable’, and more than once we found ourselves carrying up to 3 gallons.  If we came upon water before we expected, it was a bonus. Sources include creeks, rivers, springs, reservoirs, and most often, cow tanks. Some were clear and delicious. Others were murky, covered in algae, and tasted very cow-y despite being filtered and chemically treated. Any water is good water in the desert.

The towns and communities along the ODT corridor are all pretty small. They have limited amenities. Partially due to lack of services, and partially due to arriving and departing at odd hours of the day, we were only able to shower twice and do laundry once the entire time. We washed our bodies and clothes on trail, where possible, but it was a very dusty, smelly, and salty 30 days overall. We used blue sponges and a small amount of water in a gallon ziploc bag each night to get the bulk of the grime off our legs before bed. This massively improved comfort, reduced foot issues, and kept sleeping bags at least moderately clean.

Small towns also require you to be more self-sufficient in your packing than you would on more well-populated routes. This means carrying a few more supplies and being prepared for something to go wrong. For example, when my phone died on day 3, there was no Apple store anywhere within hundreds of miles, let alone in the next resupply town. Without GPS, having paper maps and compass was essential. Further, you couldn’t expect gear, such as new shoes or a tent, to be available in towns. You need to send it to yourself. It’s not a big deal-you just need to think ahead, be creative with problem solving, and be flexible.

Also due to the remoteness of the route, and the small town sizes, food and resupply options are limited and often pricey. You can see more about where and how I resupplied here. I mostly mailed myself boxes and regretted the stops where I didn’t. Here’s how I approached creating a healthy-ish resupply in a remote town with limited options.

The upside of all this is that the ODT was for sure, mile for mile, the cheapest trail I’ve ever hiked. With only 2 hotel stays, a few restaurant meals, and no reason to linger in towns, it’s hard to blow a bunch of money even if you’re trying. Another upside of the ODT is that the route either goes directly through towns or very close, so there is very little hitching necessary.

odt trio

Trail Journal

I have an (almost) daily practice of journaling, whether on trail or off. See a few ODT journal excerpts here as well as many more photos.

Additional Resources

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Oregon Desert Trail Journal

Field Notes (but mostly photos)

I have an (almost) daily habit of journaling, whether on trail or off. My journals are less of a play by play trip guide (“we hiked X miles to Y canyon, which is part of Z wilderness…”), and more of a free-flowing reflection on my inner experience. It’s a way for me to process the moments, the days, the feelings that make up this bizarre experience called life.

In the fall of 2018, I hiked the Oregon Desert Trail westbound, with 2 hiking partners. See this post for an overview of the trip. The present post is mostly a photo essay to provide a visual representation of the ODT, loosely in chronological order, with a few random notes from my trail journal mixed in. I hope it gives you insight into how diverse and stunning this landscape is.

oregon desert trail

“We dropped down into the aptly named Painted Canyon. Cool early morning hiking. A million shades of rocks. Bruise purple, juniper berry blue, sage green, burnt orange, sun-baked-bone white. The canyon walls pockmarked with thousands of tiny caves.

The sunrise touched the tips of the surrounding rock as we continued down the wash, hopping and picking our way over water-smoothed rocks. ….The terrain opened up, the canyon walls become tall grassy hillsides on either side of us. Spires of rust-colored rock jutting out of yellow grass.”

“Once the sun is up, the day becomes unbearably hot very quickly. We realize we’ve miscalculated our mileage to the next reliable water. We come upon a horse trough. It’s full of water covered in algae. We remove the scum to unveil cool murky brown water. Grateful, we drink.”

odt water

“Up one wash after another, cheatgrass filling my shoes and socks. Several carcasses and piles of bones scattered about. The remains of a desiccated snake.”

“We continue on, hiking cross country, up drainages and canyons. We round a bend, and a quarter mile in front of us, a wild horse stares back in our direction. We approach slowly. With surprising grace, it swiftly climbs the hillside and disappears behind a rock outcropping.”

odt

“Many people don’t understand why you’d want to go on a desert hike. ‘Isn’t it lonely out there? Barren?’

There are mule deer and horses and lizards and snakes and hawks and coyotes and sages and thistles and wildflowers and rabbit brush and juniper and just so much life out here. How could one get lonely in the desert?”

“My legs were scratched to pieces and burnt with heat rash, and my shoes and socks were filled with sharp cheatgrass, but the moment I stepped into the rushing Owyhee, all the aches melted and everything, yet again, was okay. The current was swift and I held tight to some rocks underwater. It’s difficult to describe how glorious a dip in the river feels to a dust-caked, sun-soaked desert walker.”

owyhee

 

odt trio

“Despite the rough day, I’m grateful to be out here. Grateful to walk. Grateful for incredible hiking partners to laugh and suffer with. Grateful for a strong body. Trail (and life) will always bring challenges. It’s up to us how we perceive and handle them.”

odt river

“We walked dirt roads for 8 hours today. The landscape went on forever. You reach the top of a small rise and the scene resets, road and sage on into infinity. Dust devils danced in the wind. Heat waves rose from the ground. So much space for the mind to wander.

At lunch, we create personal shade patches by propping our umbrellas on sage bushes and scrunching underneath. We kept imagining we saw shade trees in the distance, but they all turned out to be weird shaped rocks or just more sage.”

“The fine dust lent itself well to telling the desert’s story. I could detect the tracks of so many different animals and invented a whole narrative in my mind. The snake, the giant millipede, the mouse, the antelope, the coyote, the jackrabbit… So many creatures have traveled here before me. People think the desert is lonely. I have to laugh. ”

“Up at 4:30 and hiking by 5 under a crescent moon and starry milky way. We walk directly east into the soon-to-be rising sun. The light filters rose, purple, orange through the clouds. Walking along the canyon rim, we make good miles on old jeep roads before the sun climbs too high in sky. Jack rabbits dart from one sage bush to the next.”

“Within a few miles, we’re forced into the river to make our way forward. The walls of the canyon are rocky and steep and the small bank that comes and goes on either side is full of willows, grasses, briers, hackberry trees, sage bushes, and massive boulders. Canyon travel is difficult and we move at 1-1.5 mph.

I’m swimming towards some large red boulders on the opposite bank, determining how I’m going to get up out of the water and onto the rock. I begin to pull myself up, eye level with the top of the boulder. I look up, searching for my next hand hold  and spot a rattlesnake about 3 feet from my face. It doesn’t rattle. It begins to slither away, then stops, flicks it’s tongue, and coils into strike position.”

“We stop for a break at a bend in the canyon. In one of the most wild and remote regions of the country, it’s unbelievably silent…. As we pack up to move on, I hear what sounds like a jet coming around the canyon wall, and swooooosh, a flock of grouse is flying directly at our heads. They head straight for us, not veering up until the last moment. We whip our heads to follow their path, and as quickly as they appeared, they had flown out of sight. “

“We hike across the playa of the Alvord desert, a 12-by-7-mile dry lake bed. Mountains in every direction. Steens Mountain, which we will climb 5,000′ up and over tomorrow, is in the foreground.”

“I rolled my ankle in the Pueblos yesterday and it’s throbbing now. We make it to the hot springs by dusk. We snack and soak and rinse our clothes and linger until our skin is pruny. It’s glorious.”

“This type of travel requires you to constantly be on; to be flexible and adaptable. You might find cow trail to follow for a few hundred yards until it peters out, or you get cliffed out, and you have to let go, and find the next path of travel until that peters out or you realize you’re off your trajectory, and then you adjust again. Constantly changing your plan, experimenting, trying, failing, and not getting frustrated in the process. Good practice for navigating life.”

“The Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge is beautiful. Easy walking along rolling hills covered in sage brush, groves of aspen, and lone junipers. We’ve seen several herds of antelope. The aspens are golden-orange-yellow-bright green. I’m grateful for this taste of fall on the autumnal equinox. We descend down to Hart Lake and pass several boulders covered in petroglyphs. ”

“The rocks here are diverse and beautiful. And sometimes painful. Lava rock strewn everywhere, including all throughout the fields of sage and cheatgrass we traverse. There’s obsidian, opal, quartz, and many more whose names I don’t know. Remnants of the region’s volcanic history.”

“I wake up to the sounds of coyotes howling again. This morning, the twilight is a lovely red glow as we climb up to a ridge. We’re up high on single track (an ODT luxury). The nearly full moon is a big orange Harvest moon setting in the valley. We crest a mountain just as the sun rises and treats us to spectacular views of the Warner mountains in all directions.”

“This trail was a time warp. 30 days felt like 4 months. I didn’t come with many expectations. I just wanted adventure. The diversity and beauty of this landscape has amazed me. Much more than miles of sage, this area holds true remoteness and hidden gems. We’ve walked 700+ miles through one of the most remote regions of the US, in one of the hottest and driest seasons on record. We didn’t see a single other hiker. We laughed a lot and never passed up a chance for shenanigans. It wasn’t a relaxing month-not by any stretch of the imagination. But it provided the space and freedom and challenge I needed. It slowed me down. It was a salve to my irritated soul.”

“Ahh, to walk all day. To explore the limits of the body and the mind. What a blessing.”

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Improve Your Digestion Today with 7 Simple Tips

veggies

“All disease begins in the gut.” This oft-cited quote from Hippocrates still holds quite true, especially in modern times when so many factors are impacting our microbiome, our digestion, and our overall gut health.

Improving and maintaining strong digestion is essential for robust health. Healthy digestion is responsible for optimal nutrient absorption, proper energy production and metabolism, and elimination of toxins and other waste products. A diverse microbiome protects us from infection and supports a healthy mind and mood, among many other things.

Employ the following tips to optimize your gut health and improve digestion immediately.

relax digestion

Relax

Healthy digestion begins in the mind, before food even enters the mouth. Sit down to eat. Take a few deep breaths to relax and feel gratitude for your meal. The sight and smell of food allow the salivary glands to begin to produce the enzymes necessary to initiate the breakdown of food. Eliminate distractions, such as watching television or reading, so you can actually taste your food and sense when you’re full. Slow down and eat mindfully. This allows the nervous system to shift into parasympathetic, aka ‘rest and digest’, mode.

Chew More

The teeth break down food into smaller pieces which make it easier for the digestive system to process. Proper chewing also produces more saliva which contains enzymes that further break down food for increased nutrient absorption.

sauerkraut digestion

Feed the Gut

Creating a healthy microbiome involves nurturing a wide variety of microbes and feeding those microbes what they need to thrive. Inoculate the gut with probiotics through fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, and consider high quality supplements with a variety of strains. Nurture healthy gut microbes by eating a diverse range of foods, focusing on whole unprocessed foods, and consuming a lot of fiber. Legumes, whole grains, fruit, and vegetables are all great choices.

For a list of foods I enjoy on trail to maintain a healthy microbiome, download a copy of my healthy hiker grocery guide for FREE here.

Hydrate

Maintaining a steady intake of non-caffeinated beverages throughout the day is important to ensure healthy elimination and avoid constipation. Water is the ideal choice. There are many opinions on how much, but the old 8×8 rule, or eight eight-ounce glasses, is a good place to start. Increase this amount in hot climates or with heavy exercise.

Drop Unhealthy Habits

Eliminate the following activities which have been shown to disrupt digestion and a healthy microbiome: consuming artificial sweeteners and other food additives, drinking alcohol, smoking, over-consuming caffeine, being overly stressed, late night eating, and taking unnecessary pharmaceuticals.

exercise digestion

Exercise

Movement helps food pass through the digestive system. Even a short 15-20 minute walk can improve digestion. Gastrointestinal motility is important not only for physical comfort, but because it helps maintain a healthy bacterial population in the small intestine.

Consume Herbs to Enhance Digestion

Incorporate the following herbs to support liver and gallbladder health, stimulate digestion, and repair the digestive tract: Ginger root, Dandelion root, Peppermint leaf, Milk Thistle seed, and Slippery Elm bark. Use an infusion or decoction to prepare these herbs, depending on the part of the plant with which you’re working.

Incorporate any or all of the above tips to ensure robust digestion and all the benefits that go along with that!

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Pumpkin Oatmeal Cookies (gf)

autumn cookies

Pumpkin Oatmeal Cookies aka Autumnal Equinox Cookies

Sweaters, fuzzy slippers, flannel pajamas, golden leaves, and cozy evenings by the fire. Ahh, fall. The season for hygge.  In my book, the autumnal equinox is the mark for when it’s officially time to start baking with pumpkin again and roasting root veggies on the daily.

After finishing my hike of the Oregon Desert Trail at the end of September, I returned to my hiking partner’s house in Portland for a couple of weeks. As often happens when I’m on trail, I missed preparing food. Real food. There’s something about chopping, mixing, and combining beautiful ingredients that is so tactile and enjoyable.

As it’s wont to do in Portland in the fall, the weather cooled down and the skies clouded over. The cool rainy weather coupled with a dinner party in honor of my hosts’ 15th wedding anniversary meant some baking was in order.

We kept it casual with roasted veggies, grilled fish, and the following fall-flavored cookies. These cookies are naturally gluten free, and can be made dairy free by substituting the butter for coconut oil. They can be made free of refined sugar by swapping the brown sugar for coconut sugar. They can be made vegan by swapping the eggs for flax eggs (1 egg=mix 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed meal + 3 Tablespoons water & allow to sit for 15+ minutes).

oatmeal pumpkin cookie

Pumpkin Oatmeal Cookies

Makes ~15 small cookies

Ingredients

3/4 cup light brown sugar

5 Tbl butter, melted, cool

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 cup organic pure pumpkin puree

1 cup organic rolled oats

1.5 cups oat flour (I grind rolled oats in a coffee grinder)

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tsp pumpkin pie spice

1/2 tsp ground ginger

3/4 cup add-ins (chopped walnuts or almonds, pumpkin seeds, raisins, cranberries, chocolate chips, etc.

Cream the butter and the sugar together until light and fluffy. Mix in the pumpkin, eggs, and vanilla until evenly combined. Mix all dries together in a separate bowl then slowly add to wets, mixing until well combined. Add in whatever ‘add-ins’ sound good to you.

Form into small (golf ball size) balls on parchment-lined baking sheet. Press flat. Bake at 350* for 12-14 minutes.

Enjoy 🙂

pumpkin

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How to Create a Healthy Resupply in a Tiny Town

oregon desert trail

What to Eat When the Healthy Choices are Non-existent or Obscure

Let’s start with a quick story of an experience I had like this on the Oregon Desert Trail. We had just walked the remaining 7 miles into McDermitt, NV, arriving around 8am for what would be the closest day we’d have to a zero on this 750-mile route through the very sparsely populated region of eastern Oregon.

It’d been 10 days of 90-degree dusty desert hiking since we’d had a shower, and 6 days since we’d had any meals other than backpacking food. I was jonesing for some vegetables. I’d been dreaming of a big bowl of dark leafy greens with tomatoes, beets, walnuts, avocado, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.

Alas, as much as I’d prayed to the desert gods for some real, healthy food, I knew I wasn’t going to find it here. McD is a ranching, farming, and mining town that straddles the NV/OR border. It consists of a motel, a cafe/casino, a PO, a high school, and an all-in-one gas station/market/convenience store. This was one of the few places I didn’t mail myself a resupply box on the ODT and I was immediately regretting it.

tiny town resupply
Veggies were sparse in McDermitt, NV.

After our first (of four) meals at the Say When Casino and Cafe, it was time to create our resupply for the next 5 days. We walked into the small gas station/market/c-store and I saw about 8 rows of packaged foods, some coolers of soda and beer, and a small stand of “fresh” produce (Hey, at least there’s some produce at all!). Time to get creative.

There are many such towns from which you may have to resupply, especially if you are going to hike any trails or routes off the beaten path. And especially if you decide to hike in one of the most remote regions of the country.

convenience store

How to Approach Eating for Optimal Health and Energy in a Tiny Town C-Store

First, accept that you’ll have to make some compromises, but don’t give up on the goal of healthy eating entirely! It may all look like junk, but some choices are better than others here. Let’s look more closely.

Don’t make the process overwhelming. The process is simple.

  • Make Your List

Until you get the hang of what items you need for a healthy resupply, and before going into the store, write a short list of ideas for breakfast/lunch/dinner/snacks/beverages. For efficiency and cost, choose items that can be used in multiple ways for different meals (like corn chips you’ll eat with PB for lunch and again with beans for dinner OR trail mix that can be added to oatmeal for breakfast or used as a stand alone snack). Keep your list general: nut butter, salami, breakfast bars, oatmeal, nut butter, etc. Be sure to have a mixture of flavors and textures as well as macronutrients (aiming for about 20% protein, 40% fat, 40% carb-or whatever feels best for your body).

  • Choose Your Food

Browse the shelves. When you see an item from your list, you’ll likely see multiple different varieties (chips/pb/trail mixes/etc). Which to choose? Look at the ingredient label. You are looking for the least number of ingredients possible. You are also looking to avoid added industrial oils, preservatives, food colorings, and high fructose corn syrup when possible. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible in these tiny stores, but do your best. You are also looking for items in their most whole food/least processed form. Focus on proteins, healthy fats (olive oil, avocados, coconut oil, nuts), and low sugar carbs.

If there is a produce section, look for the freshest (not wilted or bruised), most nutrient-dense items to either pack out or eat before leaving town. Amazingly, many of these tiny places sell avocados (great for potassium, fiber, antioxidants). Bags of spinach or carrots are also widely available and easy to pack out.

  • Calculate Your Calories

Before leaving the store, use your phone calculator to quickly get an estimate of the calories. This takes less than 5 minutes and can help you avoid overspending on (and carrying) food you don’t need and/or assure you that you have enough if you’re feeling uncertain.

For the amount of calories you need each day, that will take a bit of experimentation, but use this calculator (or something similar) to get in the ballpark, and adjust from there depending on terrain, climate, and whether you’re losing a bunch of weight or not. Add up the calories in your basket and divide by the number of days you plan to be out. Voila. If you want to go above and beyond, calculate your macros to be sure you have the right ratios of fat, protein, and carbs. This would likely be easiest by entering the foods into a free app, such as MyFitnessPal.

tiny town healthy resupply

What I Chose in McD for my 5-Day Resupply

My calorie goal for 5 days early in the trip was about 11,500, or 2,300 per day. Here’s what I found in the convenience store. A couple items, where noted, were leftover from my last box, but these calories could have been substituted with other bars or trail mix or another avocado from the c-store.

1 lb bag Tortilla Chips=1500 calories

1 lb whole carrots=150 calories

1 large avocado=300 calories

1 apple=100 calories

Dehydrated Refried Beans=300 calories

2 Coconut Oil packets (leftover from my last resupply)=240 calories

3 coconut-greens-collagen smoothie mixes (leftover from last resupply)=600 calories

3 Kates/Fourpoints bars (leftover from last resupply)=900 calories

3 Granola packets (leftover from last resupply)=750 calories

4 tuna pouches=300 calories

1 lb peanut butter=2600 calories

3 bags of fruit/seed/nut trail mix=2300 calories

Chocolate Bar=600 calories

Pepperoni=800 calories

Salami=700 calories

Electrolyte drink mix=50 calories

Kombucha (drank in town)=80 calories

total= ~12,200 calories

I usually pack just a little bit extra, such as a couple bars, for calories in case I’m hungrier than expected or take longer to reach the next town than expected.

As you can see, it’s not ‘perfect’ in terms of being organic, super high quality food, but it covers my nutritional bases, and it’s far from the typical pop-tarts/snickers/doritos resupply that could be purchased from the same store.

Even when options are limited, you can still make good choices that will fuel you for optimal energy and endurance!

 

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