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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Boulder Skyline Traverse

green mountain boulder

A version of this post originally appeared on the Trek website here

I love this hike (or run–depending on how fit I am). It’s a convenient and easy option when I want a longer day on trails, with respectable elevation gain, but I don’t have the time to get deeper into the mountains. Planning is easy and I also don’t have to fight traffic.

I’ve done this hike a few times. The photos here are from a hike in early April 2018 while we were still getting occasional spring snow in the front range. The morning was chilly and there were light snow flurries in Boulder. I hiked through fog up Shadow Canyon and arrived to sun and the most beautiful inversion (see photos below) at the saddle between South Boulder Peak and Bear Peak. The sea of clouds remained for most of the day.

The intention for this particular Skyline Traverse, beyond just an enjoyable day in the foothills, was to test my fitness level for a bigger hike I had in mind.

skyline south boulder peak

The Basics

Length: Ranges from 16-26 miles, depending on which trails you choose and whether you hike point to point or create a loop. 

Location: Located in the iconic Rocky Mountain Flatirons, this hike hits the five highest peaks in the foothills surrounding Boulder, CO. The peaks include South Boulder Peak, Bear Peak, Green Mountain, Flagstaff Mountain, and Mount Sanitas.

Trail Type: Due to its proximity to an urban setting, this hike can start and finish in several different locations, depending on your logistics and the level of challenge you’re seeking.

Scenery: A mosaic of ecosystems from grassland to mixed ponderosa pine-douglas fir forests to rocky outcroppings and mountain streams. The traverse also showcases views to the east overlooking Boulder, Denver, and the plains beyond.

Terrain: Moderate to Difficult. There’s a system of well-maintained, connected trails throughout the area. With a total elevation gain of about 6000’, this hike makes for a solid day. However, if you’re heading south to north, once you climb the initial 3000’ to your first peak (South Boulder Peak), you’re mainly hiking rolling terrain along the ridgeline until you drop back down to Boulder before ascending your final peak of the day (Mount Sanitas).

Navigation: Straightforward. Check out a trail map of the area in advance and know your turn-offs. The trails are not particularly well-marked, but if you’ve looked at a trail map in advance, you should have no problem. The city of Boulder provides a good interactive map of the trails on Open Space and Mountain Parks land here. You could print out a map of the area and highlight your route or plot it on a mapping app.

 skyline strava

skyline elevation

Getting There: Depending on which direction you hike and whether you want to make it a loop, there are many options for where to park, including South Mesa Trailhead, NCAR, Shanahan Trailhead, Chautauqua Park, or Mount Sanitas Trailhead. For a point to point hike, park at either South Mesa or Mount Sanitas and get a shuttle to the other end (or bring a buddy with a second car). If you have non-Boulder County license plates, there’s a $5 fee to park at South Mesa.

The Hike 

For my south to north hike, I parked at Mount Sanitas Trailhead and rode with a friend to South Mesa trailhead. I chose south to north to get the biggest climb of the day behind me early. It’s about a 3,000’ climb up Shadow Canyon to South Boulder Peak. From there I crossed the saddle over to Bear Peak, and descended via the Bear Peak West Ridge Trail. At the fork, I turned left on Green Bear Trail and hiked about 1.5 miles to the Green Mountain West Ridge Trail. I took that to Green’s Summit then backtracked to Ranger Trail, which descends about a mile until it forks left towards Flagstaff Road. Once over the underwhelming Flagstaff summit, I found Flagstaff Trail, which I followed down to View Point Trail, then down into Eben G. Fine park. After crossing Boulder Creek, I made my way towards Sanitas via Sunshine Canyon, hit the summit, and returned to my car via the East Ridge Trail.

 skyline

Why Hike This Trail: If you live in the area, this is a classic run or hike. The Boulder County Open Space and Mountain Parks are arguably some of the best in the country. Planning this hike is simple enough to be done in an afternoon and the logistics are easy. The terrain is challenging enough to keep you engaged, but not overwhelmingly difficult. This trail allows you to put in a good day of miles and elevation gain, travel through the beautiful foothills ecosystems, and be rewarded with views of the city. Plus, you get to relax and refuel afterwards in Boulder, with it’s many good restaurants and breweries.

 ranger trail boulder

Climate and Weather: This hike can be done year-round. Microspikes are recommended in the winter, as snow and ice often remain on the peaks, even when the ground is clear in town. Late spring and summer are beautiful times for wildflowers, and fall is a great time to spot golden aspens along the trail.

Beware of afternoon showers in the summer. Due to the change in elevation, weather and temperatures can be quite different from your car to the peaks, so bring layers, and always have at least a wind/rain jacket. Don’t let your proximity to town cause you to be careless. It’s still a mountain environment with common dangers like sudden thunderstorms and snowstorms, slippery rocks, sun exposure, and areas with steep terrain.

 flagstaff mtn boulder

Camping & Water Sources: While there is no overnight camping along this traverse, there’s a lot of national forest near Boulder where you can camp before or after. A Google search will provide several options. In terms of water sources, there are a few creeks along the traverse where you could collect water if needed, but since it’s a day hike, it’s also easy to just bring the couple of liters you’ll need.

 green mountain

Closing Thoughts: The length and elevation gain of the Boulder Skyline Traverse are ideal for a challenging day hike. Logistics are a breeze due to the accessibility of the trailheads and the proximity to town. The diverse ecosystems, the stunning views of Boulder, and the availability of post hike libations make this hike a great activity for well-trained visitors and locals, alike.

Much has been written about the Skyline Traverse, so you’ll have no trouble finding more information. If you’re in the area, do a bit of planning, then get out there and hike (or run) this classic Boulder traverse. You won’t regret it!

skyline boulder

 

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