A Day at Hart Mountain

Currently we are in Summer Lake Oregon Cloudy High 64 low 32 currently 48 We are heading back to Rocky Point this afternoon

Saturday May 25 Mostly Sunny High 58 Low 37

interesting cabin near plushWhen the animal alarms went off at 5:30 this morning I looked outside to see crystal clear skies and a sun already nearly over the eastern face of the mountain.  The magic hour, morning light.  Rather than dawdle around, we got up and dressed, had our morning coffee and breakfast and were on the road east to Hart Mountain by 7am. 

waterfowl on Hart LakeThe road to Hart Mountain follows a track east from Plush, past old homesteads and hay ground, through the Warner Wetlands and along the northern edge of Hart Lake before turning to gravel.  I am a sign junkie, so was tickled to find the wetland interpretive sign I had seen somewhere in a brochure.  I didn’t realize that the Visitor Information Center was simply a series of kiosks and some shade shelters with signs.

Area of Critical Concern Warner WetlandsI discovered once again why I need a fast! and much better telephoto for my Nikon 5100 than the cheapie one that I have.  Those birds just refuse to come into proper focus no matter how many shots I try.  No tripod probably doesn’t help, but I think it has something to do with the autofocus as well.  When I manual focus it isn’t any better.  Ah well, an Erin I will never be.  Still, I included some of the photos just for fun to remember who was hanging around the wetlands.

Mom, Dad, and the teenagers on Hart LakeWe continued north along the road, coming to the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge entrance sign, with a small campground just inside the boundary called Camp Hart Mountain.  Surprisingly, this nice little camp is just a step up from boondocking, and still free. 

free! camping at Campt Hart Mountain  boondocking with benefitsThe host couple told us that the Fish and Wildlife Service can’t figure out what to charge, so they left it free.  There is potable water at the main shelter with picnic tables inside, very large open sites, and as I mentioned, a camp host.  Nice for those long days when you leave your rig to go exploring on roads you might not want to take the big shiny RV.

Flagstaff Lake from the road to Hart MountainContinuing up the road as it passes along the east side of the Warner Wetlands, we saw a few other boondocking opportunities on some BLM land along the lakes, but the east side of the road is all refuge and not open to parking.  As we started up the steep hill east into the refuge, we saw a small sign, “Warner Overlook”.  Perfect place for a short hike to the viewpoint on a gorgeous morning.

Abby checking out the Warner Valley OverlookThe desert stretches to the west, and the complexity of the Warner Wetlands follows the base of the ridge as far north as we could see.  An interesting phenomena was the “bathtub ring” left along Poker Jim Ridge left behind when the huge Miocene lake receded as the climate went from moist tropical to dry desert over a few million years. There were lots of flowers blooming on the ridge, mostly varieties of Indian Paintbrush and buckwheats.  It was a delightful walk.

Warner Valley Overlook trail flowersContinuing east into the refuge, the road is still gravel, but very steep until it tops over the uplifted ridge and the eastern desert stretches to the distant Steens.  The Scenic Backway continues along this gravel and dirt road for many miles, all the way to French Glen at the base of the Steens.  It  is a beautiful drive.  I have a friend from Rocky Point who said she and her husband towed their fifth wheel all the way to French Glen across this road, nearly 100 miles,  but they would probably never do it again.  I have no desire to ever take the MoHo even as far as the Refuge Headquarters just 20 miles or so from the valley!

The Steens from Hart Mountain Blue Sky Road Lookout PointWe decided to drive the Blue Sky road along the eastern edge of the refuge early in the day in order to see more wildlife and catch the early light.  We hoped that this time we would be able to continue all the way around and connect up with the Hot Springs Campground in a full loop.  We were a bit too early for many of the side roads which were still gated closed, including Skyline Drive, Black Canyon Road, and Old Military Road. 

the pronghorn are fawning, so most moms are hiddenIt was on the southernmost edge of our drive that we saw the most wildlife.  Pronghorn are not technically an antelope, although the refuge is actually called an antelope refuge.  This time of year the herds are fawning and so are more dispersed than usual when hundreds of individuals can be seen racing across the hills.  Pronghorn actually developed their incredible speed during a time when there were two species of cats similar to cheetahs that were their main predators. They can run up to 45 miles per hour. Combined with keen vision and speed, they are usually only subject to predation when very young or ill.

and two months too early to make the full loop back to Hot Springs CampgroundThe other wildlife species that is especially important on this refuge are the sage grouse, with a drumming chest and elaborate spring strut that is a renowned spectacle in the high desert springtime.  We were a bit late for the courtship rituals, which occur in March and April.  We didn’t see any sage grouse, but what we did see was gorgeous desert habitat thick with abundant grasses, healthy because no livestock grazing has been allowed in this refuge since 1994. We also saw areas that had been burned, as part of the habitat management to encourage more grasses and to stop sage from encroaching on the lush meadows, so important for the pronghorn.

the ancient bathtub ring on Poker Jim Ridge at the edge of the Warner ValleyContinuing west toward the base of Hart Mountain’s east slope, we saw only 2 other people, a couple of guys on 4 wheelers.  There are stern rules about not going off road, and it appeared that these guys were obeying the rules.  The rest of the morning we had to ourselves.  Keep in mind that this was Memorial Day Weekend, and people were few and far between.  The last time we camped at this refuge was Labor Day in 2004, and back then it was just as quiet, with just a few campers in the Hot Springs campground.

Hot Springs Campground at Hart Mountain Antelope RefugeAt the turn to what is called Blue Sky Camp and the road to Warner Peak, we were again stopped by road closed signs, and most disappointing of all, the road to Hot Springs was closed as well.  Seems as though the only time of year to make this loop in a vehicle would be after August and before the fall snows.  We had hiked the road from the campground end when we were here before, but this was just a day trip, and that hike wasn’t on the agenda for us.

We returned the way we had come, stopping to try out another side road that was open and on the map appeared to continue across the ridge.  Instead it stopped at a small rather nondescript little meadow at a place called Robinson Draw Day Use Area.  Ok then.  We used the day use area to have our snacks in the car and then drove back out to the main road and headed back toward the turn to Hot Springs Campground.

developed hot springs at the campgroundThe road into the campground was as we remembered, more decently maintained gravel for a few miles before you rise over a ridge and see the campground and meadow hot springs spread out beautifully below the snowy mountain above.  I was excited about the hot springs, with wonderful memories of the white sandy bottom of the natural spring out in the meadow.

We drove around the campground a bit, checking out the camp sites, including the one we used so many years ago.  With the recent burning of sagebrush, it didn’t look very appealing, and another area had been opened up along another draw that seems a bit claustrophobic along the brushy creek.

see the bubbles on the left?Finally we parked at the beautiful hot spring, surrounded by a stone wall erected many years ago by the Order of the Antelope.  The spring itself is about a 8 x 10 foot rocky hole in the ground and the water is only about 97 degrees F at this time of year.  It didn’t look particularly inviting at the moment, although I do remember great soaks there when we were here before.  Instead, I wanted to wander out into the meadow to find my favorite little spring.  There is was, a bit bigger than it used to be and a lot siltier.  I ran back to the car to get a suit on and by the time I got back to the spring there was a bather already settled into the little pool.

natural hot spring at Hart Mountain Refuge near Hot Springs CampgroundHot Spring culture is often dominated by natural sorts of folks who really like to soak sans clothing and this was no exception. The nice guy floated in the water and was very friendly and conversational with me while his parts floated conveniently just below the surface.  I wasn’t too anxious to jump in with him, but I sat on the edge of the grass and dangled my legs while we talked for some time about the springs and he pointed out the next small spring up the meadow.

103 degrees F but only 2.5 feet deepI wandered off to check out the spring, but it was incredibly small, with three different streams entering of different temperatures, and the only hot clean spot was about 2 feet wide and surrounded by saturated deep grass.  Nah, maybe not.  Then, as I turned around to walk back, I saw that the single bather at the first pool was leaving.  Mo had been walking around with Abby, (she isn’t much of a hot springer), and I called her to bring the camera.  I was getting in that pool and wanted the photo to prove it!  Sure enough, it was warm, about 103 or 104, and while the silt on the bottom made it seem a bit murky, just under the silt was that nice hard sand I remembered.

UhOh.  Jumped in and can't get back out.  she did finally make it with a little extra pull on her collarAbby decided that the pool was a little bit strange, with all that warm water, and I got her in, but not for long. It was wonderful to be in the hot water, with great minerals and no smell at all.  There wasn’t a sign of sulfur in the water. and after it settled a bit, the water was crystal clear.  My friendly bather had stirred up all the silt, I guess just to get a mud bath or something, but by the time I finished soaking the water had cleared beautifully.  ahhh.

view from the developed springWe drove back out of the campground road, stopped at the refuge headquarters to talk about antelope and weather, and found that it had been 11 degrees F the morning before.  Sure am glad we didn’t try to camp there then!  It can be cold in these deserts!  I picked up some brochures about the local birds and wildlife, and found a nice little brochure that lists 12 different day hikes that are available.  There are also more than 200 bird species that have been recorded in the refuge and another brochure has a handy bird checklist.

up a very steep side road we find Warner PondWe decided to take the road north to Petroglyph Lake with a short 4 mile hike that leads to petroglyphs on the basalt walls on the north side of the lake.  Instead, we found that the rough basalt rocks in the road were too much to try to do with a patched spare tire, and with several cars parked just beyond where we could drive, we decided that it wasn’t worth it.  There were a bunch of hikers getting ready to do the trip with packs and walking sticks and it wasn’t exciting enough for us to deal with the people.  I guess we are getting spoiled with all this alone time and space and people seem like a jarring intrusion somehow.

reflections at Warner PondWe drove back down the steep gravel road with the gorgeous vistas of the Warner Wetlands and the desert, overlooking the distant sunstone digging area where we were yesterday, the white trailers just tiny dots on the horizon.  On the way down, we saw a little sign to Warner Pond Day Use Area, and flipped a quick turn to follow a steep dirt road back up the face of the mountain slope.  This road was really steep, and even in 4 wheel drive, the little Tracker did a bit of slipping and sliding.  At the end of the road, however, was a precious jewel of a tiny fishing pond, even with a dock to launch a boat!  We wondered just how anyone would haul a boat up that road unless it was on the top of their pickup.

road down from Warner PondOur hiking on this trip has been limited for reasons not mentioned until now.  When cleaning house before we left, I was rushing around the kitchen and slipped on the wet floor and slammed my foot into something or other, who knows.  Mo was gone, I laid on the floor for a few minutes feeling sorry for myself, and my foot turned blue half way up the midstep.  I think I broke my big toe.  Not particularly fun, and not particularly conducive to any kind of lengthy hiking trips.  At least I can still walk, but thought I might mention why we haven’t been doing much hiking on this trip.

mapWe traveled back home along the same route to our lovely boondock site, still empty and quiet and cool enough for Jeremy.  The weather had cooled quite a bit and it looked like rain, so we settled in to relax, read, and nap till dinnertime.  It would be Jeremy’s last day of desert freedom since our next stop will be in Summer Lake at an RV park, not likely a place where we can just let Jeremy out to play so easily.  By late afternoon a few pickups and 4 wheelers drove past our campsite, waving to us, but no one attempted to infringe on our nice open boondock site.  The site is big enough to easily accommodate several rigs, so I am glad no one decided to bother us.

The Other Oregon

Currently we are in Summer Lake, OR in wild rain and hail

This was written from Plush Oregon May 23 High 52 Lo 32

Hart Mountain appears on the horizonThere is a mindset called Oregon.  Usually it revolves around lots of green and lots of rain.  Images of Mt Hood, the Oregon Coast shrouded in fog, verdant green valleys dotted with farms, vineyards, little villages with covered bridges are the epitome of beautiful Oregon.  But there is another Oregon, one that covers more than 2/3 of the state.  The East Side as we call it, is high sage desert, bisected by Highway 395, that mythical road so many RV’rs love to travel.  But even beyond 395 lies a wild and empty Oregon called by some the Oregon Outback. 

There is a Scenic Back Country Byway that exits east from 395 just north of Lakeview, following Highway 140 through the Warner Canyon and then leaving the highway to travel north and east through the Warner Valley, where the pavement ends, over Hart Mountain, and crossing the open desert toward the remote wild mountains called “The Steens”.

dropping off the fan into Plush with Hart Mountain in front of usIt is a huge, vast, silent land full of nothing and everything.  Several times in the last few years we have passed along the southern boundary of this wild country on our way east somewhere and looked up at Hart Mountain…saying…remember?  Remember how wonderful it was??  Yes, we remembered and finally decided it was time to return to Hart Mountain and the wild Oregon Outback.

Jeremy exploring the boondock siteOn this week long journey, we didn’t plan to go to the Steens, saving that for another time later in the season.  Our decision was a good one, since the upper reaches of the Steens are still deep in snow. We planned for three nights boondocking, and knew that we didn’t really want to get to the Plush area too early in the afternoon, so had to wait until noon to leave Rocky Point.  It was funny how hard it was to go slooooow, and take…our….time….before….getting….on the road.  Usually on travel days we are all hot to trot and want to get moving early.

hurry up Mom, get your shoes on!The route to Plush, Oregon, where we planned to find a boondock site, is a familiar one: traveling east on 140, through Klamath Falls, continuing east through my old survey area in remote parts of Klamath County near Beatty and Bly and finally arriving at the small town of Lakeview.  Even though we were only 1/3 tank down in fuel, it was important to make sure our fuel was topped off before heading into the outback.  There is no fuel out there, the distances are long, and we would need to use the generator.

Another important Lakeview stop was at the Interagency Office right on 395 just south of town.  I spent $4.00 on a Lakeview District BLM map, at a scale that makes navigating the desert reasonably easy. We also have the GPS unit, (sort of useless when most of the time it says “driving on road”), and the DeLorme Benchmark maps for the area.  The phone and the iPad are useless out here, since there are no signals anywhere.  Well, almost no signals, but I’ll share that one later.

miles and miles of dog safe walkingThe cold, snowy storms that blew through this part of the west were almost gone by the time we reached Lakeview, but there were still huge clouds and some snow flurries here and there as we crossed Quartz Mountain.  Once on Warner Pass, where we expected snow, we were blessed with only a little bit of rain.  The skies cleared as we climbed up over the pass, turned north on the Plush Cutoff and were awed once again by the long uplifted fault block mountain that is Hart.

I love Hart MountainHome to the largest antelope refuge in the country, with a western scarp slope populated with bighorn sheep, Hart Mountain rises from the desert like some kind of mystical dream.  Maybe it is only me, but this mountain calls my soul in ways that even the Steens don’t.  I know, I know, it wasn’t long ago that I was raving about the east slope of the Sierras.  Still, Hart Mountain looming above the Warner Valley is a sight no mountain lover should miss.

It isn’t a group of dramatic peaks.  Instead it is a long linear mountain, with a steep western scarp rising 3,500 feet to the 8,000 foot summit, and an east slope that slips off gently to the eastern desert.  The top looks nearly flat from a distance, but a closer inspection reveals many deeply cut canyons and cliffs that I have never seen except from the road. I think my days of exploring these rugged canyons on foot are long behind me.

back to camp after our evening walkOn this Thursday afternoon, the early beginning to the long Memorial Holiday Weekend, we were very nearly alone on the road into Plush, a tiny community best known for its tiny grocery store and bar and its rock shop.  Armed with our BLM map, however, we had no need to stop, and headed north through town on the Hogback Road.  Within three miles, the road turns to rough gravel, and a few hundred yards after that, road 6175 winds up Miners Draw into the Coyote Hills.  We unhooked at the turn to go check for a place to be.

Just up the road, on the crest of the hill overlooking the valley, we found a large rounded out area, flat as can be, protected on three sides by a low hill and facing the beautiful scarp of Hart Mountain in the east.  The site was clean and smooth except for a small pile of firewood someone had left behind, and we couldn’t believe what perfect luck to find such a spot.

mild sunset at our boondock site near PlushSettling in for the evening, we walked up the road into the hills for awhile, and came back to fix supper while we waited for the sunset.  The full moon was coming up at 7:30 and the sun was setting at 8:30. 

Spectacular, or so we thought.  Even with the clouds in the west, the sunset was rather dull.  I guess with zero pollution there isn’t anything around to refract the light and make color.  Our night was utterly silent, utterly dark except for the moon in and out of the clouds.  Boondocking at its very finest!