One Sleepless Night Sparks 800 Miles of Oregon Desert Trail

Brent Fenty, ONDA’s Executive Director, shares his passion, and his vision to connect people with the spectacular wild deserts of Eastern Oregon.

ONDA Executive Director Brent Fenty, exploring the Owyhee Canyonlands.  Photo by Chris Solomon

ONDA Executive Director Brent Fenty, exploring the Owyhee Canyonlands. Photo by Chris Solomon

An idea came to me as I was trying to get to sleep one night. With spring drawing near, my mind began plotting potential adventures in Oregon’s high desert, my favorite place to explore since my childhood near Bend, Oregon.

I never tire of Oregon’s Outback, a high desert that comprises half the state. Its mountains, rivers and canyons have become the places I return to time and again to experience the wonder of public lands. My love of this expanse, and desire for it to remain wild for generations to come, has fueled nearly a decade of  work with the Oregon Natural Desert Association, an organization responsible for protecting nearly 200,000 acres of desert wilderness over the past 15 years.

It was in that drowsy moment that I brainstormed a way to share the wild places I cherish with others: To know the high desert is to love it — so why not find a way to connect some of its most spectacular wild areas for people to experience?

This was the start of the Oregon Desert Trail, an effort that hundreds of volunteers worked on for three years. We released the guide material, maps and GPS track to the public at the start of this year (ONDA.org/OregonDesertTrail). It spans nearly 800 miles from the near-geographic center of the state to almost the Idaho border. In the process, it crosses some of the most spectacular areas of Oregon’s drier side, including the Owyhee Canyonlands, Hart Mountain and Steens Mountain.

While most people will never traverse the entire route, we’ve witnessed what I sensed in that late evening moment: There’s romance in the notion of being able to traverse for miles on end through wild places. The trail also introduces people to the astounding natural treasures in Oregon’s high desert. Places like Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands, a region the size of Massachusetts intersected by just three paved roads and home to an array of wildlife. Its red-rock canyons and pristine rivers have prompted some, like Clinton-era Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and New York Times writers, to equate its beauty to our national parks. We’re advocating for permanent protection of more than a third of the Owyhee, and we believe that hikers, horseback riders and paddlers who experience it firsthand will work to ensure that this area remains intact for future generations.

And, of course, the trail has prompted me to get out and explore some new areas and put my Keen sandals to the test in some of the most rugged and spectacular country that Oregon has to offer.  Thankfully, there remains a lot more wild country unexplored for the next trip.