For the past few weeks, I've been extolling the merits and peculiarities of the lonesome high deserts of eastern Oregon. Where you can drive a hundred miles and not see another car. Where you can stop at a campground, natural area, or historical site on a Saturday in August and be the only visitor. Where winters are sub-zero, summers top 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and cattle outnumber people. To the casual observer, it looks barren. But within the tens of thousands of acres of scrub and sage lies an oasis that supports an incredible variety of life.
Oasis In The Desert
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is located in southeastern Oregon's Great Basin. It comprises over 187,000 acres of wetlands, riparian zones, and meadows, stretching 40 miles by 40 miles in a sort of long, narrow porkchop or roughly T-shaped configuration. You find it by driving 2 miles east of Burns, Ore., on Highway 78, then heading south on Highway 205, one of many eastern Oregon Scenic Byways. Your route takes you between Harney and Malheur lakes, both of which are part of the refuge.
The refuge supports over 300 species of birds and over 50 species of mammals. In the spring, waterfowl using the Pacific Flyway stop at the refuge and on the Silvies River flood plain around Burns to refuel for their journey northward. Large flocks of lesser and greater sandhill cranes and flocks of snow geese and Ross' geese provide spectacular viewing opportunities. During the summer, majestic trumpeter swans frequent the area along with a variety of ducks and shorebirds. Large flocks of greater sandhill cranes return in the fall to feed before their journey back to California. Winter is the quietest time, but even then ducks, geese, ravens, hawks, bald eagles, great horned owls, and magpies are present.
Hunting In The Refuge
Upland game birds can be hunted during specific periods within the parameters of certain restrictions. Seasonal opportunities for rooster pheasants, California quail, chukar, Hungarian partridge, and rabbits are available most years. Waterfowl hunting, including goose, duck, merganser, snipe, and coot, is permitted only within an 18,000-acre area near Malheur Lake. For exact dates and locations where sport hunting is allowed, contact the refuge at 541-493-2612.
Additional regulations apply to hunting on the refuge. Hunters must use only federally approved non-toxic shot and should make sure they know the boundaries between the refuge lands and adjacent private lands. ATVs are not allowed, nor are overnight camping or the building of campfires.
Hiking And Biking In The Refuge
While the vehicle-accessible viewpoints offer a glimpse of the refuge, the way to really immerse yourself in the silence and spaciousness is to get out in the open on foot, or, in a few places, on a bicycle.
Two short walking trails lead from popular viewpoints to better vistas: the Buena Vista Overlook Trail and the Headquarters Overlook Trail. Both of these trails are uphill and well maintained. The Benson Pond Trail is a one-half-mile walk from a parking area along a pond lined with cottonwoods and willows. The Barnes Springs Footpath is just less than a mile; it begins 1/4-mile south of Frenchglen and travels along an old gravel road to a former homestead site. The Desert Trail, which is part of the National Scenic Desert Trail, enters the refuge at Page Springs on Steens Mountain (for more information on Steens Mountain, see next week's column). For a longer, but rougher ramble, hiking is allowed on the banks of the Krumbo Reservoir, but this is not a marked or maintained route.
Bicycles are allowed on the East Canal Trail, a dirt road along a vegetated canal that begins at the Blitzen River, and the Center Patrol Road, a 35-mile dirt/gravel route with varied scenery from sagebrush to wetlands.
Malheur Wildlife Refuge is maintained primarily with the natural ecosystem in mind, not recreation. It is your responsibility to watch out for wet areas, thorny vegetation, rough ground, and nuisances including mosquitoes. While you are enjoying your walk or your pedal, remember that no plants or objects may be collected, disturbed, or removed from the refuge. Take only photos, leave only footprints/tire tracks.
For more information contact Malheur Refuge at 541-493-2612 weekdays between 7 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., or check out the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife website at http://www.fws.gov/pacific/malheur/recreation.htm. The author thanks USFW for their contribution to this article.
Sally O'Neal Coates is a Pacific Northwest travel writer whose books include "Great Bike Rides in Eastern Washington and Oregon." She contributes weekly to sportsmansguide.com.