The Casita’s Farewell Tour: Waldo Lake, Hart Mountain, and the desert

Our camp in the Alvord
Our camp in the Alvord.

As I write this, we are entering the third week of our Oregon trip, tucked among the brushy hummocks on the edge of the playa in the Alvord Desert, one of our favorite places in Oregon. It is a fitting place for Susan and me to close out our Casita travels, after a wonderful week in one of our old favorites, Waldo Lake, and a short week (five pretty awesome nights) in a new favorite, Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge.

The Alvord is a stunning landscape, and one unlike any other in Oregon. The playa is more than 80 square miles in size, rimmed with small buttes and mountains to the north, east and south, and Steens Mountain rising off to the west at nearly 10,000 feet. It is one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been: I could sit for hours at any time of the day, getting lost in the clouds moving across the sky and the patterns of light dancing across the desert floor.

The view from our back window.
The view from our back window.

The Alvord is quiet. In fact, it is more quiet than any place we’ve been. There is the occasional plane overhead, and the scurry of a chipmunk from time to time, but that’s about it. Last night, as we sat outside the trailer, watching the sky grow dark and the stars come out, all you could hear was the sound of our breathing.

I’m sure there are times when the Alvord is busy, relatively, but September is clearly the best time to be here. The weather has been wonderful, ranging from the low 80s during the day to the 50s at night (it will get colder later in the week, however), and there literally no one camped near us for miles and miles. We see the intermittent motorcycle rider or car driving across the playa, but if there are others here right now, they are far, far away, which we love.

The downsides to the desert come down to two things: dust and wind. While the playa isn’t sandy, it does have a layer of powdery dust on it. You can’t walk on it without dust covering your feet, or on your palm, if you put your hand down on the ground. It gets into everything, including the trailer, but unlike some places we’ve stayed (Moab, Lake Cahuilla), it’s not gritty, which is a plus. It just means that we’re all–Susan, myself, the Casita and the FJ–going to need a really good bath when we get home.

The wind is a bit more troublesome, but easy enough to deal with. Both days we’ve been here so far, the winds have started up in the afternoon, and gone on for quite a while through the rest of the day. Yesterday, at midday, we had to roll the awning up, put light objects away, and hang out inside the trailer while the gusts blew around us. It wasn’t horrible—we aren’t in any danger—but we would have much rather been outside playing or reading than inside the Casita. The good news is that both days, the winds died down around dusk, and the mornings have been quiet and calm.

Hart Mountain

The view from our camp at Hart Mountain.
The view from our camp at Hart Mountain. (click to see it full-size)

Susan and I both knew we wanted to go to Waldo Lake and the Alvord on this last trip of the year, but we also wanted to go somewhere new, which is why we chose to visit Hart Mountain. In the middle of southern Oregon—nowhere, really—on the California/Nevada border, Hart Mountain has been managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 1936 as a haven for pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and other game. The refuge sits at about 6,000 feet of elevation, and has a few ‘primitive’ campsites scattered throughout. There are also hot springs, but to be honest, they were a bit grimy (and not so hot), so we only went in them once during our stay there.

Golden hour in Hart Mt. (click to see it bigger)
Golden hour in the refuge. (click to see it full-size)

It’s hard for me to describe the breadth and depth of Hart’s landscape. It was desert-like in places, with sagebrush scattered throughout, and lots of hills and big peaks (the tallest is Warner Peak, which is over 8,000 feet high). There are a few streams and underground springs in the park, which result in beautiful groves of aspens and other trees.

Sunset on Hart Mt.
Sunset on Hart Mt.

While the terrain was great, the thing that made Hart so special for us was the wildlife. We saw everything from antelope to mule deer to jackrabbits and coyotes. (True to 2016’s ongoing disappointment, we saw no bighorn sheep.) We also saw and heard more birds than I could describe, although the sage grouse were quite impressive, and one morning, on a hike, Susan and I were treated to the fantastic show of an owl in flight, as we unknowingly scared it out of its burrow.

There was so much hiking we could do in Hart, all if it through different country; Susan went on a few longish day hikes by herself, and we also went out on some together. One hike, out to a dry lake bed, took us past some ancient petroglyphs–and a baby antelope out grazing with its mother. We also got to watch the full moon rise over the Steens to the east, and saw some beautiful sunsets to the west.

Hart Mountain is fairly remote, and to get to camp, we had to drive on the worst road we’ve been on this year. The gravel road that takes you up winds along the edges of a cliff (we went from 4,000 feet to 6,000 in just a few miles), and is horribly washboarded, which means we could only go about 5 to 10 miles per hour up, worrying about slipping to the side. It felt like it was about 30 miles of road, even though it was more like 10, and took every ounce of concentration and will to get up (and down) it to camp.

The campsites at Hart weren’t very level, and only had a fire ring, but we found a wonderful site on the edge of the campground, with a view to the mountains and hills that we got to see every morning when we woke up. The Casita initially looked a little precarious in its spot, and we thought we might have move to a different site, but we were able to get it level and secure, and were very glad we stayed there. It was the perfect home base for exploring Hart Mountain.

hiking-on-hart-mt
Hiking on the mountain.

I could go on about the beauty of Hart Mountain, and I don’t think my photos do it justice, so I’ll just say that, if you’re ok with roughing it for a bit, Hart is a place you’d want to visit.

We’re planning on being in the Alvord for another five nights before working our way back home. This trip has been unique for us in that we have been “dry” camping the entire time. What that means is that we have not used any hookups at all: no connections to power, water or sewer. We’ve been running completely on battery power—using the generator every few days to top off the battery and charge some devices—and we have had to conserve water more than usual. During the year, we’ve been in a few places where we’ve dry camped for a bit, but nothing for this long. I wasn’t sure how well we’d do, but it’s been great. We’ve been out for 14 days now, and it’s been a breeze. We use the generator sparingly. We brought along jugs to hold about 20 gallons of water, and fill the Casita’s water tank every few days. The propane has been holding out well; we use the Casita’s propane tanks to run the hot water heater and the refrigerator, leaving the cooking to the Coleman or the baby Weber grill outside.

It’s been quite a trip, in a year of great trips.

 

(I’m still going through photos taken on the trip; I hope to post more once we’re back.)

 

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