7 Not-to-Miss Desert Destinations
This ever-present contrast is what makes Northwest deserts so alluring. One can cool off in a willow-lined mountain stream on a 100-degree afternoon, and then stroll through sere desert flats just yards away to dry off in warm sage-scented air.
Wildly contrasting ecosystems are neighbors: The alpine heights of Steens Mountain tower close to 10,000 feet and often hold snow into August; but at the foot of the mountain, more than a mile below, the Alvord Desert is a large salt pan that’s one of the driest spots on our continent, averaging just 7 inches of precipitation a year.
Most intriguing of all is the way our Northwest deserts contrast sharply with the deep-forest, dripping-rain picture most people have of our region. Oregon is only one-third rainforest; Washington the same. The rest of both is interior pinelands, alpine summits, agricultural plains — and yes, desert. Here are our favorite desert retreats.
Juniper Dunes Wilderness
Located northeast of Pasco, this 7,100-acre preserve holds the landscape most people consider “real” desert — rolling sand dunes. Interspersed with sage and juniper, it’s an impeccably serene place to hike into intense quiet. There are no established trails; one simply wanders into the dunes. You need to hike to a year-round access point through an off-road vehicle park. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the wilderness area has a fence running around the entire area to keep vehicles out.
Hanford Reach National Monument
Home of some of the biggest sagebrush on earth, this preserve lies along the Columbia River north of Richland. Its indigenous Columbia Basin big sage can grow past 8 feet (that’s a big sagebrush, folks), and hiking in a sage forest is a unique experience. You can also float down the Hanford Reach — its 51 miles are the Columbia’s last free-flowing stretch in the United States. Various adventure outfitters in Richland offer guided tours or boat rentals; paddlers put in just below Priest Rapids Dam or at Vernita Bridge and drift in the current for hours, marveling at hundreds of birds and the odd sight of Hanford’s nuclear facilities left over from the Manhattan Project and post–World War II measures.
Gingko Petrified Forest State Park
Flanking Interstate 90 on the north side of the stretch west of Vantage, this park offers 100-mile views of the Columbia Basin, quiet hikes (believe me, no crowds here) along sage-steppe hillsides, and lots of petrified wood to inspect. The forest is long gone and nary a tree is to be seen — except at the park’s interpretive center down on the Columbia riverbank, where cottonwoods and willows fend off the Columbia Basin sun.
The dry lakebed that forms the desert is hot, while flat alkali salts and a privately owned hot spring line the lake edge. Sand-sailing enthusiasts come from hundreds of miles away to race across the desert on their three-wheeled versions of ice-boats — except during the once-a-generation summers in which snowmelt from the pinnacles of Steens Mountain, directly above, fills the desert pan with water. Non-sailors can simply soak in the adjacent hot springs and marvel at the scenery — snowy peak on one side, mirage-strewn desert on the other — as “sailboats” skid along at high speed.
Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge
Wide open spaces, bounding pronghorns, wild horses and mule deer, badgers and sage-grouse, falcons and hawks — aside from Yellowstone National Park, this may be the best wildlife-watching venue in the West. I call it the American Serengeti. The refuge is located about 63 miles northeast of Lakeview, Oregon. A lovely campground is tucked into a high valley amid aspen glades.
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
This vast stream-fed marshland, on the northeast side of Steens, is one of the prime bird-watching venues in North America, hosting dozens of residents such as red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds and the beautiful northern harrier, as well as innumerable migrants ranging from egrets to pelicans to dozens of duck species. The refuge headquarters are located about 35 miles south of Burns, Oregon. Despite the miles of marsh, hot sage desert surrounds the refuge on every side.
Oregon Desert Trail
This arid-land version of the Pacific Crest Trail traverses much of eastern Oregon, meandering from near Bend to Lake Owyhee State Park, via Paisley, Plush, Frenchglen and other towns. The 750-mile path crosses sand, salt, dunes, mountains, precipitous canyons and more.
–Written by Eric Lucas, last updated in September 2022.