Bill Crowell was studying the shortest way to drive from Boise, Idaho, to Interstate 5.
He was surprised — but intrigued and delighted — when, “quite by chance,” that shortest route took him across Eastern Oregon and through the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge.
Like visitors before and since, Crowell was bedazzled by herds of pronghorn antelope.
That first visit was in 1998. He’s been returning to Hart Mountain frequently since then, not just passing through, but staying for several days at a time, often as a volunteer for fence removal projects and, more recently, studies of sage grouse leks.
He’s the president of the Friends of Hart Mountain, a group that supports refuge programs.
Over the years he’s become familiar with the refuge, from making sightings of bighorn sheep to soaking in the hot springs to traveling trails and cross-country routes to places like the Barnhardy Cabin.
“Every time I go it seems I find something new,” Crowell says, recalling the time he noticed a pronghorn buck on a nearby ridge was staring past and behind him. When he turned to follow the pronghorn’s eyes, “We saw this cougar that was following the group (of pronghorns). He (the cougar) stopped and looked at us and walked across the road, then took off.”
Surprises aren’t surprising at Hart Mountain. Most visitors can reel off tales.
I’ve been visiting Hart Mountain for decades, and it remains a thrill. The 278,000-acre refuge has few “trails.” Most are routes, some as steep as elevator shafts that descend or ascend canyons carved on the western front, while others are basically cross-country treks across vast expanses of sagebrush and junipers. With friends, family and park staff, I’ve scrambled up and down Hart and DeGarmo canyons, ambled and rode horseback along Poker Jim Ridge, and weaved through aspen-lined thickets along Rock Creek.
Hart Mountain is a place to explore, whether on foot, mountain bike or horseback. Most visitors concentrate at the Hot Springs Campground — and for good reason. A rock wall shields a 10-by-15-foot hot spring, where the bubbling water generally ranges from about 100 to 105 degrees. It’s just a short walk from primitive campsites mostly scattered along Rock Creek.
From the campground a rocky road that’s more easily hiked than driven provides access to some of the refuge’s rugged but most delightful High Desert terrain. It’s slightly more than 2 miles by the road, or Rock Creek, to Crowell’s favored Barnhardy Cabin, a falling apart plank shack that recalls times when sheep and, later, cattle, grazed the refuge’s vast expanses. Cattle grazing was eliminated in the 1990s. From the cabin it’s possible to forge on to Warner Peak. At an elevation of 8,017 feet, it’s the high point on the refuge, with views of the campground and refuge headquarters and, to the west, a more than 4,000-foot drop-off to the neighboring Warner Valley.
Hiking along the ridge back toward the campground I’ve come face-to-face with curious buck antelope, and dipping down into Hart, Potter and DeGarmo canyons I’ve been nearly trampled by suddenly flushed mule deer and, one memorable time, scampering bighorn sheep.
Wildlife and birds are among the attractions. With its diverse terrain, the refuge is home to more than 300 wildlife species. Along with pronghorn — and it’s almost impossible to not see dozens in even a quick pass-through visit — the refuge provides habitat for more than 40 species of mammals, including California bighorn sheep, coyotes, deer and rabbits, along with about 240 bird species, including sage grouse, best seen in the spring mating season.
One late afternoon a friend and I drove and walked to Petroglyph Lake. The name comes from petroglyphs, symbols and images painted on cliff faces by generations-ago prehistoric Native Americans. The images are varied and indistinct, and what they represent is subject to speculation. That’s part of the pleasure. Some are geometric patterns while others are zoomorphic, or in the forms of animal-like images. One appears to be a giant bug, while another is distinctly horse-shaped. Some are human images, including one human body with a weird bug-like head.
On this visit, we sat tucked under the painted rocks while, on the opposite side of the lake, individual pronghorn rams guided groups of about 20 ewes and lambs to water. They stood guard then escorted their charges back upslope while another ram led another group to the lake.
The magic didn’t end there.
As the setting sun cast a crimson glow, the rocks above rattled and clattered, like the sound of a fleet of pickup trucks. Only they weren’t trucks. Minutes later the first of a series of bighorn rams gingerly followed a rocky path from the rocks behind us to the lake, where he lapped a long drink before retracing his steps. Over the next half-hour, a series of wary rams followed, one at a time.
Summers can be hot but fall is often the best season for hiking, especially along DeGarmo and Hart canyons, Poker Jim Ridge and along other wide-open spaces in search of bighorn sheep. It’s not unusual to make the best sightings about sunset from the main road that connects the refuge with Plush.
One evening, after spying more than 20 bighorns, I parked my car, snuck up a side canyon and climbed to the top of the rocks. I waited, but never saw a single sheep. Disappointed, I hiked back to my car. It was surrounded by a herd of curious bighorns.
As frequent visitors like Bill Crowell know, there are many ways to make your own kind of magic at Hart Mountain.
Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at email@example.com or 541-880-4139.
IF YOU GO
The Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge is 65 miles east of Lakeview, the nearest major town. Take Highway 395 north for about 5 miles, then go right (east) on Highway 140, left at a well-marked intersection 19 miles from the intersection, and another 19 miles to Plush, the last community with gasoline and basic groceries.
Several miles after Plush — follow the signs — the paved road gives way to an improved gravel road the final 36 miles to the refuge headquarters, where an office with information, restrooms and water is open 24 hours a day. The road up the steep grade offers spectacular views of the Warner Valley.
Camping is available at the base of the mountain and is especially recommended for people towing trailers or with large RVs, and at the Hot Springs Campground 5 miles from the headquarters. There are no facilities on the refuge for gas, groceries or other supplies, so go prepared.
For information, call the refuge headquarters at 541-947-3315 or see www.fws.gov/refuge/hart_mountain/.
Another good source is the Friends of Hart Mountain at www.friendsofhartmountain.org/
Before hiking, check with refuge staff on possible routes or follow suggestions in “100 Hikes/Travel Guide Eastern Oregon” by William Sullivan. To reach the DeGarmo Canyon waterfall, carefully follow Sullivan’s directions.