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Hart Mountain: Hot Springs and Antelope in the Oregon Outback

Sometimes the name of a place tells us just one part of the story. At Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, you may very well spy the fleet-footed pronghorn antelopes for which the refuge is named.

by Andrew Collins

Perhaps as many as several dozen in a day if you’re lucky (and if you bring binoculars—the fastest land mammal in North America, pronghorns can be shy and are capable of reaching speeds of up to 60 mph). But this remote, biodiverse high-desert preserve provides a thriving habitat to more than 340 wildlife species.

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During your visit to this 278,000-acre wilderness (it’s about three times the size of Portland), you might see mule deer, California bighorn sheep, coyotes, wild stallions, and endangered pygmy rabbits, along with an awesome array of migratory birdlife. Depending on the time of the year, sage grouse, great horned owls, western meadowlarks, and American kestrels soar above the vast and pristine sagebrush-steppe landscape. Keep your eyes open for petroglyphs, too, left on rock outcroppings over the past 10,000 years by Kidütökadö members of the Northern Paiute tribe.

Antelope in Plush, Pregon
Antelope in Plush, Pregon

A photography paradise, the refuge contains deep canyons, craggy cliffs, piney forests, and spring- and snowmelt-fed creeks and lakes. The eastern side is characterized mostly by sagebrush-grass plains, while the western border—which you can access from Lakeview, the nearest large town—is dominated by a 30-mile-long fault-block escarpment that rises 3,600 feet above the valley floor.

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One of the preserve's most alluring features is a 102-degree hot springs, sheltered within a stone soaking enclosure on the east side of 8,017-foot Warner Peak, which visitors flock to year-round. You can pitch a tent nearby in the shaded 30-site campground and enjoy dazzling views of the dark night sky—light pollution isn’t a problem around here. There are a few other smaller campgrounds in the refuge, all of them primitive, and backcountry camping is allowed. The refuge is also a noted destination for seasonal fishing and hunting, and in autumn, you’ll encounter the colorful changing foliage of aspen and willow trees.

You may have guessed by now that this refuge established by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 is a truly remote place. Managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, it’s 45 miles from Lakeview but just 7 miles from tiny Plush, where you can pick up basic supplies—bottled water, snacks, light camping gear—at the Hart Mountain Store. You'll find full-service grocery stores in Lakeview, along with the Junipers Reservoir and Base Camp RV parks, and RV camping is also allowed at the town’s Lake County Fairgrounds. Lakeview also has a few reliable accommodations, including the Best Western Skyline Motor Lodge, the Fremont Inn, and the Executive Inn & Suites. In Plush, close to the refuge entrance, Hart Mountain Cabin is another great overnight option.

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Although you can access this stunning off-the-beaten-path wilderness throughout the year, keep in mind that the main roads within the preserve are unpaved and, although maintained, can be extremely rough and bumpy. You can manage them with a standard passenger vehicle during dry periods, but high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles are preferable, especially during rainy or snowy periods, and they’re mandatory on the preserve’s unmaintained secondary roads. Cell service is sparse to nonexistent, so download maps in advance. And be sure to bring ample water, sturdy hiking boots, and other basic supplies with you.

For more information on the refuge, contact the Refuge Headquarters Visitors Center (541-947-2731), which is centrally situated within the preserve, or the Lakeview office, 541-947-3315), just off U.S. 395.

The Lake County Chamber of Commerce (541-947-6040), on E Street in Lakeview, is also an excellent resource for learning more about the refuge and the surrounding area.

 

Andrew Collins is a contributing writer, editor, and photographer to Fodor's TravelFour Seasons MagazineNew Mexico Magazine, AAA Living, and others

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