HIGH ON OREGON’S HART MOUNTAIN

Photo by John Shewey

Pronghorns sprint across the arid plains, tendrils of dust dancing over sagebrush as they disappear into the distant heat mirage. Their speed affirms why these iconic denizens of the American West are so perfectly adapted to their high-desert domain here on southeast Oregon’s sprawling Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge.

Stretching 20 miles north to south, Hart Mountain is a huge tilted fault block rising
to 8,024 feet at Warner Peak and 7,724 feet at Hart Peak. The steep western scarp of the mesa-like monolith hangs precipitously 3,500 feet above Warner Valley, forming rugged canyons, sheer cliffs, and lichen-tinged spires. Narrow gorges incise the mountain’s gently sloping east foot, which slants off into the Guano Creek basin, among southeast Oregon’s most desolate places.

Composed of four immense counties, southeast Oregon is bigger than South Carolina. Lake County itself, home of the refuge, is nearly the size of New Hampshire, but its population density is less than that of Alaska. Hart Mountain Refuge dramatically personifies the region’s expansive, pervasive wildness, a land of sagebrush steppe, juniper uplands and sprawling shiny playas.

Morning sun erupts early on the ramparts of Hart Mountain, illuminating a refuge that encompasses 271,000 acres—almost 500 square miles. This massive preserve was dedicated in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a “…range and breeding ground for [pronghorn] antelope and other species of wildlife…”

At the time, the American pronghorn was imperiled throughout its range. In 1700, some 35 million pronghorns roamed the American West and Great Plains, but relentless hunting reduced numbers to less than 20,000 by the 1920s. Today, thanks to enlightened management, which includes refuges such as Hart Mountain and adjacent Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, pronghorn numbers have rebounded to about 1 million animals continentwide.

Road Warrior

Lack of development is an alluring hallmark of the refuge. Only a single regularly maintained tour route—Blue Sky Road—penetrates the mountain, with tire-busting jeep trails branching off into the desert (the spur road into Hot Springs Campground is also maintained). The main access road (Hart Mountain/Rock Creek Road) switchbacks scenically up from Warner Valley to reach the spartan refuge headquarters where a small visitors center, frequently unstaffed, provides information and paper maps.

Often the best way to view wildlife is by vehicle, and while an SUV or pickup is ideal, Blue Sky Road and Hot Springs Road are generally easy to navigate by passenger car from summer through mid-autumn. Spur roads on the refuge are best left to high- clearance four-wheel drive rigs. Regardless of what you drive, carry a good spare tire (two if you venture onto the secondary roads), shovel, and extra water.

Early morning and evening are the best times to encounter the refuge’s abundant wildlife. Pronghorns abound, coyotes and mule deer are common; but the mountain is also home to bobcats, bighorn sheep and jackrabbits; various reptiles slither and crawl, including western rattlesnakes—if you see one, enjoy the experience and keep a respectful distance. Bird life abounds, from striking loggerhead shrikes in the sagebrush to soaring golden eagles overhead. The iconic bird of the refuge is the greater sage-grouse, a robust gamebird of the sagebrush plains, most easily seen at the crack of dawn along the roads.

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