Breathtaking Desert Hikes

December 24, 2011.

Lake Owyhee > Owyhee > Succor Creek State Recreation Area > Leslie Gulch

* Click the map above to zoom in *

Remote gravel roads

I left my spot along the Owyhee River and began the long, dusty trek back to town for gas. Not knowing exactly how large Adrian was, I drove slightly out of the way, to the town of Owyhee to fuel up. Soon after, it was back onto gravel roads as I disappeared into the vast desert.

I drove and drove among sagebrush, dust, and cattle. Here and there a large ranch would dominate the landscape, but even the largest of these would be dwarfed by the rolling hills and canyons. My route took me through Succor Creek State Recreation Area, which wasn’t really a destination as much as a scenic drive. As soon as I entered, it was clear why this area had been designated as such. It was absolutely stunning. Sheer rock walls bolted straight up from the riverbed, shading the narrowest parts of the canyon. Small pullouts here and there were wedged between the road and the river, providing much appreciated shade in the summer months but dreadful cold in the dead of winter. I kept driving. At the far end of the area, the canyon widened and a gravel spur led to a larger picnicking area with a restroom and several picnic tables. I stopped here and walked around a bit, trying to coax the scenery to imprint a little more strongly in my brain.

The desert has a way of making me feel very insignificant. The landscape goes on forever. Gravel roads, unmarked, branch off from the main road in every direction. I can only hope I’m following the correct path. Road signs can be several miles apart, and at a rate of 20-25 mph, quite some time passes before seeing another road sign. Getting lost out here would be a nightmare.

I was relieved to find a pointer for Leslie Gulch in the middle of nowhere. Only 15 more miles of gravel and I’d be at my nighttime destination. There would be a couple of hikes along the way as well. The gravel here went from bad to worse and then back again. The washboarded sections were so insanely bone-rattling I had to slow down to nearly 5 mph just to prevent all the bolts from wiggling out of my car frame. I felt a little nauseous after passing over each rough section.

Oh, to stretch the legs

I’d read that a four-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance was recommended for driving the last 8 miles to the campground. I had hoped that wasn’t true as I approached the road in my little blue Scion. At the cabin located about 4.5 miles from the campground at road’s end, a shallow, nearly dry streambed cut right across my path. I was afraid I would bottom out and get stuck so I got out of the car to check it out. It looked like if I stayed to the far left, I could make it. Fortunately I was right, and so I continued along the road until my first hiking stop.

I deferred to William Sullivan’s Yellow Book for descriptions of where to go hiking in this spectacular canyon-tastic area. My first stop was Juniper Gulch, a 0.8 mile out-and-back style hiking trail with its own parking area and sign. I put a bar, some water, and layers of clothing into my backpack for this quick little jaunt. I also carried binoculars in hopes of spotting some of the resident Bighorn Sheep herd.

I followed the trail up a dry wash as it darted in and out of the shade. It was freezing cold under the shadow of tall, rock walls and blistering hot in the sun. I hadn’t felt warm for days so I took my time strolling through the sunny spots. This place reminded me of Canyonlands in Utah. It was gorgeous. At the end of the line, the trail petered out and so many choices lay before me. I was faced with a maze of rock outcrops, sandy slopes, slot canyons, hills, and brushy patches. I scampered around a bit before recognizing how incredibly easy it would be to get lost if I went much further. Plus, I’d only packed for a 1.5 mile hike so I had few supplies. Oh well. I dropped my pack on a wide swath of rock, took my down jacket and shoes off and did some kickass desert yoga underneath the full force of the afternoon sun. It felt glorious to be able to move around so freely. I was so enamored with the place I took a video to try and capture the beauty and quiet of that moment.

Next stop: just a mile up the road, unmarked Timber Gulch awaited my arrival. I parked at the single-car pullout and followed the dry streambed according to Sullivan’s directions. There is no official trail here, but it is easy to walk along the drainage as it ascends to a cirque of tall rocky cliffs above. I climbed higher and higher, getting a sweet view of the landscape around me, until topping out beneath a massive, orange wall. Here I sat and basked in the sunshine just a little bit more, knowing I had another long, dark night ahead of me. I looked and listened for any sign of life, but I observed nothing. Before leaving this place I scrambled up just a little bit more to a viewpoint that allowed me to see across the other side. Armed with a map, time, and some more supplies, I could have wandered around this area for days without running out of stuff to do. But my current level of preparation set me up for just a couple of short jaunts and I retreated to my car.

Please, sir, may I have another?

I drove the remainder of the road to reach Slocum Campground at the far end. This was one of the most picturesque car-camping spots I had ever seen. Several of the sites had picnic tables covered with metal canopies, an excellent respite from the hot, summer sun. Being December, I chose a site sans canopy to settle in for the night. I had just a few hours of daylight remaining and the two short hikes I’d just completed left me hungry for more. I knew I could sneak one more in before resigning myself to camp chores. A path wore through the brush behind my campsite, leading into a canyon just in the distance. This hike was also listed in Sullivan’s book, although the single-sentence description wasn’t all too helpful. I hiked up the broad valley along another dry streambed. A grassy hill rose to my right and more vertical rock formations appeared on my left. I continued along until the left-hand side narrowed into a steep, impassable V and the right-hand side opened up to another broad valley. I chose to go up the slope in between the two in a dual effort to get a view of the narrow canyon and to chase the sun-kissed ridgetop. It was cold in the shade.

Climbing uphill quickly took the chill away and I found myself stripping off layers as I clumsily clambered up the loose rock and slippery grass. I stopped frequently for breath and water as I haven’t had to work very hard for days; my body was out of practice. Once atop the ridge I saw many more opportunities for exploration, but my time was short. I piled the layers back on, waited for SPOT to send a locator message, and snacked on the enormous bag of sesame sticks my parents had sent me for Christmas (yes! no reindeer sweater for me!).

Going back down the steep hill was the hardest part. My ankle protested the entire way, ignoring my angry pleas to “suck it up.” I was glad to reach the dusty river bottom and cruised the mile or so walk back to camp from there.

Dead or alive

I scrambled to gather firewood as the daylight waned. There were really no trees in sight, but there were plenty of sage bushes everywhere. The problem with sage, I found, was that it’s not that easy to tell if it’s living or dead. I scoured the area, yanking on branches here and there to find material to burn. Over 50% of the time, I ran the same dialogue in my head:

Sage: “I’m not dead!”
Me: “What?”
Sage: “I’m not dead!”
Me: “Yes, you are.”
Sage: “I don’t want to go into the cart!”

Damn. So it went on like this for the next hour, walking to fill my arms with mostly dead sage, depositing it into the growing pile near the firepit, and walking further still to find another crop of fuel. The pile looked huge but the gnarled and twisted branches provided only the illusion that I had collected quite a bit of material. I knew I’d burn through it in no time.

Soon after I started my evening campfire I grabbed a huge log stump, that someone must have been using as a seat, to throw in the fire pit. This was my last-ditch effort to trap some heat and prolong my sorry burn pile. It was a great decision because that sucker eventually got burning and was releasing heat for much of the night.

It was this night that I perfected the sleeping cocoon. I used the same set-up as the night before, but tossed an old army surplus wool blanket over the cocoon, including my face. This kept the frost off my sleeping bags plus it kept the cold air off my face. The hood of the 15 degree bag puffed up just tall enough to create a shelf for the blanket to rest, therefore keeping the blanket just a couple of inches off my skin. I let the yipping coyotes lull me to sleep.

Continue the story!
Dec 22: Small Town Oregon
Dec 23: Chasing Ghost Towns
Dec 24: Breathtaking Desert Hikes
Dec 25: Lava Landscape
Dec 26: A Hodgepodge of Delights
Dec 27: Go West

See the entire photo set on Picasa.

2 thoughts on “Breathtaking Desert Hikes

  1. srg

    Hi Jess, Months ago I embarked on my plans to take my husband and I on a camping/hiking adventure to SE Oregon. While researching, I found your blog. You inspired my whole trip!!! Thank you so much. In the middle of October we went to the Succor Creek area and hiked and then landed at our campsite at Leslie Gulch. We did some great hikes there and met some wonderful people. One of the days they let us use their drift boat and told us where there were some hot springs. We went to Jordan craters too! It was the most awesome trip and I want to thank you for your great details of your Christmas adventure. We are not done exploring the region and will go back in the Spring. Thanks again.


  2. Jess B Post author

    Fantastic! I’m glad you had a great trip. There are so many magical places to visit and I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface. Happy adventuring!

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