DeGarmo Canyon to Warner Peak

May 31, 2023.

14.2 mi | 4110′ ele. gain | 9 hours

Photo album

This route was born out of a desire to get up into the high country while the access road from Warner Basin was closed. From Camp Hart, I hopped on my bike and rode the roughly five miles to the DeGarmo Canyon trailhead. I definitely walked some sections of the dirt access road to the parking area, which was great because I could get a good look at the wildflowers. A preview of what was sure to come.

I ditched my bike, changed into hiking pants and started up the unofficial trail to DeGarmo Falls. Almost immediately I had to do a rock scramble and creek crossing, then at last I had my feet on some semblance of a trail. I couldn’t get far fast; wildflowers bloomed profusely along the path. Blue flax, paintbrush, chokecherry, penstemon. It was glorious! As I walked along, I wondered, how would I know that I reached the waterfall? I know these desert hikes. There’s not much water to see…oh there it is.

DeGarmo Falls

I heard it, I saw it, up ahead a beautiful cascade of water poured over a cliff in the canyon. Spectacular! I sat in the cooling spray of the falls for a few minutes, eating a snack and re-reading the route descriptions I had researched. One from the website Less Traveled Northwest and the other from Matt Reeder’s latest book, Extraordinary Oregon. Based on these write-ups, I knew there was a way to continue a couple miles up the canyon, at least. From there I’d be on my own, routefinding up to Warner Peak. I wasn’t sure I’d make it all the way, especially with impending thunderstorms, but I set it as my reach goal for the day.

Hiking up canyon

From my rest spot, I back-tracked just a little bit to the base of a talus slope, the route up and around the waterfall. There were a few cairns along this portion of the route, but I only saw them when I was standing right next to them, making them effectively useless. It’s hard to see a rock pile when you’re walking on a rockpile.

For the next two hours, I rambled through the canyon, sometimes on an obvious path, sometimes not. I marveled at how much shade was provided by towering ponderosa pine and other shrubs and trees. This was unlike any desert hike I’d done lately.

Among the rocks, the meadows, the shady forest, the dust, the streambanks, were thousands of wildflowers. Here I found Brown’s peony, Columbia puccoon, so much lupine, different varieties of balsamroot, peas and of course, more paintbrush. Paintbrush in every shade of red, pink, coral, orange, yellow, white. Colors I’d never seen before.

As I climbed higher in the canyon, the trees grew smaller and fewer. The stream became narrower and the riparian areas more tame. In order to avoid a random rectangle of private land, I knew I needed to escape the canyon and barrel up a side wall to the south. So, I hopped over the creek and began huffing it up the hillside towards the highest peak on the landscape.

Disbelief while ascending the seemingly dry and dead hill: sand lilies, bluebells, phlox, onion. The spring desert provides.

Toward Warner Peak

And the disbelief continued as I crested the ridge and looked at what was ahead. Now, carpets of tiny, alpine wildflowers bursting from between every pebble. I still had about three miles to go before reaching the summit, meaning a total of six miles of exposed hiking above treeline amidst foreboding cumulus clouds. At this point, I was still not committed to this one and only outcome. I was just thrilled to be up there enjoying the wide expanse of rocks, flowers, snow fields and groves of mountain mahogany.

However, if there was any chance of making it, I had to move. With tired legs, I hauled my butt as fast as I could, avoiding any unnecessary elevation gains or losses. Occasionally I just had to stop for photos, as it was indescribably beautiful. But I was in rare form. In just over an hour, I was standing atop the summit of Warner Peak.

I don’t know what it is about the highpoints that captivates me. I feel like I experience an alternate phase of reality when there’s a chance of standing on top of a thing. Elated, I plop down on my sit pad near a giant cairn and pull out the summit register. It was covered with ladybugs. I recognized a few names as I flipped through the last few years of entries, then I added mine. It sure looked a lot different today than the last time I hiked Warner Peak!

summit of warner peak

After all the work it took to get up there, I figured I deserved a little bit of rest and relaxation. I kept an eye to the clouds and formulated a plan to get back. I dreaded the bike ride back to the campsite, as it would be mostly uphill. And that would make for an extra long day. I messaged Aaron on the Garmin, asking him to meet me at the trailhead with the van. He agreed. Also, there was one more marked highpoint on this ridge (simply called “High Point” on Peakery) that I could hit on my way back down. So…you know what had to be done.

The return

Again I walked with a sense of urgency as I raced the weather, tagging High Point along the way. That small detour disoriented me a little bit, so I got a little off route on the way back. Noticing that error, I quickly got back on track and began my descent into the canyon.

I was almost all the way back down when I noticed a group of three pronghorn on the same slope. I sat down and watched them for a few minutes. Once the group got a whiff of me, two animals started running and one stayed behind. It walked slowly and with an air of purpose. Then, it looked right at me and snorted. This didn’t seem right. The pronghorn kept looking at me, kept walking in my direction. I’d always been annoyed that I can never get a good look at wildlife because they run away so quickly; in this moment all I wanted was for this pronghorn to run away.

Instead, I decided it was me who needed to run away. I stood up and walked down the canyon, angling away from the pronghorn. Once it realized I was not a threat, it bounded up the hillside to re-join the other two.

Back underneath the ponderosa, I bounced back down the creek, looking to see if there were any wildflowers I’d missed. The skies continued to grow darker, and soon it began to rain. It felt more like a drizzle, and honestly it felt good. I didn’t put a rain shell on, instead savoring the lovely desert moisture on my skin.

The colors of the blooms became even more vibrant as the rain fell. My pants and shoes soaked through from brushing past wet sagebrush and tall grass. While annoying, I knew there were dry clothes waiting in the van.

When I got back to the creek crossing, I splashed right through in my already wet shoes and socks. And just like that, I was done. It was a long but extremely rewarding day, and I’m glad the lightning held off for me to complete my hike safely. I felt extremely lucky to be able to experience the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge in peak wildflower season. I’d even call it a superbloom.

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