4 Great, Non-Militant, Reasons to Visit Harney County, Oregon
PHOTO: Sandhill Crane. (photos courtesy of Tim Blount)
When armed militants took over a federal wildlife refuge building outside Burns, Oregon, it drew a lot of attention to this oft-ignored corner of the state. What's been largely lost in the story is the sheer beauty of the area. Here are four really great reasons this remote area is worth a visit.
First, the basics. Oregon is essentially divided in two by the Cascade Mountains. The west is damp, lush, green lowlands, and the east is dry, rugged, high desert. They're both gorgeous but could not be more different. Harney County and neighboring Malheur County are in the extreme southeast of Oregon, along the Nevada and Idaho borders. It's a place of wide-open natural beauty, where the stark landscape spreads out in every direction as far as you can see and is marked with rocky ridges, immense valleys, and tranquil rivers lined with juniper and pine trees. It is literally where the deer and the antelope play.
A good five-plus hour drive from Portland, Harney County is also one of the country's least populated areas — with less than 7,500 people on its more than 10,200 square miles. That's about 0.70 people per square mile. By comparison, Manhattan (New York County) has nearly 70,000 people per square mile.
It's this lack of man-made interference — especially noise and light — that makes the area so glorious for mankind's more serene pastimes. We're going to call this our Number One reason to visit Harney County. Relax. Even your phone will leave you alone. Mobile coverage is spotty to nonexistent in many parts of Harney County. Stretch yourself out in any direction and feel the space. No other cars on the road, no one shouting, or sirens wailing, or subway cars screeching. You can just be alone with the wind and the distant calls of desert birds. This silence is the kind of thing you don't realize you were missing until you're in it.
Speaking of birds, Number Two on our list is bird watching. Ornithologists flock to Harney County in early April for the Migratory Bird Festival, where tens of thousand of white geese fly in. They're joined by thousands of Sandhill Cranes, said Tim Blount, executive director of Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and minder of Harneybirder.com.
Also in April, wading birds such as American Avocets, White-faced Ibis, Black-necked Stilts and Long-billed Curlew begin to arrive. Male Greater Sage Grouse strut around hoping to entice a mate.
May through the first week of June brings another spectacle, this time in the trees. Hundreds of migrating warblers, Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks and flycatchers drop into the trees around Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters with an occasional species that is supposed to be on the east coast and not here, Blount said.
“People from all over the Northwest and indeed from North America come to see the plethora of birds migrating through. Summer is breeding season on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and (in) Harney County,” he pointed out.
Access to the refuge has been limited while law enforcement officials document the crime scene.
“With the occupation by militia that happened at the first of the year, the opening of headquarters is yet to be determined due to repairs. It is hoped that it can be opened by mid May but it is still not known,” Blount said. The good news: there are plenty of other places to find birds, especially later in summer.
The birding continues through the summer with woodpeckers, sapsuckers, owls, grouse, and a dazzling array of other colorfully feathered friends on display. Then the autumn migration south brings back some of the spring birds headed the other direction, this time with their more-drab winter-plumage.
“With winter comes quiet. Temperatures are frequently below zero in the mornings and may never reach above freezing for weeks. With the conditions it becomes a hard fought game of survival and if conditions are really harsh as they can get, many birds that can will leave,” Blount said.
PHOTO: Bighorn Sheep.
Naturally, the area is also full of great campgrounds in absolute scenic glory (Numbers Three and Four, if you are still keeping track). Given what we know about the winter months, summer seems the best time to break out the tent.
Snow closes the roads to the Steens Mountain, but it usually opens by the mid-July. Blount points out that Big Horn Sheep are commonly seen on the east side of the East Rim Overlook. There's something you won't find in urban New York. The Steens are managed by the Bureau of Land Management and any information of roads and conditions can be found on their website. Save some room on your memory card for shots from here. Not only is the scenery astounding, but the area is the only breeding area in Oregon for the Black-rosy Finch, as well as many out-of-place migratory birds that aren't supposed to be in the area.
The Page Springs Campground has become a popular butterfly-watching destination. From the top of the Steens to the sage of the desert, there are many butterfly varieties here, including some that may not be found anywhere else, Blount said.
Flowing water is rare in this area, but the Blitzen River on both sides of the Page Springs Campground has produced nice fishing for Redband Trout. Although fishing is limited in Harney County because of its arid environment, Fish Lake and Mann Lake are popular spots as well. When there is water in it, the Chickahominy Reservoir has good trout fishing, as does the Krumbo Reservoir, which also has Largemouth Bass.
Last on our list is something hinted at in the national reporting on the militant standoff here: the important sense of community in this most rural area. With so few people in such a rugged terrain, it's only natural for people to come together in respect for each other.
A perfect example is the tiny community of Fields near the Nevada border. Established in the early 19th Century for ranching and mining, very little current data exists on Fields because it is not even officially a town. It's a community surrounding a post office and two-room school. The Fields General Store, Motel and Cafe is a traditional meeting place, a summer oasis for a milkshake and burger, popular with locals and tourists.
Here is some advice for visitors from Blount: “Always be prepared when coming to Harney County. Be it weather, driving conditions, insects and lodging, they can all be a challenge. Sunscreen, mosquito repellent, heavy clothing regardless of the time of year, good tires and a spare if your traveling on the many gravel roads, and be aware that the roads in Harney County are used for ranchers moving large equipment and livestock. Be courteous and give them a wave; they are good people.”
More by Mat Probasco
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