Hart Mountain in Lake County, Oregon, stands at an elevation of over 8,000 feet in the surrounding Warner Valley floor. This massive fault block ridge is noted for a series of steep slopes, craggy cliffs, and rugged ridges. From the west-side, there are spectacular views of the Warner Valley Wetlands. The east-side of Hart Mountain showcases the rolling sage lands and high-desert plateaus well-known in southeastern Oregon. Hart Mountain is most notably known to be home to the expansive Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge.
At one time in our national history, the pronghorn antelope was nearly as populous as the American bison. However, around the turn of the century, Western settlers nearly hunted the pronghorn antelope to extinction. In the 1930s, local residents in favor of protecting the pronghorn urged federal support with their grassroots movement. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established by executive order, the range as breeding ground for pronghorn antelope in 1936. You may ask, “Why are these animals called pronghorn antelope?” Well, the antelopes at Hart Mountain are actually pronghorns, a family of hoofed animals that are related, but are not part of the true family of antelopes found in Africa or Asia. The pronghorn is only found in North America and are commonly referred to as pronghorn antelope.
Early on, the Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge was primarily maintained for the remnant herds of pronghorn antelope. However, over the years, management of the refuge has broadened to conservation of the delicate ecosystems and native high-desert wildlife of Oregon. The Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge protects more than 422 square miles of precious habitat for over 300 diverse species of wildlife. The area contains some of the most extensive and high-quality sage-steppe habitat in the state, along with dry and wet upland meadows, willow stands, mixed deciduous shrub habitat, and rolling aspen groves.
The refuge is one of the most expansive wildlife habitats in the West free of domestic livestock. This protection helps preserve the fragile ecosystem, and also adds to the pristine nature of the scenery. Featured wildlife to the refuge, in addition to the pronghorn antelope are bighorn sheep, mule deer, bobcat, coyote, and redband trout. The Hart Mountain California bighorn sheep herd provides the source for the majority of sheep reintroductions in Oregon. Its continued health is essential for the success of reintroducing this species throughout the Pacific Northwest. There are also 239 bird species, with many being seasonal. Bird species include sage grouse, great horned owl, bushtit, golden eagle, and sandhill crane to name just a few. Substantial migrations of waterfowl occur in the nearby Warner Valley, which is partially inside the refuge, during the spring and fall. Some species stay year-round to breed on the valley’s lakes and meadows. Throughout the warmer months, an assorted variety of smaller birds and birds of prey are present. They are attracted to the numerous rugged cliffs, vast sagebrush, and the grassland portions of the refuge. The best opportunity to observe the greatest diversity of bird life on Hart Mountain is the beginning of May to October.
Recreational opportunities are almost as diverse as the local inhabitants. They include wildlife observation, hiking, overnight backpacking, camping, fishing, horseback riding, rock hounding, hunting, and photography. Fishing is allowed per refuge regulations in Warner Pond, Rock Creek, and Guano Creek, except during drought periods. There is seasonal hunting permitted for partridge, quail, deer, pronghorn antelope, and bighorn sheep. Rock collecting is permitted with a 7-pound limit per person for above only ground collection. Digging and blasting are prohibited within the refuge. Hart Mountain Jasper is highly prized as it occurs above the 7,000 foot elevation near the top of Hart Mountain in very rough terrain with no true deposits found, and just a scattering of material. Not far from Hart Mountain are prime sources to mine for Oregon’s state gem stone, the Sunstone.
Certainly wildlife viewing, especially for the day tripper, is a main attraction. Viewing animals with binoculars or a spotting scope from the vehicle is quite popular. Visitors should check with staff either in Lakeview, Oregon or at the refuge headquarters for the location of the most recent sightings of wildlife. However, road access is very limited within the refuge and miles of hiking and overnight backpacking trails are available. You will discover that finding greater solitude in the remote areas of the land will provide excellent opportunities to view and photograph the wildlife. Hart Mountain truly is a destination where you need to get out of the confines and comfort of your car. One should immerse themselves in the landscape by hiking a day-trip into one of the many side canyons from the base of the mountain. Once you have quietly become part of the environment, the land will re-open and the wildlife will emerge.
Within the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge is a little known gem of a location called Petroglyph Lake. Approximately 100 Native American drawings decorate the black basalt ledge along this small lake atop Poker Jim Ridge. Very little is known about the people who painted these animalist figures, symbols, and shapes on these cliffs many thousands of years ago. The lack of passed down tradition among Oregon’s native tribes has created a mystery for current and future visitors. There is a moderate 5 mile loop that takes you to the rim of Poker Jim Ridge and returns via Petroglyph Lake. Like many hikes within Hart Mountain, there is no defined trail, but rather a trek through sagebrush with a well-viewed destination in sight. Petroglyph Lake is accessed from the refuge road a short distance west of the refuge headquarters. The fragility of this rock art is an understatement to say the least, and while drawings are remarkable, they are not popularly promoted in order to help protect their sanctity.
The Hot Springs Campground is very primitive but will accommodate tent camping and small to medium sized motor homes. No water or other services are provided. The Hot Springs Campground has 30 camping sites. The camping spots are first-come first-serve, unmarked, and at no cost. The land at the campground is nestled nicely between rolling hills, and is fairly plush with aspen groves amidst a more barren prairie-like surrounding landscape. There can be remarkable setting sunlight on top of the surrounding mountain peaks in prime Spring and Summer months.
Most notable at the Hot Springs Campground is the Hart Mountain Hot Springs (also known as Antelope Hot Springs). This is a natural hot springs that is open year round. The hot springs is located in the middle of the campground, at the head of Rock Creek, and is surrounded by an aspen-dotted meadow. This natural rock pool is 6 by 9 feet, and 5 feet deep, made of bedrock, and can accommodate up to 6 people. The water is a very comfortable 100-104 degrees F and bubbles up from the pool’s gravel and bedrock bottom. A small ladder at one end of the pool provides convenience in getting in and out of the warm water. The Hart Mountain Hot Springs is well defined by the castle-like stone and concrete wall around the spring. This nicely constructed feature makes the hot springs very relaxing, can add privacy, and adds a bit of style and flair to this otherwise natural and rugged landscape.
The area is highly remote, without electricity, and there is no drinking water outside of the refuge headquarters. The roads are unpaved and are well graded for passenger cars up to the headquarters. However, many of the beyond and surrounding roads are simply jeep trails and require four-wheel drive, especially during wet conditions. This is an isolated area with miles of open land surrounding the mountain. The nearest fuel and food supplies are in Plush, 25 miles west and Frenchglen, which is 50 miles east.
This is a destination reminiscent of life on the range with its throwback to Oregon’s pioneering start. The picturesque land embodies solitude and has unrivaled majesty. The refuge has a sense of calm that is in stark contrast with many more highly visited recreational destinations in the state. With craggy vistas and flat sage-tipped plateaus, to rolling hills and aspen-lined springs, the landscape is a pristine ground for both discovery and tranquility. Hart Mountain is truly a home on the range where the deer and the antelope play.
For more pictures of Hart Mountain and the surrounding landscape, visit www.oregonfoto.com.
To Get There:
From Lakeview, take US Highway 395 North from Lakeview about 5 miles. Turn right on Oregon State Highway 140 and go east 15 miles; turn left at the sign to the Refuge. Then proceed 19 miles to Plush and continue through Plush about 1 mile; turn right at the sign to the Refuge. Follow the Hart Mountain Road to the Refuge Headquarters.
Oregon Foto Guide features the landscape photography of Michael Skourtes, Portland Oregon photographer and avid outdoorsman. I venture throughout the state searching for the top destinations for Oregon hiking, backpacking, camping, and photography. I share my experiences and photography of Oregon on my guide. I encourage you to explore Oregon and make your own outdoor adventure.
For picture galleries featuring Oregon photography, or to contact me, visit www.oregonfoto.com.