Trip Number: 12110A
Staff: John Lasseter
- Backpack across the spectacular crest of a high desert mountain range
- Explore one of the most remote and seldom visited wild areas in the
- Witness the evidence of awesome geologic forces, the rich diversity
of flora, and traces of homesteading attempts, now returning to the wild
- Transportation between Bend, Oregon and Fields Station/Sheldon Wildlife
- All meals (lunch on the first day through lunch on the last day)
- All group cooking gear
Photo: John Lasseter
Overshadowed by mighty Steens Mountain to the north, the Pueblo Mountains are
almost totally unknown, rising above the surrounding landscape of dry playas
and low-lying rimrock country in one of the most remote areas of the continental
U.S. Yet this foreboding-looking range contains immense solitude, a never-ending
series of magnificent views, several hidden oases with abundant aspen trees
and brilliant wildflowers that astonish in their contrast with the dry surrounding
landscape, and the amazing geology of a thousand feet of ancient seafloor and
basalt layers tilted to impossible-looking angles.
On this trip, we will backpack across the western crest of the range, initially
following the Desert Trail, a cairn-to-cairn route that was established in the
early 1980s, before turning southwest to follow the range to its southern terminus,
finishing the trip at the dramatic Thousand Creek Gorge, in Nevada's Sheldon
Wildlife Refuge. About 3/4 of the route is cross-country, with the occasional
old jeep road or game trail to follow.
Our group will meet on Saturday, May 26 (the day before the official trip start)
in Bend, where we will have dinner, distribute group gear, and go over logistics.
Day 1: On Sunday, May 27, we will drive southeast from Bend,
camping at the southern end of the Alvord Desert playa. A late-afternoon hike
into the Steens foothills gives a wide view of this 60 square mile lake bed
and the vast emptiness beyond it.
Day 2: We leave the Alvord playa camp in the morning, driving
to Fields. We may stop along the way for a short day hike to the summit of Alvord
Peak, from which we will have an up-close view of Steens Mountain to the north
and the twin ridges of the Pueblos to the south. Participants will have a rest
and milkshake break at Fields, while the leaders will shuttle one van to the
Sheldon Wildlife Refuge and lay in a water cache for the trip's fifth night.
We will begin the backpack in the afternoon, with 6.6 easy miles, mostly on
fading jeep trails, to our camp on BLM land, just southeast of Roux Spring.
Photo: John Lasseter
Day 3: The day's hike begins with about a mile of gradual
uphill on an old BLM way, until we reach the first cairn of the Desert Trail.
From here, the trail ascends very steeply, climbing to the top of the Pueblos'
western crest, which we then follow to Cottonwood Basin, eventually making camp
near the clear water and lovely aspen trees along Van Horn Creek. At 9.5 miles,
this day will be the most physically demanding of the trip, but the rewards
make it worth the effort as the crest offers some of the best scenery in all
of Oregon, with 50-mile views of the desert landscape in every direction.
Day 4: We will take a well-deserved layover rest day. There
are several excellent options for day hikes, including, if weather permits,
a climb of the range's high point, Pueblo Mountain.
Day 5: We begin the day with a long, scenic climb out of Van
Horn Basin, reaching the narrow saddle between Van Horn and Denio Basin. Descending
into Denio Basin, we will pick up another BLM way, following this into Albertson
Basin, with our camp near Mustang Spring. Compared to the wild heart of the
range, Albertson Basin has a little more evidence of BLM development, but the
basin is still open, empty, and wild (on his last trip there, John came within
100' of a family of coyotes and spotted a large herd of pronghorn antelope).
Total mileage for the day is around 8.5, of which the final 6.5 alternate between
gentle downhill and moderate climbs.
Day 6: We bid farewell to the Pueblos, hiking south along
a BLM way for 3.8 miles, before turning west for a 5.6-mile cross-country trek
among the low hills and rimrock to our camp at Railroad Point, a long rimrock
table formation at the northern end of the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge. Total hiking
for the day is around 9.4 miles. Mostly a gentle downhill, this is the easiest
terrain of the trip, but it is also the driest, with little if any available
surface water. We will need to carry extra quarts of water during the day, and
we will pick up a cached supply of water near our camp.
Photo: John Lasseter
Day 7: A climb of 250 feet begins the day's hike, reaching
the top of Railroad Point for grand views north toward the Pueblos and south
into the wide expanse of the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. From here, we
will travel south a level 3.5 miles before descending from the rimrock, crossing
Highway 140, and turning west for another four miles through the stark, low
foothills of McGee Mountain. We will make the last camp of the trip in Thousand
Creek Gorge, whose walls rise 500 feet above the narrow canyon bottom. Water
availability changes from year to year, and the leaders will have set a water
cache beforehand, if necessary.
Day 8: Following an old jeep trail, we will climb above the
southern wall of the gorge, gaining 500 feet in about 1.4 miles. After three
miles of cross-country travel south of the gorge and a final mile along a lonesome
BLM gravel road, we will reach one of our vehicles at Virgin Valley Campground.
After retrieving any detritus from the water caches and the other van from the
northern beginning of the hike, we will return to Bend around dinner time.
The Pueblo Mountains are hundreds of miles from the nearest airport, and the
trip cost includes transportation to and from Bend, Oregon. Trip participants
are responsible for arranging their own transportation to and from the start
of the trip in Bend. You should plan to arrive in Bend at least one day before
the start of the trip. We will return by mid evening on the last day, so participants
can schedule flights home the day after the trip ends. The closest airport is
the Redmond Oregon Municipal Airport, and there are shuttle services from there
to Bend, as well as from the Portland Airport, so it should be possible to avoid
the cost of any car rental.
Accommodations and Food
Photo: John Lasseter
All food, starting with lunch on the first day through lunch on the last will
be provided. We take pride in providing meals that are tasty and filling, and
make a concerted effort not to rely too much on freeze-dried foods. Vegetarians
can easily be accommodated. As on most Sierra Club trips, all members help with
cooking and clean-up chores. All group commissary and cooking equipment will
be provided. Trip participants and leaders will all share in carrying food and
This moderately strenuous trip (rating 4/5) is for the physically fit backpacker,
with at least some previous experience. By desert standards, the high country
of the Pueblos has an unusually large number of reliable creeks, but long stretches
of the hike are completely dry, and desert travel requires a greater than usual
attention to regular hydration. You will need to carry an extra supply of water,
and combined with food and commissary for the greater than normal length of
the trip, you should be prepared to carry a pack weight in the 40-50 pound range
High desert weather at this time of year is generally sunny with moderate temperatures,
though the occasional thunderstorm is possible. This is rugged country, alternating
long, level traverses with a few, very steep climbs. Along some parts of the
route, we will follow old jeep trails and BLM ways, but most of the route is
a trailless trek through sagebrush and ancient basalt.
Though there are very few exposed sections on this hike, the terrain often
requires slow, careful footing. We will travel at a reasonable pace, and no
one will be rushed through difficult sections. Elevations are fairly low (generally
6,000-7,000 feet), so altitude will likely not be a factor.
Equipment and Clothing
Photo: John Lasseter
The leaders will send out a detailed equipment list to approved participants
prior to the trip and are happy to discuss any questions you may have.
We will conduct a gear inspection of each participant before the start of the
trip in Bend. Everyone will be expected to bring appropriate gear, such as boots
with good ankle support, waterproof rain gear (yes, really), and a pack of sufficient
carrying capacity in good repair. If necessary, it will be possible to purchase
new gear in Bend.
- St. John, Alan, Oregon's Dry Side.
- Kerr, Andy, Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes.
- Bishop, Ellen and John Allen, Hiking Oregon's Geology.
- McPhee, John, Basin and Range.
- Topographic maps covering much of the route can be ordered from the Desert
Trail Association (http://www.thedeserttrail.org/). Look for the "Pueblo
Mountains" and "Sheldon Wildlife Refuge" sections.
The Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about
conservation and sustainability of resources, both locally and globally. Our
work is accomplished by volunteers and aided by a salaried staff, and encourages
grassroots involvement. Our outings seek to empower participants toward greater
understanding, advocacy, and participation in the goals of the Club. Sierra
Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under
a permit from the Bureau of Land Management.
Photo: John Lasseter
In addition to the astonishing scenery, the Pueblo Mountains are home to a
wide diversity of plant and animal species, including several (such as the Bighorn
Sheep) that are candidates for federal listing under the Endangered Species
Act. Nearly 73,000 acres of the range has enjoyed a few decades of temporary
protection as a Wilderness Study Area, but a 1991 BLM recommendation called
for the removal of this protection for 46,654 acres. A proposed bill in Congress
(H.R. 1581/Senate Bill 1087) would end protection of all acreage. A test site
for wind power generation was approved in 2006. There are scattered though undeveloped
mining claims for gold, silver, copper, and mercury in the southern basins,
so any removal of wilderness protection would put the range under immediate
threat of devastating development.
See the How to Apply for an Outing section for more details on registering for this trip and details
about our Reservation and Cancellation Policy.
The payment of a deposit does not confirm you as a member on the trip. Participants must be approved by the trip leader. After signing up for this trip, you will be sent a confirmation packet containing approval materials (Participant Approval Questionnaire, Medical Form, Liability Release Form). Each applicant (including those on the waitlist) must fill out these forms and promptly mail them to the trip leader. The leader will review the approval materials and notify you of your acceptance in a timely manner.
John Lasseter is a certified Wilderness First Responder, and in 2010, he trained to be a volunteer trip leader with the Sierra Club. He has spent the last 17 years backpacking and hiking in the wild areas of the Pacific Northwest, the Oregon High Desert, the Alaskan Arctic, and most recently the mountains of New England and upstate New York. He is also an avid photographer, musician, and runner, and loves his day job as a professor in the Math and Computer Science department at Fairfield University.
Suzanne Swedo is a botanist who leads wilderness seminars for the Yosemite Association and other organizations as well as her own adventure travel company. She has just written a new book, Hiking the Hawaiian Islands, and she writes trail guides for Falcon Publishing including Hiking Yosemite National Park, Best Easy Day Hikes in Yosemite, and Wilderness Survival. She has led Sierra Club outings for 20 years and has hiked the mountains of every continent.
General Notes About Sierra Club Trips