Exploring Washington and Oregon’s High Deserts

If you’re not from the Northwest — or if you tend to stick west of the Cascades — there’s an initial tendency to think that the Northwest is little more than rain, clouds and forests. But once you get beyond the stock images of the region, you’ll realize that there’s a whole lot more to the Northwest, including quite a bit of geography that many might never associate with Washington and Oregon: desert.

East of the Cascades, the two states dry up significantly in many areas, leaving large swaths of the Northwest arid and decked out in sagebrush, unique wildflowers, wide-open views and all kinds of desert wonders. For a taste of all that — and then some — check out these ideas for exploring the deserts of the Northwest.

Washington Desert Hikes

desert ginko petrified forest
Ginkgo Petrified Forest
Want a unique glimpse of ancient history in Washington’s desert country? The three-mile, interpretive hike through the Ginkgo Petrified Forest is unmatched. The 7,470-acre park is home to more than 50 species of intriguing petrified wood and expansive views and Wanapum Tribe petroglyphs on rocks re moved from the area before it was flooded to create the Wanapum Reservoir on the Columbia River in the 1950s.

Moses Coulee/Beezley Hills Preserve
For a one-of-a-kind desert wildflower display, it’s hard to beat this almost 5,000-acre Nature Conservancy preserve east of Wenatchee. The Washington Trails Association offers up a great option for exploring the preserve on foot.

Juniper Dunes Wilderness
There are no real trails in this 7,140-acre wilderness in south central Washington, so visitors seeking out the area’s plethora of desert wildflowers can just walk to their hearts’ content.

Oregon Desert Hikes

desert jon day fossil beds path
John Day Fossil Beds
The three park units of this semi-desert National Monument in central Oregon offer up amazing and colorful geologic formations, fascinating hikes through otherworldly landscapes and a look back at prehistoric times.

The Oregon Desert Trail
For the heartier adventurers out there, the 800-mile Oregon Desert Trail offers an unparalleled way to get to know the wild and relatively unknown expanses of Oregon desert, from the Oregon Badlands Wilderness to Lake Owyhee State Park.

Diamond Craters
Lava tubes, cinder cones and driblet spires are but a few of the countless and amazing volcanic remnants that color the 17,000-acre Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area in the Oregon high desert about an hour outside of Burns. It’s a remote and rugged landscape, so travel with care.

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