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Peering into frozen DeGarmo Canyon

Photo by Lee Juillerat Frozen DeGarmo waterfall

HART MOUNTAIN — The hike up DeGarmo Canyon isn’t daringly daunting.

The distance from the upper parking area to the refreshingly scenic 35-foot waterfall is only about three-quarters of a mile. But because the trail is sometimes faint and slippery, and because of its ups and downs, it seems longer.

The trail begins near the bottom of DeGarmo Canyon. It’s one of a series of gorges carved along the western flanks of Hart Mountain, a massive fault block that abruptly rises 3,000 feet above the Warner Valley and Plush, a cozy ranching community that’s the closest place to buy a snack, beverage or fill up the gas tank.

Located within the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, DeGarmo Canyon in warmer months is colored with a Crayola box assortment of wildflowers — penstemon, delphinium, paintbrush, iris and more. On previous hikes up its narrow slot canyon I’ve seen sky-soaring red-tailed hawks and bald eagles, herds of hardy mule deer and, less often but even more wow-inducing, California bighorn sheep.

The attraction of the short hike is DeGarmo Creek’s tumbling 35-foot waterfall that tumbles over a mossy basalt cliff. It’s a surprising, picturesque waterfall that seems out-of-place in Hart Mountain’s high desert environment. I’d visited the falls several times on earlier out-and-back treks and, after arranging a car shuttle, on longer, challenging one-way hikes from the Hot Springs Campground.

But this mild winter outing offered something different. The usually rushing falls were quieter than usual — nearly silent because large sections were frozen in place in elongated, textured, snowy clumps and, on its fringes, icy needles.

How long the falls will remain at least semi-frozen is uncertain. But because the falls is at an elevation of about 5,300 feet and shaded by canyon walls, who knows. It’s worth seeing for yourself.

Frozen falls or not, hiking DeGarmo Canyon is any season is a delight. Be forewarned that the drive to the parking area is more challenging than the hike. From the main road — and watch carefully for the easy-to-miss “DeGarmo Canyon” sign — it’s a very rumpy mile to the parking area where the faint trail begins. For those without high-clearance 4-wheel drive vehicles it’s safer to walk the last half-mile.

The trail enters the red rock canyon’s narrow inner gorge, quickly arriving at a stream crossing above a small waterfall. When the water flow is low, it’s possible to step across. But the safer, recommended route involves staying along the south bank, scrambling upstream over and around rocks, sagebrush and willows for another 50 yards to a safer crossing. Once across, scramble up a steep, semi-defined trail that clambers above the creek over and around loose talus, scree and rocks.

The vistas open with expansive views of red-tinged basalt rims and outcrops, many speckled and colored in tones of orange and green lichen.

For a reward, after soaking in DeGarmo Canyon’s scenery, head to the refuge’s Hot Springs for another kind of soaking, immersing in the hot springs’ muscle-soothing 100-degree waters.

The Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge is 65 miles east of Lakeview, the nearest major town. Take Highway 395 north for about 5 miles, then go right (east) on Highway 140 toward Adel and Winnemucca. After 16 miles (some sources say 19), turn left at a well-marked intersection for Road 3-13 about 20 miles to Plush, the last community with gasoline and basic groceries. From Plush the well-signed road makes a series of 45-degree angles turns to the base of Hart Mountain. After the paved road becomes an improved gravel road, watch for a small, somewhat hidden DeGarmo Canyon sign

The refuge headquarters has an office with information, restrooms and water but is only occasionally open. The road from the DeGarmo turnoff climbs from the Warner Valley, offering spectacular views of the valley and now very dry wetlands. A well-marked pullout has a short loop trail that offers several dramatic valley overlooks.

Camping is available at the Camp Hart Campground near base of the mountain, and is recommended for people towing trailers or with large RVs, and at the Hot Springs Campground five miles from the headquarters. There are no facilities on the refuge for gas, groceries or other supplies.

For information, call the Sheldon-Hart National Wildlife Refuge headquarters at 541-947-3315 or visit the refuge website at www.fws.gov/sheldonhartmtn/Hart.

More information is available from the Friends of Hart Mountain, a nonprofit volunteer group that supports the refuge. To learn more, visit www.friendsofhartmountain.org/.

A good source for information about the DeGarmo Canyon, including longer hikes up and down the canyon, and other Hart Mountain hikes is “100 Hikes/Travel Guide Eastern Oregon,” by William Sullivan. A new edition is due out this spring.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.