Pronghorn, commonly referred to as antelope, are the fastest land animal in North America. They are capable of reaching 55 miles per hour and can sustain that speed for a 1/2 mile. They can sustain 35 miles per hour over a distance of 4 miles. While not as fast as the cheetah, pronghorn can sustain their high speeds much longer. Speed is their primary defense and no other animal in the western hemisphere can hope to keep up.
Oregon is home to several wildlife preserves. Among them exists a unique refuge with the specific purpose of preserving the natural habitat and population of pronghorn.
Located between Plush and Frenchglen, the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge was created in 1936 and is a sanctuary for pronghorn as well as many other species. Easiest access to Hart Mountain is from Plush, a small ranching community southwest of the refuge. Alternate access is from the northeast, via an interesting journey across the sagebrush steppe from Frenchglen.
Some cautions before proceeding:
— The Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge headquarters can be reached by passenger car from Plush via Hart Mountain Road or from Frenchglen via Highway 205 and Rock Creek Road. Both are decent-quality gravel roads. However, exploration of any other side roads in the refuge or surrounding area should be done in a higher-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle with thicker-ply tires.
— The refuge is remote country with sparse water resources. Come prepared with food, water, camping gear, and warm clothing as though you intend to stay for a few days, even if you’re planning a simple day-visit.
Off we go! We decided to access the refuge from the northeastern side, as it seemed to be a more adventurous way to go.
Our journey started at the Frenchglen Hotel, an historic and designated State Heritage site. Built in 1917, the hotel continues to greet visitors to this day and serves one of the best BLT sandwiches I’ve ever tasted. No exaggeration. I would consider returning to Frenchglen just to have another sandwich.
From Frenchglen, we headed south on Oregon Highway 205 for 7 miles to Rock Creek Road (map). At this point, we said goodbye to the pavement…it would be all gravel road from here.
After 23 miles, we reached the boundary of the Hart Mountain refuge. The only features breaking up the landscape were a refuge and speed limit sign. There was also a cattle guard, but those are common in eastern Oregon.
From here, we continued on another 18 miles to the refuge headquarters (map), a self-contained facility complete with a visitor center, restrooms, drinking water, maintenance yard, and even a house for the resident ranger.
After topping off water bottles and grabbing a map from the visitor center, we headed out to explore more of the refuge. We decided to take the Blue Sky Road since it went by Post Meadow and Guano Creek, two designated campsites on the refuge. Along the way, we encountered some pronghorn.
After moving on, we reached Post Meadow. This campground has a rustic, yet functioning horse corral. If you wish to explore the area via horseback, this is the campground to use.
The scenery surrounding us was extraordinary. It was worth shutting off the truck and taking it in, with only the sound of the breeze in our ears.
Continuing along the Blue Sky Road, we came to Guano Creek. There is another campground here, but it is a bit rustic. This is also the site of Camp Warner, an old military outpost dating back to the mid 1800s. While no remnants of the outpost remain, there are the grave sites of two soldiers that are maintained and respected by visitors.
At this point, if you have managed to make it in a regular vehicle, congratulations. Now, turn around and go back to the refuge headquarters unless you have a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle! We did, so on we went. The reward was more breathtaking scenery.
Hot Springs Campground is the most accessible campground on the refuge and is closest to the headquarters. It can be reached by passenger vehicle from the Hot Springs Road side (map).
After completing the loop back to the refuge headquarters, we headed west on Hart Mountain Road towards Plush. By this time, it was getting on into the evening and we were treated with excellent late-day sunlight for pictures.
This was a memorable, exciting, and fun trek. If you are willing to leave the comfort of the blacktop for an extended amount of time, this is the trip for you. You won’t be disappointed!
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