Sagebrush, cactus, swirling alkali dust, and the wind whistling across a barren prairie are not the first images that normally come to mind when thinking about the Oregon backcountry. Make no mistake, there's plenty of green beauty in the northwest, but once you're east of the Cascades, much of Oregon starts looking a lot more like the location for a John Ford western.
Variety is one factor that makes Oregon such a darn nice place to be, and that's one of the reasons the state is so popular with 4x4 owners. For a group of Land Rover-brand owners and a few others, central Oregon was a great place to explore during a recent club run. The trip was an annual affair hosted by the Pacific Coast Rover Club, a group that boasts more than 200 members. The group has members throughout the northwest and British Columbia, most of them driving all kinds of Land Rovers and Range Rovers.
The trip began with last-minute shopping and a roundup of the 18-plus wagons in Prineville, followed by a run south out of town along Highway 27 through the Crooked River canyon. Huge, jagged basalt bluffs looming close by bore mute testimony to the area's volcanic origins as we listened to the drivers' meeting at a roadside picnic site with enough room for all the rigs. From there we caravanned south to Highway 20, then east to the tiny burg of Brothers for a final gas stop and a last shot at a flusher for a few days.
Just east of Brothers, we turned south on an unmarked two-track headed for Glass Buttes. A stop on the way explains the area's namesake. The ground is covered with translucent black obsidian, some extremely sharp, which caused more than a few nervous glances at the rigs' tires. Although technically a "two-track," the road is rugged and calls for paying attention on the driver's part. It was slow going as we headed southeast through the scrub.
The day was sunny and warm on the valley floor, but at 6,000-feet-plus elevation, a coat felt good as the wind gusted over the peak, which bristled with cell towers and other antennae.
Every inch of the off-pavement travel we did took place on established two-track roads used by ranchers, hunters, BLM or Forest Service personnel, and others. The lack of maintenance or improvement on a two-track means we enjoyed plenty of challenges without looking for trouble. Strictly speaking, we did no "off-road" travel on this run, unless you count the designated sand dune OHV recreation area near Christmas Valley. While not a blood-and-guts 4x4 run, this event is a good example of the kind of four-wheeling recreation enjoyed by many vehicle owners. It's non-destructive fun that doesn't dramatically risk your vehicle unless you do something really stupid.
Most of the rigs on this trip were well prepared for serious off-pavement travel, but this event called for careful driving more than megabuck aftermarket hardware. There were a few near-stock Rovers, but many had modest suspension lifts and taller tires in keeping with sensible off-pavement prep. For a cautious driver, virtually any 4x4 rig-not counting AWD family "crossover" sedans and the like-could take on this trail with confidence.
We trundled carefully along at the tail of the caravan in our showroom-stock Jeep Liberty motivated by the optional 2.8L CRD diesel engine. We enjoyed a solid 25 mpg on the road, including a cruise over the Cascade mountain pass, and the rig had more than enough power and pep to tackle the journey in sprightly fashion. Our sole complaint was the Liberty's low ground clearance. It seemed we scraped bottom on any rock larger than a navel orange. A couple inches of suspension and tire lift would have helped immensely. Meanwhile, we gritted our teeth and soldiered cautiously ahead.
Downhill and southeast from Glass Buttes, we reached our first campsite at the edge of Overall Flats, sort of a tree-crowned knoll at the head of a broad valley. The spot included sufficient flat spots for the ground and roof-rack-mounted tents popular with this group. A heavy-duty campfire pit was pressed into duty for the group fire, a welcome feature given the cool wind.
The second day was spent maneuvering across dry lakebeds, through head-deep patches of desert scrub brush, over areas of sage and scattered juniper trees, and up and down rocky bluffs as we climbed out of or descended into dry washes.
At least once we paused while Buzz Chandler, our fearless leader who had made this trek several times in years past, reconnoitered the correct route in the unmarked wilderness. Due to the GPS documentation on the route and Chandler's knowledge of the area, we never strayed far from course.
It was during the second day that we encountered our only head-scratcher mechanical trouble of the run. The Land Rover Series IIA owned by Barry Kop had a fuel pump failure with no repair kit in sight. Using standard off-pavement ingenuity, Barry and friends lashed a 3-gallon fuel can on the rig's hood with a rubber line, siphoning gas to the carburetor via gravity-feed. It wasn't pretty, although Barry's rig is a handsome classic vehicle, but the fix allowed him to get out under his own power.
As the day grew long, we drove through The Lost Forest, an interesting region of seemingly misplaced pine trees amid the sand dunes east of Christmas Valley. The route led us to the dunes next, a normally uncrowded play area popular with the 4x4, dune buggy, and ATV crowd. The dunes gave the participants a chance to frolic on the sand, blast up and down a few hills and finally, line up for a group vehicle photo in the light of the late sun. We then hightailed it for the Christmas Valley general store and gas station. Some of the rigs had smaller fuel tanks and were drawing a bit down on gas, so the station was a welcome sight.
Our next campground was at Green Mountain, a scenic spot a few miles due north of Christmas Valley. From a few steps behind our tent, we absorbed the sweeping dramatic view into the valley and to the mountains beyond. Our camp setup was distracted by our enjoyment of the shifting sunset colors and the look of the fog settling into some lowland pockets in the fields. The nearly full moon later on created a surreal scene from our hilltop hideaway as we enjoyed another terrific group campfire with a really fun bunch of people.
The next morning, we continued northwest towards Derrick Ice Cave, a fascinating lava tube cave on private property but open to the public. The hike into the cave starts across a sandy floor but deteriorates as rockfall has created shaky footing. Regardless of the temperature up above, a coat is welcome, as the air turns much colder deep in the cave. Although not a difficult exploration, standard safety equipment is a must when wandering into the cave, as is courtesy for the landowner's property.
Our central Oregon adventure with the Land Rover club was a fun, relaxing journey amid some of the many wild and scenic places this state has to offer. The group makes an annual trip over roughly the same route, so contact the club for more information. You won't be sorry.