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On a cold October morning in the Elkhorn Mountains, Renee Patrick woke up to a problem.
Patrick had already been hiking in Eastern Oregon for weeks, pioneering the new, 566-mile Blue Mountains Trail. She was expecting temperatures to drop below freezing as she slept. But when she woke up and went to get water from nearby Black Lake, she found something she had never seen in her 10,000-plus miles of thru-hiking experience: The entire lake had frozen solid overnight
"What had been a full body of water the night before was completely solid ice," says Patrick. "I had never experienced a freeze like that, so fast and so deep."
Thankfully, Patrick had some water in an insulated canteen. And the frost eventually gave way to a clear, mild afternoon of hiking that netted views stretching almost 200 miles from the Strawberry Mountain Range to the Eagle Cap Wilderness in the Wallowas.
A resident of Bend, Ore., Patrick has completed just about every iconic long-distance American hiking trail, including the "triple crown": the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and the Continental Divide trails. In recent years, she pioneered the 750-mile Oregon Desert Trail, and remains the ODT program coordinator for the Oregon Natural Desert Association.
Now, she's also the first person to solo thru-hike Oregon's newest epic hiking route. Located in Northeast Oregon, the Blue Mountains Trail connects some of the state's most jaw-dropping scenery, from the meandering John Day River to the alpine lakes of the Eagle Cap Wildness and the rugged Hells Canyon, the deepest river gorge in the country.
WW talked to Patrick about the challenges of pioneering a trail that's hundreds of miles long, climbing in and out of steep canyons, and her favorite secret hiking spots.
WW: What were the most challenging moments on the Blue Mountain Trail?
Renee Patrick: Being one of the first people out there, I was really working to ground truth it, working with the organization that's pioneering the route, the Greater Health Canyon Council. Last year their trail coordinator had a line on the map, and the goal was to see, is it hikeable? We knew there would be some issues. There's some cross-country sections to link together trails, and we're trying to find the right alignment. What I hiked isn't necessarily what the official route will be. There's still a few areas where we're trying to find what will give the hiker the best experience. Some of that is dropping down into these deep canyons, there are patches of poison ivy. Luckily I got away without any great outbreaks. There were four of us who completed the trail last fall. They weren't so lucky.
You've thru-hiked some of the most iconic trails in the country. How does the Blue Mountain Trail compare, in difficulty and reward?
It has a lot of elevation gain, so in that regard it's as difficult. In one of the sections, you're hiking along the rim of Hell's Canyon, and Hell's Canyon is deeper than the Grand Canyon. It's the deepest river canyon in the country. There's one option to go down to the Snake River, and when you go down that means you have to go [back] up. Just dropping in and out of these river canyons—it's rugged. So the elevation gain was on par with a lot of other long-distance trails, like the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. And I would say it has as much beauty as the other long-distance trails. There are granite mountain ranges, old growth forests, free-flowing rivers that don't have dams on them, high alpine areas, mountain goats, bears, cougars—it's an amazing, wild place.
Are there any recommendations you'd have for the less advanced backpacker?
A great place to start would be the Elkhorn Crest Trail. This is a 22-, 23-mile trail that people already know about. It's right outside the town of Baker City and the ski area at Anthony Lake. It's a ridge trail, so you're up high. That's where I saw mountain goats. It's well marked, and there are places you can camp. [And then to] the Strawberry Crest, right outside the town of John Day, there's another trail that goes along the spine of the mountains. Strawberry Mountain is over 9,000 feet, and it drops down into Strawberry Lake, and there's this beautiful waterfall. If you want the most reward for their effort, [hike] the crest of the Strawberry Mountains to the crest of the Elkhorn Mountains.
You've spent a lot of time exploring the more remote parts of Oregon. Do you have any favorite secret spots you'd be willing to share?
A place I’ve really enjoyed is the Fremont-Winema National Forest, almost to the border of California. This is really a transition zone between the desert and the forest. There’s an incredible geological feature called Abert Rim which is one of the largest fault-block mountains in the country. There are hot springs—there’s actually a geyser in Lakeview. That transition zone is really interesting because you get the reward of the views, but you get the shade, and there’s a lot of places in the desert without much shade. So you have water, you have trees, but you have desert feeling and views over the Fremont.