Off the Beaten Path: The Northwest
by: Ben Shaw
Part 1 of a 5 part series:
The RRT crew travels all over the place. Between everyone here we’ve been to dozens of countries, touched every state and discovered our fair share of hidden gems along the way. Over the next several weeks we’ll be breaking down our favorite places we’ve found across the country when we get off the beaten path. Mostly these are my little treasures but luckily, I’ll have some help filling in the blanks from the rest of the RRT gang along the way. You won’t find any National Parks on this list, but you’ll find some of the most amazing car camping spots, kayaking destinations, backpacking trails and much more. This week we’re heading to the Northwest for some of my favorite mountains in the world, a desert you probably don’t know exists and some eye-popping peaks.
Alvord Desert, Oregon
Car camping, Hot springs, Off-roading, Hunting
The Alvord desert was definitely an accidental find. A few years back I set out to snowshoe around the rim of Crater Lake National Park. We got about halfway around the lake when we heard there was three feet of snow in the forecast for the next two days so we hightailed it out of there and headed to the coast for a few days before beginning to dream about soaking in a hot spring (Oregon is littered with them). After a few hours of searching we found this backwater gem. The desert is a 12-mile by 7-mile
dry lakebed that gets just a few inches of rain each year. It’s been the location of the women’s land speed world record and is surrounded by small ranching communities. The nearest major town is almost a two-hour drive, so you’ll really feel like you’re out there… Also, don’t forget to fill up the gas tank before you head out; Fields has the only gas station for about an hour drive in any direction, but they sometimes run dry.
One of the biggest draws of the area is the Alvord Hot Spring, located right next to the dry lakebed. The spring consists of two small concrete “baths” where the temperature can be regulated. The water comes up at 170 degrees (scalding hot!) so you want to stick to the pools… The ranching family that owns the land recently decided to clean the springs up from a state of disrepair and keep a better eye on the area. You can camp near the hot springs and soak for 24 hours a day for a small fee with a caretaker located onsite. I spent two days here and it was absolutely wonderful, we soaked in the morning, explored for the day and then came back for another soak into the evening as the temperature dropped.
The other two major draws are the Alvord Lakebed and the Steens Mountain Wilderness. You can drive your car out on the lakebed and feel like you’re in Fast and Furious at 100mph or you can wander up into the Steens Mountains. A forewarning about heading into the Steens Mountains, the area is a beautiful BLM land, but the roads are very rough. It’s mostly two track dirt roads and much of it is open to big game hunting throughout the year. There’s little to no cell signal in most of the area so be prepared for some peace and quiet. The area is also sprinkled with spots to park the car and spend a night sleeping under the stars for those less inclined to go backpacking out into the unknown.
Best time to go: May-June & September-November
Three Sister Wilderness, Oregon
Not gonna lie, I’ve never been here. Luckily our wonderful owners, Joe, Emily, and Bryan have! The Three Sisters are in the Willamette National Forest. The wilderness area encompasses 281,190 acres with 260 miles of trails in the wilderness including 40 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. The owners spent 5 days hiking through the wilderness past the three sisters taking glacial baths, enjoying a wonderful section of trail and soaking up the sites.
RRT Co-Owner Bryan Wolf had this to say about his journey through the Three Sisters, “The Three Sisters was a spectacular experience of alpine lakes and meteor showers over sharp peaks. Our path took us by drastic contrasts of thick woods, alpine glacial lakes, and dark burn areas from a past fire. An amazing sampling of the PCT!”
Definitely on my list for next year…
Best time to go: June-October
Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho
Backpacking, Climbing, Mountaineering, Horseback riding, Hunting, Packrafting
If you’re beginning to notice, we like the wilderness… The Sawtooth National Forest covers 2,110,408 acres and contains over 1,000 miles of trails. Areas are open to hunting, car camping, climbing, horseback riding and much more. The forest contains beautiful alpine lakes, sprawling grasslands and plenty of beauty. My recommendation is to start at the Tin Cup Hiker Trailhead and spend the next 6 days exploring the Toxaway Lake and Imogene Lake areas. The loop is most definitely best left to the seasoned hiker; Imogene Pass tops out at over 9,000’ with 1,500’ of gain in just under two miles and a good bit of exposure near the top. In the Imogene basin you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of Payette Peak, the surrounding mountains and an awesome waterfall campsite if you look with your ears.
This loop only explores a fraction of this amazing area. Other draws include car camping near Pettit or Redfish Lakes and climbing one of the 40+ mountains over 10,000’ in the National Forest. For the thrill seeker, you can get with one of the many outfitters in the area for a multi-day whitewater rafting trip on the Salmon River and get your blood pumping with some class V whitewater.
Best time to go: June-September
Wind River Range, Wyoming
Car Camping, Backpacking, Climbing, Mountaineering, Horseback riding, Packrafting
The Winds is probably one of my favorite places in the country. These towering granite peaks top out at 13,810’ on the glaciated summit of Gannett Peak with 40 other named summits over 13,000’. This place is so big that portions of it are in two different National Forests, the Shoshone and the Bridger-Teton. The range encompasses roughly 728,020 acres of wilderness making it one of the largest road-free areas in the continental US. Additionally, 80 miles of the Continental Divide Trail run through the heart of the range. The range is a mecca for climbers, backpackers and mountaineers alike with different adventures calling each person. There are also several outfitters out of Pinedale offering pack trips on horseback into the range.
My favorite parts of the Winds are the Titcomb Basin near Gannett Peak on the north end the Cirque of the Towers on the south end. Titcomb basin is home to beautiful alpine lakes, and dozens of peaks covered in various climbs. From here you could hike north continuing the route out of the range along the Continental Divide Trail, climb Fremont or Gannett Peaks, or climb over Indian Pass across the continental divide past Knifepoint Glacier and out of the range. In the Cirque, you can enjoy pristine alpine lakes, a world-renown waterfall (in my mind) and some of the best alpine climbing in North America. There are countless loops you can wander on through the wilderness going over alpine passes, taking you by crystal clear lakes and revealing some beautiful sights. My mind wandered into the Winds in the spring of 2016 and then my body about 6 months later and the place has had my heart ever since.
For the car camper looking for something a little more rugged than KOA, there’s different areas around Big Sandy Trailhead where you can pull off and grab your own little slice of heaven with day hikes a
short way away. Disclaimer, the roads into many of the trailheads in the Wind River Range can be rough, so be prepared.
Best time to go: June-September
Black Hills, South Dakota
Car Camping, Backpacking, Climbing, High pointing
The Black Hills of South Dakota are about an hour to the west of Rapid City and cover a massive stretch of the western border with Wyoming. There are over 1.25 million acres open to recreation and the national forest is home to the highest point in the state of South Dakota, Black Elk peak with an elevation of 7,242’. It’s a moderate hike with great views from the top, the hike starts at Sylvan Lake and the drive up there is scenic in and of itself. Another cool draw in the area is Custer State Park Wildlife drive. The wildlife loop allows you to drive right up close with the bison herds and other animals with them sometimes even coming right up to your car. Spearfish Canyon also has some awesome hikes, very few people, and some great climbing for the avid rock climber. In all it’s a pretty sweet area of the world, just a short flight (or a nice 18 hour drive).
Hope you enjoyed our hidden gems of the northwest, check back next week for some awesome spots in the Midwest including a mini Boundary Waters, some local backpacking spots and other awesome ideas for your summer travel plans.
Best time to go: May-October