Horsing Around in Central Oregon

A rider explores Ochoco National Forest in Central Oregon, enjoying the abundant wildlife, wildflowers and mountaintop views.

by Pamela Adler

Central Oregon is a vast area blessed with majestic mountains, clear running rivers and gorgeous trout-filled lakes. The natural beauty of the area also boasts some the best trail riding opportunities found anywhere.

Over the summer, I took to the trails more than ever. The end results were new, wonderful friendships forged and a renewed sense of adventure and exploration in our beautiful high desert region.

My new riding friends were great company as we traversed gorgeous backcountry. We discovered lakes, beautiful high vistas and rolling prairies. On one horse camping venture in August, three of us set out to explore the Ochoco National Forest trails.

 Snack time for our horses at Indian Prairie.

Day 1: Ochoco National Forest and Indian Prairie

Located east of the Cascades range, this area is particularly lush, boasting mature ponderosa and mixed conifer forests, rolling grassy meadows and ample streams to support the varied wildlife. Mule deer, elk, black bear, cougar, coyote and several bands of wild horses are just some of the animal life which call this area home.

Hidden deep within this forest range is an elusive spot called Indian Prairie. Renowned for its rolling long prairie, wildflowers and stands of quaking aspen trees, we took to the trail in hopes of discovering this magical area. 

Quaking aspen grove in Indian Prairie.

The trail to our destination was diverse, winding through heavy forest, across clear streams and over several rough, rocky areas. Signs of wild mustangs, which call these rugged mountains home, were clear. Lead stallions leave very distinct manure piles marking their territory.

Some 20 miles under our saddles at day’s end, we came away from this ride with a sense of great accomplishment. The prairie was indeed gorgeous. At one end of it we found a warming hut, used mainly for those cross-country skiing and snowmobiling during the winter months, complete with stocked wood and benches around an old wood stove.

Warming hut at Indian Prairie.

The prairie displayed evidence of numerous small streams which, though dry on our visit, would be lovely during the spring and summer months. An abundance of wildflowers were still in bloom, even very late into the season. It was a magical place, indeed.

Indian Prairie in the Ochoco National Forest.

Day 2: Independent Mine and Lookout Mountain

The following day, with the beautiful ride from the day before under our belts, we trailered approximately 15 miles down the mountain to a new area of the Ochocos rich in history and natural beauty.

Mining was a thriving industry in this area until the mid to late 1900s. While a few mines were dedicated to gold, more common was the mining of cinnabar, from which mercury — used in the mining industry — was extracted. 

Operating from the early 1900s, Independent Mine is a great place to dismount and explore on foot. This photo shows the remains of the main mill, with the furnace in the back. There are also several log structures remaining from this long-abandoned mine.

Heading out from this spot, the trail is well marked and takes riders five miles on the first half of the loop, slowing gaining 1,500 feet in elevation until you reach the top of Lookout Mountain. The views from this mountaintop are spectacular! 

A clear day will reward you with a view of at least nine mountains and volcanic buttes. To dismount here and just sit on the cliff edge, taking in the breeze and solitude, is a gift to the soul.

Riding Back through Wildflowers

The return trip from this 10-mile loop brings the rider back down the pass and again through fields of wildflowers. Lupine, monkey flower, Indian paintbrush, asters and desert evening primrose can all be found on this gorgeous mountain ride.

A surprise greeted us near the end of the trail. We discovered an olive grove, long ago abandoned by the early mining settlers. This particular tree is not found anywhere else in the region and is testimony to the ingenuity and tenacity of the early pioneers. 

 The author on her Kiger Mustang Bonita next to one of the olive trees.

Life is good. Horse camping with friends, exploring new trails and having a great horse under you — this is something to be cherished.

Happy trails.

Combining over 30 years experience in the saddle, a B.A. in English, and a love of travel and photography, Pamela Adler writes equestrian travel articles and documents local riding adventures in her blog, http://kigermountainrider.blogspot.com. She resides in Bend, Oregon, with her two wonderful trail horses and three faithful trail dogs.