Hart Mountain Petroglyph Lake sign
High on Adventure


‘This is a Land to Possess and Embrace’
Story by Lee Juillerat, Photos by Lee Juillerat and Liane Venzke

We spent the morning marveling at the astonishing beauty and diversity of seasonal wildflowers - and that afternoon, embracing the preserved evidence of a distant past.

  Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, wildflowers   Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, ancient rock art  
Beautiful wildflowers
Ancient rock art

Liane Venzke and I were camping at the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in southeastern Oregon. Hart Mountain is a place I’ve visited many times over the decades; but even after years of poking about, there’s always something new to see and appreciate.

The morning’s delights featured an eye-popping array of multi-colored wildflowers. A snowy winter - drifts at the refuge reportedly topped seven feet - and a spring dampened by rainy thunderstorms, created an unusually showy proliferation of vibrantly colored wildflowers throughout Hart Mountain’s high desert landscape. It’s quite a mixed landscape because the elevation varies from 3,600-feet in the Warner Valley to 6,100-feet at headquarters to 8,024-feet at Warner Peak, the refuge’s high point.

  Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon buckwheat   Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, Old Man's Beard  
Old Man’s Beard

In his 1960 book, “My Wilderness: The Pacific West,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote that Hart Mountain “rises like a gargantuan loaf from dry prairies of southeastern Oregon.” The expansive refuge, which spans more than 422 square miles, was created in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to serve “as a range and breeding ground for the antelope (pronghorn) and other species of wildlife.”

  Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, pronghorn painting   Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, bighorn sheep painting  
Visitor center features Pronghorn and Bighorn sheep paintings.

I’ve seen herds of pronghorn, critters that some people mistake for deer, many times at Hart Mountain. North America’s fastest land animal, they can run at speeds upwards of 60 mph. Pronghorns are deservedly the refuge’s celebrated species. But Hart Mountain isn’t just about pronghorns. Game biologists say there are more than 300 species of wildlife, most notably California bighorn sheep, greater sage grouse, mule deer and a wide diversity of birds, including killdeer, Canada geese, avocets, red-naped sapsuckers and more.

We did see pronghorn, but our focus was on other features—the explosion of blooming wildflowers and the lakeside cliffs harboring ageless petroglyphs.

  Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, Harnhardi Road   Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, purple flowers  
Strolling along Barnhardi Road
Some purple
  Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, groups of purple floweres   Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, Phacelia  
Many in large, colorful groups

The search for petroglyphs came after a morning hiking the old Barnhardi Road to the Barnhardi Basin. The road, then still seasonally closed to motor vehicles, passes mostly through the wide-open expanses offering a coloring box array of flowers - paintbrush, corn lilies, arrowleaf balsamroot, woolly groundsel, showy penstemon, waterleaf, longleaf phlox, lovage, western blue flax, elk thistle, larkspur, wild buckwheat, false hellebore and much, much more. Frequent, too, were a variety of shrubs - wax currant, antelope bitterbrush, mountain snowberry, rabbitbrush, little-leaf horsebrush and sprawling fields of big sagebrush.

  Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, flowers in the road Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, nesting tent caterpillars    
Flowers in the road 
Nesting tent caterpillars

Although most of the area we hiked is above timberline, there were occasional stands of mountain mahogany, western juniper and, along areas of Rock Creek, proliferations of water-loving quaking aspens.

The views were never-ending, especially where the Barnhardi Road overlooks the Barnhardi Basin. On other hikes I’ve successfully bushwhacked into the basin and to what remains of the Barnhardi Cabin. But this day, anticipating an active afternoon, we just sampled a section of the basin before doubling back.

Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon,  sign points the way
Sign points the way.

After returning to our campsite near the hot springs, we drove back to and past the Refuge headquarters. About a mile west of headquarters we parked at a locked gate by a “Petroglyph Lake” sign. For years it was possible to drive about 1-1/2-miles on the gravel road to a parking area. The road was closed several years ago but remains open to hikers, bikers and equestrians.

  Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, petroglyph on the wall   Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, petroglyph on the wall closeup  
A petroglyph on the wall
- and up close

The road ends at Petroglyph Lake, but the true destination are the petroglyphs themselves, which are located on the basalt cliffs above the lake’s west shore. The petroglyphs - petro meaning stone or rock and glyph meaning to carve – were likely created more than 10,000 years ago. The long-ago paintings include animalistic figures, unusual configurations, and stick-like “people.” Actually, this location of the petroglyphs above Petroglyph Lake is just one of the many places on and near the Refuge and throughout southeastern Oregon where the ancient rock art can be found.

  Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, petroglyph bullseye    
Upside down man

The genesis of petroglyphs evokes speculation. As one “expert” wrote, “Because modern Oregon tribes have no similar painting traditions or legends, the petroglyphs may well be the work of a different people—a mysterious, earlier culture that hoped to communicate with the spirit world through symbolic messages at sacred sites. One of those sacred places must have been this small lake on the vast desert plateau atop Poker Jim Ridge. In what is now the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, nearly 100 drawings decorate the basalt ledge ringing Petroglyph Lake’s western shore.”

  Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, Petroglyph Lake  
Looking down at Petroglyph Lake

From the path that borders the lake, we followed a little-used trail up to the cliffs. We were quickly rewarded, finding dozens of petroglyphs, some in groups of a half-dozen or more, others by themselves along the walls. Some of the images were weathered and faint. Some were abstract leave-it-to-your-imagination figures. Others were drawn in geometric designs. It’s believed some are animals that were hunted for food while others might represent the spirit world. At Petroglyph Lake as elsewhere, some believe the petroglyphs may have no mystical meaning but, less romantically, are a prehistoric form of graffiti. Whatever is true, they are the stuff of fascination and imagination.

  Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, petroglyph   Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, petroglyph  
What do they represent?

We followed the faint path along the rim rocks and rock outcrops, some colored with lichen, finding more and more petroglyphs. Some were in the shape of pronghorn, others were stick-like people with several in wriggly forms. Two side-by-side figures seemed to have their arms joyfully reaching out. Another had an owl-like face. Yet another appeared to be a person falling forever down-down-down. Others resembled circular bullseyes. Among the most distinct and preserved is what might be imagined as a giant four-legged bug or critter.

  Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, petroglyph   Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, petroglyph  
More to test the imagination

I’ve made several visits to the site, but this time, with patience and a partner willing to shimmy around rocks and keep searching, I saw more petroglyphs than on any previous outing. We didn’t count how many, but estimate we viewed 50 or 60 or more.

Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, antelope and bullseye
An antelope near a bullseye?

Importantly, we looked but didn’t touch. Even the touch of a hand or finger could cause damage.

Once back at the car we drove to the hot spring - 102 degree water in an 8’x11’ pool surrounded by a rustic rock wall. After hiking more than nine miles on our two outings, the spring’s warm water was soothing and much appreciated.

  Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, hot springs   Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, hot springs  
  Soaking at Hart Mountain hot springs  

Soaking in the hot springs proved a fitting ending to our day. We had experienced what Justice Douglas experienced more than 70 years earlier. As he wrote of Hart Mountain, “This is a land to possess and embrace. It is a land to command as far as the eye can see.”
Getting There
From Lakeview, Oregon, the nearest small town, take Highway 395 north 4.7 miles and turn east on Highway 140. Follow Highway 140 east for 15-1/2-miles. At a fork in the road, turn north onto the Plush Cutoff Road (Lake County Road 3-13). Follow it about 19-1/2-miles to Plush, which has combination store, diner, gas station, tavern. Continue through town nearly a mile then turn east on Hart Mountain Road (County Highway 3-12) past the Warner Valley Wetland (restrooms) and Camp Hart Mountain (restrooms, camp sites, interpretive signs) to the Refuge headquarters. About 13-1/2-miles of Road 3-12 is paved while the remaining 9-1/2-miles to Refuge headquarters/visitor center is a maintained gravel road. Other routes through Oregon reach Hart Mountain from Bend, a distance of 207 miles; Burns, 129 miles; Frenchglen, 48 miles; Fields, 80 miles; and Denio Junction, Nevada, 111 miles.

For more information visit the Hart Mountain website at www.fws.gov/refuge/hart-mountain-national-antelope or call the Refuge headquarters at 541-947-2731 or the Sheldon-Hart National Wildlife Refuge headquarters at 541-947-3315.

Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, view
Savoring the expansive views at Hart Mountain

About the Author

  Lee Juillerat is a semi-retired writer-photographer who lives in Southern Oregon. He is a frequent contributor to several magazines, including “Southern Oregon Magazine,” “The AG Mag,” “Range,” and “The Cattle Mag.” He has written and co-authored books about various topics and places, including Crater Lake National Park and Lava Beds National Monument, and, most recently, “Ranchers and Ranching: Cowboy Country Yesterday and Today.” Lee has produced photo-stories for High On Adventure for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at 337lee337@charter.net.   Lee Juillerat