Post Summary: 15 incredible Pacific Northwest desert destinations
Caught you there, didn’t we? When you think of planning a trip to the Pacific Northwest, we can guarantee that you’re thinking about some kind of iteration of Twilight series vibes.
Perpetual rain, lush ferns, dense evergreen forests, fog. You know the one!
But what if we told you that there is actually a HUGE desert region in the Pacific Northwest?
Little did you know, there are tons of things to do in the Pacific Northwest deserts, and we’ve got you covered with the best destinations in this post!
What even is a high desert?
A high desert is a rocky, upland geographic area!
While “high desert” is not a formal term, it is colloquially used to describe many areas in the PNW that are rocky and significantly different in climate, higher elevation (between 2,000 – 4,000 feet), and hydrology than the contrasting forested areas.
The Washington, Idaho, and Oregon high desert especially match this description and include many gorgeous destinations for you to visit!
15 Pacific Northwest Desert Destinations
1. The Oregon Badlands (OR)
The Oregon Badlands Wilderness Area is one of the coolest photography locations in Oregon for its remarkable volcanic history and geological features.
Here, you can hike over 50 miles of trails, including the Ancient Juniper Trail (easy, 3 miles) where you can see old junipers growing in lava flows and gorgeous wildflowers!
You can also explore the cracked volcanic pressure ridges (called tumuli), study the Badland and Horse Ridge volcanoes (which created the badlands), and enjoy a variety of wildlife that inhabit the area, like marmots, bobcat, elk, deer, and antelope!
Stay Nearby: Book your trip at the LOGE Bend (for outdoor adventurers)
2. High Desert-Surrounding Bend Area (OR)
Bend, Oregon–a PNW gem–has its own adventures for you to check out, but what really makes this area of Oregon unique is the high desert surrounding the wonderful city!
One fantastic way you can learn about high desert Oregon is at the High Desert Museum.
At the High Desert Museum, you will encounter exhibitions on local Native art, history, and wildlife, and rotating exhibitions, which currently include the exploration of the only touring Black rodeo in the country, the art of Stephen Hendee, and survival architecture.
Not only does the high desert near Bend have this locally celebrated museum, but it is also a fun place to go outdoors and hike, explore the Deschutes and Crooked rivers, explore things to do at Smith Rock State Park, and enjoy watersports at Lake Billy Chinook!
3. Frenchman Coulee (WA)
Found just outside of Vantage, Washington, Frenchman Coulee offers all outdoor adventurers a variety of experiences: climbing, hikes to waterfalls, camping, and fascinating volcanic history!
Feathers Rock Climbing Area and Frenchman Coulee (Vantage) are the rock climber’s dream–tons of routes, challenging geological formations (you can climb the columnar basalt!), and unique Gorge hiking when approaching the walls make this area in the Pacific Northwest desert so popular!
4. Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park (WA)
If we told you that the state gem of Washington is petrified wood, would you believe us? (See more fun facts about Washington here!)
Well, you’d better believe it because Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park has one of the most diverse fossil forests in North America and it’s located along the Columbia River!
Ginkgo Petrified Forest Interpretive Center (free admission) and the interpretive are trail is a great place to visit to learn about the vast number of tree species that were discovered here and more!
Within Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park lies the Wanapum Recreation Area, where you can camp, enjoy the shorefront of the Columbia River, and launch your boat.
5. Hanford Reach National Monument (WA)
Hanford Reach National Monument is a protected, free-flowing section of the Columbia River between the Priest Rapids Dam and McNary Dam.
Here, you get a truly immersed experience of the high desert in Washington and the rugged conditions of the area.
Though there are no formal trails at Hanford Reach, there are a few social trails, including the White Bluffs Trail where you can see the Hanford Sand Dunes!
You can also hunt, fish (allowed only on the River, Ringold, and Wahluke (East) Units), and enjoy the non-tidal, free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River on your jet boat or kayak, and more at Hanford Reach.
To learn more about this area in Washington’s high desert, check out the REACH Museum in the Tri-Cities!
6. Owyhee Wilderness (OR/ID)
Owyhee Wilderness, or Owyhee Canyonlands, are found in eastern Oregon. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the biggest uprocted Pacific Northwest desert areas. Take great care when visiting here!
Carved by desert rivers, Owyhee Wilderness consists of red-rock canyons, blue-ribbon trout streams, and a variety of wildlife.
During your visit to Owyhee Wilderness, be sure to try rafting on the Lower Owyhee, visiting Three Forks Hot Springs, and check out hiking in Leslie Gulch.
Read More: 10 natural Oregon hot springs to melt away your worries
7. Hells Canyon (OR/ID)
When you think of high desert Oregon and Idaho, you might not be picturing the lowest river canyon in the United States.
Nevertheless, Hells Canyon lies in Oregon and Idaho’s high desert and is one of the coolest destinations for backpackers, rafting, fishing, and boat tours!
Within Hells Canyon, you can experience Nez Perce land and history, visit the historic Kirkwood Ranch that attracts all kinds of outdoor adventurers and historians, and enjoy beloved scenic vistas.
Be sure to plan your visit to Hell’s Canyon in the spring and fall because, unsurprisingly, the area can get very hot during the summer months (or jump in the river to cool off)!
Did you know? Hells Canyon is the deepest river Gorge in the USA, at 7,900 feet? See more fun facts about Idaho here!
8. Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge (OR)
The Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Oregon’s high desert was originally established in 1936 to provide a space for antelope herds.
While the refuge has restored much of the antelope population in the region, the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge has also preserved the landscape and wildlife of Oregon and is greatly enjoyed by the public!
At the refuge, you can camp, hunt and fish, bike, backpack..and even visit the Hart Mountain Hot Springs!
9. Juniper Dunes Wilderness (WA)
Did you know Washington State has over 7,000 acres of sand dunes and protected Western Juniper?
Juniper Dunes Wilderness in the high desert of Washington is home to the oldest juniper groves in the state (some have been around for 150 years!), open hiking over varied terrain, and a popular OHV area!
While you visit Juniper Dunes Wilderness, be sure to look out for the wide variety of wildlife in the area, which include deer, bobcats, skunks, porcupines, coyotes, kangaroo rats, owls, doves, rattlesnakes, and more!
10. Alvord Desert (OR)
When you step out into the Alvord Desert, it feels like you’re on another planet!
The Alvord Desert in eastern Oregon is a large, dry lakebed with a smooth, flat surface that goes for miles!
Found at the foot of the Steens Mountains, the Alvord Desert is great for hiking, camping (free!), soaking in hot springs (Alvord Hot Springs and Willow Creek Hot Springs), and rockhounding (rock collecting)!
11. Oregon Desert Trail (OR)
Traveling along the Oregon Desert Trail is one of the best ways to capture a glimpse of the spectacular Oregon high desert wilderness!
The Oregon Desert Trail is a 750-mile choose-your-own-adventure trek, as you can use the trail for day hikes, traverse the trail for a few days, travel by other outdoor sports like biking or horseback riding, or challenge yourself to hike the entire thing!
Along this trail, you’ll experience the Oregon Badlands Wilderness, Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Steens Mountain, Pueblo Mountains, and Owyhee Canyonlands.
While on the Oregon Desert Trail, you will also pass through numerous Oregon desert towns that are wonderful for getting supplies or a yummy meal!
Want a driving tour instead? Try our 1-week Eastern Oregon Road Trip!
12. Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (OR)
Located in southeastern Oregon’s high desert lies Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which is famous for its spectacular concentration of wildlife–namely birds!
Here, you can visit Malheur Lake, go on a driving tour of the area, hike on the peaceful high desert trails, cross-country ski, and more!
Make sure to keep your eye out for Great Blue Herons, Farallon Cormorants, Great White Pelicans, and the many other species of birds that inhabit the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
13. Oregon Coastal Dunes (OR)
The Oregon Dunes are found on the Oregon coast, but have desert vibes nonetheless! The Oregon Dunes covers a 40 mile stretch of Central Oregon, with temperature coastal dunes that are some of the biggest in the world.
While in the Oregon Dunes, you can rent a high-speed ATV or dune buggy from local companies, such as Sandland Adventures or Spinreel, and zoom around in the sand!
Mushroom foraging is also a popular activity in the area, and you can go home with a bucket of chanterelles, boletes, matsutake, and lobster mushrooms without a permit (just be sure you know what you’re looking for)!
You’ll truly feel like you’re on another planet when among the Oregon Dunes. There are also Oregon coast campgrounds so you can stay overnight and spend several days here!
Make it a bigger trip: Plan an Oregon Coast road trip, or check off some beaches in Oregon from your bucket list!
14. Moses Lake Sand Dunes (WA)
Located in central Washington lies even more sand dunes!
The Moses Lake Sand Dunes are vast and inviting to adventure-junkies and hikers alike!
Off-roading is a particularly popular activity at the Moses Lake Sand Dunes and you can rent an ATV at Land2Lake Powersport Rentals!
15. Bruneau Sand Dunes (ID)
From the smallest scorpion to the tallest single-structured sand dune in North America (470 feet above the desert floor!), you can truly experience the wonders of the world at Idaho’s Bruneau Sand Dunes.
At Bruneau Sand Dunes, you can also gaze at the night sky at the Bruneau Dunes Observatory. It’s an official Dark Sky Park, which means they take great care in preventing light pollution so you can clearly see the night sky year-round.
Be sure to add this incredible destination on your trip to Idaho’s high desert!
Pacific Northwest Desert Map
Click on the map to discover some new Pacific Northwest desert destinations fo ryour next adventure!
What are some of your favorite Pacific Northwest desert destinations? Tell us in the comments!