You’ll find some of southern Oregon’s most beautiful scenery in the Warner Valley. It’s home to the tiny town of Plush, along with farms, ranchland, and wetlands. And, it’s bordered by towering Hart Mountain, home of the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge.
I had endured a rainy day, driving through the Oregon Outback from Burns to Frenchglen, then on into Nevada, and finally back into Oregon. My gas tank was empty, and for a while I feared that I’d have no choice but to skip the Warner Valley, and make a direct line for Lakeview. Instead, I lucked out, and found a gas pump at a general store, restaurant, and bar in microscopic Adel, Oregon. The store clerk filled up my tank (you’re not allowed to pump your own in Oregon) while I awkwardly hung out with the cowboys in the bar.
Now that I had enough gas in my tank, I didn’t have to hurry to Lakeview. Instead, I could turn north and head towards Plush, and the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge.
I’ve been on a few roads called “Hogback Road” before, and they typically skirt the very top of a narrow ridge. This Hogback Road didn’t do that. It spent most of its time on the edge of some hills, setting me slightly above the valley floor, and giving me an awesome view of Hart Mountain in the distance. The colors were spectacular — perhaps because I had spent most of my day in the rain, and this was the first sunshine I had seen in recent memory.
You’ll enjoy a paved road until you reach Plush. Expect picturesque scenes like this one.
Much to my surprise, Plush also had a gas pump. Its general store proclaims the town’s unofficial slogan:
Plush: A drinking town with a cow problem.
Drive straight through town, past just a handful of buildings, and you’ll quickly arrive at a right-turn, marked by…
… this corral. It didn’t look like anything special at this moment (the clouds had returned), but it was downright beautiful later on.
The paved road takes you just a bit further, directly towards the imposing cliffs of Hart Mountain, which towers 3,600 feet (1,100 meters) above the valley floor. Just before the road makes another sharp turn to the left…
… there’s an interpretive area, with a nice view of Hart Lake to the south. This is a prime spot for wildlife watching — although I didn’t see much activity at the moment.
This panorama, looking south, gives you some idea of the vastness of the open space in Warner Valley.
Beyond the interpretive area…
… the road turns to dirt, and heads north, skirting along Hart Mountain’s western slope. There is a campground in this area, and a few small lakes over to the left.
Eventually, you’ll enter the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, and just after the welcome sign, there’s a road that turns right, and heads up the mountain.
The drive up from the valley floor was pretty dramatic. About halfway up, there’s a turnout with a short trail that leads to a viewpoint.
From here, you have a nice view of Hart Mountain…
… and a simply extraordinary view of the valley below.
Once you reach the top of the mountain, you’re on a plateau. The main road is well-maintained…
… though the side roads are pretty rough.
I only drove as far as the refuge’s headquarters. It had already closed down for the day. And, I’m assuming that when the snow starts falling, they don’t get very many visitors up here.
If I had continued beyond the refuge headquarters, I would have eventually ended up back in Frenchglen, Oregon. I was there several hours earlier, and my original plan was to take this dirt road, through the refuge, down the mountain, and on to Lakeview. However, I encountered so much snow on Steens Mountain that I was afraid I’d run into impassable conditions in the middle of the refuge, then have to backtrack to Frenchglen and make the long loop anyhow. I probably wouldn’t have had any trouble making the drive from Frenchglen to Plush via the Hart Mountain Refuge road, but I guess it’s best that I played it safe.
I left the refuge and headed back down the hill, into Warner Valley once again.
The trip downhill was simply incredible. The views from this road are amazing.
I think that’s Upper Campbell Lake or Flagstaff Lake in the distance — one of several shallow ponds at the north end of the valley. You might want to look for Flagstaff Lake Road — a shortcut across the valley to Hogback Road. It should provide some nice views of the lakes, and an alternate route to get back to Plush.
By the time I arrived in Plush, sunset had arrived. I returned to that corral, to take in the view of the glowing slopes of Hart Mountain.
The Bottom Line
My drive through Warner Valley and up into the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge was the highlight of my (very long) day in the Oregon Outback. If you go, be sure you schedule enough time to do some wildlife watching. And, if the weather is favorable, don’t be afraid to tackle the entire road from Frenchglen to Plush.
The Warner Valley is located in south-central Oregon, east of Lakeview. Oregon Highway 140 cuts across the southern part of the valley. At Adel, 140 intersects with Hogback Road, which provides access to Plush and the northern end of the valley, along with the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge. You can also take the shortcut Plush Cutoff Road to shorten the distance between Plush and Lakeview.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive into Warner Valley and up Hart Mountain: