On a six-week stay in Oregon, my husband, Lee Smith, and I happened upon the High Desert Museum—truly a gem dropped onto 135 acres of pine-covered forest in the high desert of central Oregon.
Here you can see a bobcat, a fox, a lynx, otters and porcupines, plus owls, eagles and reptiles. But it is much more than just a place to view wildlife.
Founded by Donald M. Kerr, a native of Portland, the museum grew from his passion for natural history that began when he raised a wolf cub for his high school biology class, and later raised two great horned owls. He realized that these experiences were outside the norm for most people; yet he longed to establish a place where all ages could closely observe wild animals in a natural setting.
His interests widened into environmental issues, especially the protection of animals native to Oregon’s high desert. In 1974, Kerr established the Western Natural History Institute, which evolved by 1982 into the High Desert Museum, three miles south of Bend. In 1989, a 28,000-square-foot addition expanded the rustic, yet elegant museum, and it now occupies 53,000 square feet.
One wing of the building houses the Earle A. Chiles Center and an exhibit, “The Spirit of the West.” In the Hall of Exploration and Settlement, the exhibits tell the stories of pioneers. For instance, there is Hannah Perkins, a woman heading overland to Oregon across the desolate Nevada desert. A mining camp in Silver City, Idaho, forms the backdrop for stories about the Wells Fargo Express agent and a local seamstress earning her living in a boomtown.
At the “Sin in the Sagebrush” exhibit, we met pioneers, gamblers, fur traders, and “working women.” We listened to their stories and walked through an 1860s town, complete with a blacksmith shop, Chinese merchants, and a stagecoach stop. Other rooms told the history of the U.S. Forest Service and held one of its old fire trucks.
In other section, we learned about Native American history, area wildlife and dinosaurs. And we saw native fish housed in aquariums.
Outside, we wandered through exhibits and buildings connected by a half-mile paved path that follows a stream lined with aspens and ponderosa pines. The outdoor exhibits feature animal habitats, with sheep, porcupines, and gray foxes, but we spent most of our time watching birds of prey and the river otters. Owls were the subject on the day we visited, and we stared into the eyes of McKenzie, a magnificent horned owl, tethered to a stand. The interpreter told us about different species and their markings, as well as the fact that owls cannot rotate their eyes. Their heads turn almost 360 degrees. We pressed buttons to hear their different calls, and surprisingly, learned that not all owls hoot.
Bald eagles, falcons, other species of owls, including a threatened species—the northern spotted owl—make their home at the High Desert Museum. All of the wild animals at the museum were rescued and cannot be released back into the wild because of injuries or other disabilities.
Sidewalks ramble through the woods to a corral for wild mustangs, a Native American encampment, a turn-of-the-century sawmill, and the Blair family cabin, depicting ranch living east of the Cascades in 1880. Weather and season permitting, interpreters portray the Blair family, their hired hands, and friends. Guests are invited to participate in daily chores, such as churning butter, splitting wood, dipping candles and tending their garden. Interpreters demonstrate at the sawmill in summers only.
We skirted a marsh pond on our way to the aquarium for river otters. A stream flows into an outdoor pool, and a small grassy area with trees provides space for the otters to “haul out.” However during our visit, the streamlined swimmers entertained us primarily in the water. Inside the building next to the pond, several feet lower than water level, we looked through large windows to observe them swimming underwater. A glass plate covers one side of their den, dug out beside the pool. While we watched, they never entered their cozy abode.
Wildlife specialists offer shows and talks on various topics. In the Desertarium, you get a close-up view of rattlesnakes—and even a monster—a Gila monster, that is. Ochoco the bobcat and Snowshoe the lynx roam forested atriums.
On select days, Pinecone the porcupine and the baby Q’Will, Daisy the striped skunk, Gus the red-tailed hawk, Shasta the Swainson’s hawk, George and Augie, a pair of barn owls, and a gopher snake and king snake make their appearances.
“The people who come here, from families to RVing retirees, are enriched with a lifelong learning experience unique to this museum,” said Museum President Janeanne A. Upp.
Visitors should set aside three to four hours to adequately cover the museum. For convenience, the Rimrock Café offers snacks, sandwiches, hamburgers, salads, homemade cookies, and a variety of beverages. Silver Sage Trading Store inside the museum displays books, artwork, collectibles and jewelry crafted by Native Americans and local artisans.
Admission rates for summer (May 1 to October 31) are adults, $15, seniors, $12, and children ages 5-12, $9. Winter rates (November 1 to April 30) drop to adults, $10, seniors, $9, and children, $6. No admission is charged for children 4 and under. For unlimited annual visits, various memberships are available.
For an additional $25 per person ($20 for members), plus admission, guests on certain days of the year can join the wildlife staff for a look behind the animal exhibits, observing how food is prepared, how bugs, snakes, and tortoises receive care, and where birds sleep.
For more information, visit highdesertmuseum.org or phone (541) 382-4754. n
Arline Chandler is a writer who lives in Heber Springs, Arkansas. Follow her blog, “RV Travel Tales by Arline,” at rvlife.com.
Nikki is a writer and editor for Do It Yourself RV, RV LIFE, and Camper Report. She is based on the Oregon Coast and has traveled all over the Pacific Northwest.