Stage I: Alvord Desert playa (“Droppin’ some Alvord D.”)
The Alvord desert/Steens area has been on my list ever since I visited the Owyhee Badlands (3 Forks) 12 years ago. The trigger for finally making the considerable roadtrip was another forecast of lousy weather in the PNW. So on a lark I secured vacation, took the afternoon off, and packed for early departure the next day. I was happy to leave behind the western cauldron of cloud. The rivers on the east side were stuffed with winter flow.
This trip is divided into 3 reports due to the incredible diversity and spectacular scenery of the region:
Stage I- Alvord Desert Playa; Stage II- Hot Springs; Stage III- Steens Mtn.
The Alvord desert is around 4200’ and sits in the shadow of Steens Mtn, 9733’ high. The desert playa is a former lakebed (11 miles by 7 miles), now alkali mudflat (in summer). During the Ice Age the basin was filled with 200’ of water yet still had no outlet. The playa is a barren surface of cracked mud that sometimes resembles a grand tiled floor.
This year’s above-average snowpack had delayed the drying of the lakebed so I had to re-tool the access point.
Arriving around 10:30p after a 13 hour drive (jackrabbits and owls crazy in the headlights on the long dusty road), I located a short rutted road that allowed me to park “lakeside” and sleep in the back of the truck
Any sulking about the watery playa was smacked away by a crimson sunrise and the snowy bulk of Steens Mtn. I spent a leisurely morning re-figuring my plans. Dust devils could be seen spinning buff-colored columns hundreds of feet above the lake surface. This led to speculation about a dry bed miles away; glassing revealed nothing due to the surface shimmers of heat. Well, as I’d seen written elsewhere, when in doubt, examine the patient.
I found a greasy double track with a high center that accessed the north end of the lake. After a few mud holes and seriously rutted sections I parked the truck. I loaded the bike and trailer with 5 gallons of water, gear, and food. Bodhran was more than happy to run the sagebrush. We trundled along happily in sunshine and sage-spiced breezes; it was looking like we would make it! Bike travel seemed too easy, but probably best not to dwell on such things.
Camp was set on the edge of the playa where greasewood bushes provided meager shade for Bodhran and a place to stash food & water away from the heat.
The quiet.I’d noticed how all that space insisted on it. Even when I was roadside the first morning, sounds of a truck in rumbling passage on washboard would get gulped by the blue sky. So my ears were left to ring with exotic birdsong and novel bug sounds. Each night the moon would bubble up a little later. Absolutely splendid.
The days warmed from 70 to just over 80. Photos late, photos at night, photos early, up with the sun, busy with the ants.
Siesta became an important way to get sleep, as well as avoid the heat of the afternoon. Hysterical coyote calls in the mornings and evenings.
Water.The length of my stay was determined by this natural limit. In the mountains the practice of drinking gray water is about camp hygiene and bears. In the desert it was being scrupulous about my most basic need. Bodhran (in his fur coat) needed much more water than usual. I also had a precious ration of cool beer (no ice) that I looked forward to each evening. Lows in the 40s at night.
When the air cooled I would mount my mechanical steed and we would explore, riding the desert: sage, arroyos, sand, distant dark buttes. Bodhran chased jackrabbits and I was surprised to see that he could almost keep up, but his stamina did not match theirs; besides he was probably not hungry enough. Nothing much else moved out there except for birds and antelope ground squirrels dashing tail-high from bush to bush. I was left to contemplate blue sky laced with decorative cirrus, and the occasional floater in my eyeballs (they can be vaguely ominous until you realize what they are).
Mosquitoes were not much of a problem, which was good considering I forgot DEET. They did seem to be increasing during my stay though, so the blood sacrifice was made.
I decided the real story of the desert is at one’s own feet. Mega scenery changes little on a ramble, but the ground has much to tell of critters, plants, geology, and erstwhile waters. There are bones, scat, rocks, rattlesnake skins, and tracks to contemplate. Even a scramble onto a modest dune can yield a much larger perspective of the desert plains.
The grandest day was spent riding the playa on my trusty steed (towing Bodhran in the trailer). Miles and miles of smooth flat riding! I, loved, it! We rode with the dust devils, over baked mud, and under the looming range in the west. Rather than engage in superlative abuse, I will let this story be told in pictures.
It seems proper to close this report with a quote found scribbled on the Alvord Hot Springs tin shack (segue for Stage II):
“After a week or more out here you begin to
understand why coyote is always grinning.”
Stage II: Soaking the Hot Springs
We in the PNW don't know nothin' about hot springs; best we get is warm, but mostly cold & rainy.-DJI
The playa had me plenty grimy and salty from the heat and floury grit, so a friendly soak was a welcome prospect. As if on cue the weather turned cooler, making warm water all the more appreciated. First I needed another 5 gallons of snowmelt coming off the Steens for drinking water (no filtering necessary); that was gathered near The Alvord Ranch off the Fields/Follyfarm Rd.
Alvord hot springs are on the west side, between the playa and Steens Mtn. The privately owned springs are improved with 2 concrete pools, washing machine spin-drums for seats, wooden deck, and a tin shack for dressing/sheltering clothing.
Access is based on respectful usage, and indeed I only saw one beer bottle that littered the place. A stoppered irrigation pipe allowed water temperature control.
One group was leaving (fellow Solstice seekers) as I arrived; otherwise I enjoyed a good solitary soak under the mountain in the desert wind.
The next stop was Borax Lake and its cluster of really hot springs.
This was not shown on my OR Gazetteer, but after a few passes along Fields/Follyfarm Rd. I located the grassy double-track three miles from the junction with route 205 near fields (go north from the junction on Fields/Follyfarm and take the first right heading east).
There are 3 barbed wire gates to open/close before road’s end about 3 miles later. A pronghorn antelope, seemingly on springs, bounded ahead through the sage and grass, briefly making me feel as though I was on safari.
This gem of a spot is owned by the Nature Conservancy and it is obvious why. Formerly a mine site for borax, the area is conserved for the world’s only population of Alvord chub, surviving in the warm soda water of Borax Lake. The estimated outflow of this little pond was estimated to be about 100 gal/min.
The small body of water is elevated above the surroundings, being remarkably fed by warm springs that steadily promote grass growth on the fringes. This is the process by which the lake has risen above the plain. I had planned on moving onward to my date with Steens Mtn, but was sufficiently charmed to stay the night. Good choice.
The hot springs are billed as too hot for soaking, and certainly almost all of them had scalded bugs floating on the surface, but I did find the two toward the bottom to be the perfect temp.
The boiling pools were a new experience to me; the mineralized margins and brilliant algae were a visual treat.
Bodhran learned quickly about the hazards when he lapped at a modestly warm one and recoiled in surprise. He remained appropriately wary in the land of smokes.
That afternoon a series of thunderstorms pounded through, adding to the raw natural feel of the area. The fact I experienced ¼ inch of the Alvord’s average annual rainfall of 7 inches could be considered special (a little I guess); certainly good hot spring weather though.
I soaked the lower pools that evening and the next morning. The lowest pool was the kind of temp that initially felt too hot, but quickly yielded to aaaahhh (as opposed to AAAHHH!). It was also deep; the upper end had one of those chasms that disappears into the dark void of the earth. I stayed away from that end; my vivid imagination conjured a great steam bubble rising up poaching me like a crawdad in gumbo. I swam it more than soaked because of the depth. The water smelled only slightly of sulfur and iron, kinda pleasant. Bodhran got a swim in as well, finally rinsing some of that Alvord flour out of his fur.
The ground was covered in laundry detergent-like borax so I slept in the back of the truck again.
That night, surrounded by lush grasslands (what fencing out cows will do!) I was lulled to sleep by crickets (god I really love cricket sounds).
The cool morning revealed a strong steam down in the flat a mile away so I investigated. Bad choice. It was quite marshy. And when the wind died I was ambushed by hordes of mosquitoes. I managed to snap some hasty photos of the steaming gusher and retreated with soaked boots. The wind picked up again and I was saved ongoing bloodletting. Anyway, the thing was a near-geyser to my eyes.
I would recommend this spot to anyone visiting the area. It was absolutely lovely and lonely out there. Despite the sentiment, it was time for the final stage, Steens Mountain…
Stage III: Steens Mountain
The plan was to take route 205 (paved!) from Fields around the west side of Steens mountain to access the south section of the mountain loop road. This is a spectacular drive through passes overlooking improbably high valleys of grass & sagelands. Knowing the loop road would be gated due to the lingering winter, biking was the planned means to get me & Bodhran to snowline.
It took 2 hours of driving to finally come to the anticipated gate at the South Steens campground.
Roadkill Gallery: (not by me)
It was gated lower than I had hoped, 11 miles and 4200’ from the summit, but I was still hoping for a try.
First I had to figure my accommodations. In cruising the campground I found the prescripted plots uninspiring, so I traded the picnic table, toilets, and a crushed gravel surface for grassy meadow, wildflowers, a rock, and an old juniper back up the road a bit. It had crickets and nice views of the mountain.
A trip to the campground on my bike to fill the jug with five gallons of well water saved me from having to sit streamside with the water filter.
I did plan to ride the road the next day, but as the day warmed through the afternoon, mosquitoes went crazy and I got seriously munched. My enthusiasm flagged after the thermometer hit 80. I decided to bug-out the next day, which promised to be even warmer. I took a consolation bike ride in the evening down to the Historic Riddle Brothers ranch about a mile from my camp.
It was a “dirt” road that quickly degenerated into greasy glop that mired the wheels and fouled the transmission. As my pace came to a standstill the bloodthirsty minions pounced again. I beat a hasty retreat and called it a day. No way was I going to hang around this place!
An extra day allowed me to break the return drive into two sections. I ate breakfast at the Frenchglen Hotel about another hour along Rte. 205, a charming little place on the edge of a serious wildlife refuge. Eggs, toast, and sausage never tasted so decadent.
The birdlife and scenery are so crazy in this section of the drive that I could’ve easily wrecked the truck with all the sightseeing. This is probably a good place to note the birds I was able to identify (without really trying) for the whole trip: American Avocet, Sandhill Crane, Whimbrel, Western Meadowlark, Yellow-headed blackbird, Common Nighthawk, Lazuli Bunting, Rock wren, Long-billed Dowitcher, Sage Thrasher, American Pipit, Long-billed Curlew. It’ s the kind of place that would make a berd-nerd of anyone.
Once past Malheur (sanctuary) the country flattened with straight sections of driving on unpeopled roads; so straight and empty, I mused, that there was enough free time to study a second language, or get a law degree.
About 25 miles from Bend, I saw a sign for Pine Mtn, Observatory. Being in the market for a place to stay I thought that such a site would afford great views toward the snowy volcanoes in the west.
The observatory was nice, but an investigation a bit further up the road revealed parking at a radio tower overlooking the desired vista. Not quite satisfied, I walked the ridge through lovely ponderosa forest to a viewpoint encompassing 270 degrees NW to east, with open sage slopes below.
I returned to the truck to grab the pack, re-stocked cooler, and water jug. The tent was set on a thick bed of ponderosa needles for the coziest sleep of the whole trip. I was able to mull the OR Gazetteer and learn the names of those snow-laden volcanoes, all while savoring the competing fragrances of ponderosa and sage on 85 degree breezes. As for bugs, I suffered nothing more than a few ants; much better! The final day of driving was hot and beautiful. I pulled over for a break when the tar on the road started melting. Bodhran & I sat creekside somewhere north of Goldendale (lost track of the miles by then) and took a much needed cooling rinse. It was great to be back in the land of (unfenced) creeks & lakes.
Despite the storied journey, or maybe because of it, I found it difficult to surrender and go home. The experience cannot be stuffed into a sack like a sleeping bag to be trundled home. It won't fold up like a tent. It cannot be poured, yet I drank my fill and will keep it within for as long as it will stay. And when I need more, I know where to go…
I went last fall. Definitely worth a trip. DI didn't mention the excellent milkshakes in Fields, the excellent soaking at Alvord HS, or the rilly rilly cool geothermal stuff at Mickey HS, so I bet there's a Part 2 coming.
What a dream trip. Must have been awfullly sweet to leave our chrome-colored endless overcast behind and cruise the highway under those desert skies to such a remarkable place. Great photography and narrative. I'm looking forward to more.
Better visit the area soon. Energy development is on the way big time. Mann Ranch has just leased to a a wind farm. Transmission towers to follow. Locals are divided about the development. One rancher in the Catlow Valley has refused offers...so far.
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