Forum Index > Trip Reports > Alvord Desert, Hot springs, & Steens Mtn; June 15-21, 2011
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D. Inscho
Not bored yet...



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Location: Bellingham,WA
D. Inscho
Not bored yet...
PostThu Jun 23, 2011 10:48 pm 
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Stage I:  Alvord Desert playa (“Droppin’ some Alvord D.”)

Sunset on cracked mud.
Sunset on cracked mud.

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.
Renewable energy.  Old becomes new again.
Renewable energy.  Old becomes new again.
Depression era homestead.
Depression era homestead.
Box-o-rocks.  Fencing corner.
Box-o-rocks.  Fencing corner.
High desert homestead.
High desert homestead.
Wind power.
Wind power.
Shed
Shed
Near Grass Valley, OR
Near Grass Valley, OR
High desert homestead.
High desert homestead.
"Sportsmen" trophies
"Sportsmen" trophies
"Sportsmen's" midden.
"Sportsmen's" midden.

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.
Thick water and reed grass.  Looking south into Nevada.
Thick water and reed grass.  Looking south into Nevada.
Finally!  On the Fields/Folly farm Rd. at sunset.
Finally!  On the Fields/Folly farm Rd. at sunset.

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.
Cracked mud for miles.
Cracked mud for miles.

This year’s above-average snowpack had delayed the drying of the lakebed so I had to re-tool the access point. 
Salt tolerant Greasewood bushes.
Salt tolerant Greasewood bushes.

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
"Lakeside" camp 1st night, Steens in background
"Lakeside" camp 1st night, Steens in background
Sunrise over Alvord basin.  Tailgate shot.
Sunrise over Alvord basin.  Tailgate shot.
Steens Mtn. in sunrise light.
Steens Mtn. in sunrise light.
Thick water and reed grass.  Looking south into Nevada.
Thick water and reed grass.  Looking south into Nevada.



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.
Beef country.  Steens Mtn. in background.
Beef country.  Steens Mtn. in background.

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.
Second amendment protection from threats to freedom.  Nearly every sign was shot up in eastern Oregon! (feel free to go left?)
Second amendment protection from threats to freedom.  Nearly every sign was shot up in eastern Oregon! (feel free to go left?)

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.
Camp at playa's edge.  Steens Mtn. in background.
Camp at playa's edge.  Steens Mtn. in background.
Portable shade.
Portable shade.

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.
Ursa Major over Steens Mtn.  Moonlit desert.
Ursa Major over Steens Mtn.  Moonlit desert.
Playa's edge by moonlight.
Playa's edge by moonlight.
Moonshot over playa
Moonshot over playa

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.
Dusty & tired
Dusty & tired
Good dog.  Man, beast, and waning moon.
Good dog.  Man, beast, and waning moon.
Sunset on cracked mud.
Sunset on cracked mud.

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).
American Avocet
American Avocet
American Avocet.
American Avocet.

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.
Oregon high desert
Oregon high desert

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.
Where's the beef?
Where's the beef?
Beyond the playa, Oregon high desert tiles.
Beyond the playa, Oregon high desert tiles.

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.
Playin' on the playa.
Playin' on the playa.
What a bike and a little free time in the desert can yield.  Steens Mtn in background.
What a bike and a little free time in the desert can yield.  Steens Mtn in background.
Earth & sky
Earth & sky
Advancing playa
Advancing playa
Mechanical steed and dog chariot.
Mechanical steed and dog chariot.
Chillin' on the playa
Chillin' on the playa

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.”


Amen brother.


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.

The path from the road to Alvord Hot Springs
The path from the road to Alvord Hot Springs

 
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. 
Pool and sittin' tubs
Pool and sittin' tubs
Alvord hot spring
Alvord hot spring

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. 
Soaker's-eye view.  Lots of hot water.
Soaker's-eye view.  Lots of hot water.

One group was leaving (fellow Solstice seekers) as I arrived; otherwise I enjoyed a good solitary soak under the mountain in the desert wind.
Alvord Hot Spring wisdom.
Alvord Hot Spring wisdom.
Fields/Follyfarm road with approaching storm, taken from sun roof.
Fields/Follyfarm road with approaching storm, taken from sun roof.

The next stop was Borax Lake and its cluster of really hot springs. 
Bad place to bring a thirsty dog.
Bad place to bring a thirsty dog.

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). 
One of the gates
One of the gates

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.
The road in.
The road in.

 
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.
Borax mine site
Borax mine site

 
 
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.
Looking south over Borax Lake
Looking south over Borax Lake

 
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. 
Deep and hot
Deep and hot
Extreme soakers only!
Extreme soakers only!
Eyeball into the earth
Eyeball into the earth
This one was boiling too
This one was boiling too
Boiling hot spring
Boiling hot spring

The boiling pools were a new experience to me; the mineralized margins and brilliant algae were a visual treat. 
Lowest (soakable) hot spring
Lowest (soakable) hot spring

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.
Approaching storm
Approaching storm
Borax hot spring, algae & mineral crust.
Borax hot spring, algae & mineral crust.

 
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. 
Soak it!  I did!    Aaahhh.
Soak it!  I did!    Aaahhh.
Lowest hot spring.  Steens range and (very) pale moon.
Lowest hot spring.  Steens range and (very) pale moon.

 
 
The ground was covered in laundry detergent-like borax so I slept in the back of the truck again. 
Borax Lake truck camp.
Borax Lake truck camp.

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).
Steens range from Borax lake
Steens range from Borax lake

 
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.
"Gusher" hot spring
"Gusher" hot spring
Evening Primrose - Oenothera (id courtesy of Marta)
Evening Primrose - Oenothera (id courtesy of Marta)
Desert flowers on dunes, Borax lake
Desert flowers on dunes, Borax lake

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.
_MG_1430.jpg
_MG_1430.jpg

 

Roadkill Gallery: (not  by me)

Lazuli Bunting, gone.
Lazuli Bunting, gone.
Badger: roadside taxonomy
Badger: roadside taxonomy
Badger claws
Badger claws
Oregon Swallowtail
Oregon Swallowtail
Not quite roadkill...
Not quite roadkill...

It was gated lower than I had hoped, 11 miles and 4200’ from the summit, but I was still hoping for a try. 
My gate
My gate

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. 
Juniper and meadow camp
Juniper and meadow camp

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. 
Never made it
Never made it

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.
Frenchglen residence
Frenchglen residence
Frenchglen General
Frenchglen General

 
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.
High desert monument
High desert monument

 
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. 
Pine Mtn. Observatory
Pine Mtn. Observatory
Mt. Bachelor, Broken Top/South Sister, Middle Sister, North Sister.
4 labels
Mt. Bachelor, Broken Top/South Sister, Middle Sister, North Sister.

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.
Pine Mtn. camp
Pine Mtn. camp
Pine Mtn. camp
Pine Mtn. camp

 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. 


Alvord Desert from David Inscho on Vimeo.
 
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…

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http://david-inscho.smugmug.com/

...not till we are lost in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.  --HD Thoreau
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Slugman
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Slugman
Slower than ever
PostFri Jun 24, 2011 5:09 am 
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Wow. Definitely a danger of "superlative abuse".  agree.gif  That report was truly excellent in every way. Thank you.

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Just another tequila sunrise....
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lookout bob
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lookout bob
WTA proponent.....
PostFri Jun 24, 2011 6:17 am 
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absolutely beautiful... up.gif  up.gif  up.gif  cool.gif

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"Altitude is its own reward"
John Jerome ( from "On Mountains")
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RodF
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PostFri Jun 24, 2011 6:18 am 
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Marvelous photos!  Capture an area that always struck me as somewhat "not of this earth".  The whole area has a grand scale.  Looking forward to Steens!

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"of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt" - John Muir
"the wild is not the opposite of cultivated.  It is the opposite of the captivated” - Vandana Shiva
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David¹
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PostFri Jun 24, 2011 7:46 am 
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I am mesmerized by those expansive blue skies - could there be such a place that doesn't have permanent cloud cover and rain?   up.gif

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Warning! Posts may contain traces of sarcasm.

Hiking Website: http://members.shaw.ca/karenanddavid/Index.htm
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Tag Man
side hiller



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Location: Where the roots all twist...
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side hiller
PostFri Jun 24, 2011 10:21 am 
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Thanks for the report and beautiful pics. This area has been on my list for a while now. Looking forward to II and III.

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My personal blog

Peninsula Wilderness Club
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Allison
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PostFri Jun 24, 2011 4:37 pm 
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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.  up.gif

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Scrooge
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PostFri Jun 24, 2011 5:54 pm 
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Sunset on cracked mud.
Sunset on cracked mud.
Finally!  On the Fields/Folly farm Rd. at sunset.
Finally!  On the Fields/Folly farm Rd. at sunset.
Moonshot over playa
Moonshot over playa
Earth & sky
Earth & sky

What's the publication date, David?        wink.gif         Damn! What a marvelous report. What a fun read.


Seems like that 'cracked mud' thing could grow on you.

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Something lost behind the ranges. Lost and waiting for you....... Go and find it. Go!
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Ancient Ambler
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PostFri Jun 24, 2011 7:07 pm 
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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.
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Rainie Too!
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PostFri Jun 24, 2011 7:33 pm 
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I REALLY enjoy your photography...and living the dog's life! up.gif
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Get Out and Go
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PostFri Jun 24, 2011 8:46 pm 
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Worth the drive?.....Judging from your TR....Absolutely!  agree.gif

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"These are the places you will find me hiding'...These are the places I will always go."
(Down in the Valley by The Head and The Heart)
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Allison
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PostFri Jun 24, 2011 8:52 pm 
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It is totally worth the drive. E. Or is very special.

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Hiker Mama
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PostSat Jun 25, 2011 6:45 pm 
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Amazing!  Thank you for the great reading and eye candy!

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My hiking w/ kids site: www.thehikermama.com
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Altitude Junkie
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PostSat Jun 25, 2011 9:44 pm 
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"Where's the beef?" cracked me up. Thanks for the fabulous vicarious adventure.

AJ
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mike
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PostSun Jun 26, 2011 8:49 am 
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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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Forum Index > Trip Reports > Alvord Desert, Hot springs, & Steens Mtn; June 15-21, 2011
  Happy Birthday smmslt, chris_NWUE!
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