Deep in the rain shadow of Steens Mountain is a place I’ll never forget. The hype was real. (Photo credit: Flickr / Richard Hicks)

Last October, I had the opportunity to take a driving tour through Southeastern Oregon. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d heard of the hot springs and the mountains, but what I was most interested in was the desert. It seemed crazy to me that Oregon could boast yet another ecosystem. So I set out to see what all they hype was about.

Deep in the rain shadow of Steens Mountain is a place I’ll never forget. The hype was real. The view was breathtaking. And it was cold.

The Alvord Desert lies like a crumpled piece of paper smoothed over a flat surface with mountains towering 5,000 feet above and directly to the west. The 70-mile mountain range dominated the horizon. And as I took a step onto the lakebed, I heard absolutely nothing. I was amazed by how quiet it was. There was no wind, no ambient noise, and no one else around. The shimmering flats reminded me of a scene I’d once found in a National Geographic magazine. It was absolutely mesmerizing.

I spent nearly the entire day basking in this cold, dreamy oasis.

I’d read that geothermal features were notable in the area. So before I got too far, I stopped along the western edge of the desert at the Alvord Hot Springs. Although these hot springs are on private land, I was allowed to access the area for a $5 fee.

To the north is Mickey Hot Springs. To the south is Borax Lake — a thermal spring complex. The water here was about 180 degrees Fahrenheit and had 25 times more arsenic than normal water, so I didn’t swim in this one. But if I were to play favorites, this was it.

As I set up camp that night, I heard a few random booming sounds out in the distance. According to local lore, these booms are due to seismic activity beneath the floor of the desert. I pulled out the book I had borrowed from a friend about the area and learned that tens of thousands of years ago, a lake almost 200 feet deep covered the Alvord Desert and extended southward into Nevada. The old shoreline formed terraces along the edge of the valley, and deep under the desert floor are the same lava flows that make up the top of Steens Mountain. This blew my mind. But it also eased my fear of the loud noises, echoing across the playa.

This desolate landscape is nearly 5 miles wide and 10 miles long. But to me, this entire area of Oregon seems highly underrated.

From the snow-capped Steens Mountain to the steamy hot springs to the sun-dried, cracked desert floor, I’ve found my new favorite area of Oregon.

If the wind isn’t blowing, I really don’t think there’s a better place in Oregon to spend a night than out on the Alvord. Clear skies make for bright stars. And sunrise? Well, you’ll have to see it for yourself.

Editor’s note: For views of the Alvord Desert, check out the Steens Loop Tour Route, a 59-mile loop that departs from Frenchglen and climbs to the very top of Steens Mountain.

about author Kristen Mohror

Armed with a smartphone, running shoes, and a life partner who resembles a wolf, Kristen is a dog-loving, mountain climbing, do-good enthusiast who happens to go on a lot of adventures. From 14,276 feet above the Cascades to surfing the waves of the Pacific, to running, climbing, mountain biking, sky diving, swimming, jumping, laughing and occasionally sleeping somewhere in between, Kristen pushes her luck and limits with new adventures, good people and cold brew coffee.

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  1. Chelsea Harrison says…

    Thank you for the wonderful write up about our desert. I am so glad you had such an amazing experience. I am very blessed to be able enjoy it everyday.

    Written on February 10th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  2. lee mcatee says…

    I love this stuff and Kristen did a great job. I hope to be experiencing the desert in a few months.


    Written on September 24th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  3. Audrey says…

    This sounds so beautiful. My biological brother found me after 56 yrs and he came from the east coast to be with me. This was one area he wished to visit and I hope we can take a trip there to enjoy. We are not young anymore but we should be able to have fun and
    enjoy. Thanks again for sharing.

    Written on February 12th, 2016 / Flag this Comment
  4. Kari Alvord Mills says…

    I still want to go there. So many places in Oregon i still haven’t been yet and i’ve lived here almost all my life

    Written on April 2nd, 2016 / Flag this Comment
  5. Trudy Drew says…

    The Steens Mountain and the Alvord Desert are just two of the most underrated features in Oregon’s vast and diverse geologic area. If you haven’t had the opportunity to visit this area yet, definitely put it on your list of “must visit soon”. They are “National Park” worthy!

    Written on July 8th, 2016 / Flag this Comment
  6. Luke says…

    Love this special place. On my way to go camp on the lakebed now. Something addicting about the silence. Ironically, complete cell phone reception which is kind of a bummer!

    Written on August 27th, 2016 / Flag this Comment
  7. felesha says…

    My husband took me here in early spring and it was unforgettable. We camped and explored the bubbling geothermal pools and even went for a hike up in the mountains looking for thunder eggs, and totally found some! I didn’t hear any loud booms like you, that would of been cool knowing what caused the noise!

    Written on February 18th, 2017 / Flag this Comment
  8. Gilbert says…

    On the commercial there is a guy riding a bike out on the desert. Are cars allowed out on it?

    Written on March 19th, 2017 / Flag this Comment
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