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.