Oregon’s southeastern corner captivates me precisely because it doesn’t feel like Oregon. There’s no moss. Not much rain either. Even trees are awfully scarce. What it does have though is room to breathe. Its vast expanse showcases looming mountains, alkaline lake beds or nothing at all — if that’s what you’re seeking.
If you spend some time poking around in a high-clearance vehicle, on foot or — as we did — by fat tire bicycle, Oregon’s “big country” has some hidden gems too. It’s got wary jackrabbits, exotic spring wildflowers and a unique geological story. And if you know where to look: it’s got several decadent hot springs to melt off the dusty miles.
Frenchglen, population 12. This historic hotel was built by the P Ranch for early settlers in 1916, but is now run by Oregon State Parks. The rustic rooms are still available for rent, and the gracious hosts cook three meals a day.
We set out from Frenchglen and pedal for 30 flat miles, gazing across the Malheur Wildlife Refuge filled with thousands of migrating waterfowl.
After a long scenic drive and an equally long first day of riding we pitched camp low on the shoulder of Steens Mountain. Our dry sagebrush campfire burned quickly — making it a perfect pairing for the fine bourbon that put us to bed at an early hour.
Our journey over Steens Mountain was an adventurous one. We followed forgotten wagon roads, basked in the spring wildflowers and kept an errant eye peeled for the wild Kiger Mustang herd.
Eventually we dropped down into the Alvord basin and took the long gravel road south, pedaling in silent awe of Steens Mountain still covered in snow.
We arrived at Alvord Hot Springs with plenty of time for a luxurious sunset soak and chats with the caretaker who has been frequenting the hot springs for 40 years.
Alvord Lake rarely fills with water. Its dry alkaline bed has hardened to a cement-like surface making our eight-mile crossing to the Big Sand Gap a breeze.
The Trout Creek mountains are one of the most remote places in Oregon. We took the main road through this nearly treeless range and it had a strip of grass running down the middle the whole way. The climbing paid off, however, and the views of ridgelines and undulating swales into the distance were well worth our effort.
The horned lizard is extremely well camouflaged in its desert habitat — we were lucky to have spotted it while riding.
Every time I visit this corner of the state I find something new that draws me back.
Oregon’s “big country” is filled with colorful history, exotic wildlife, and grandiose vistas.
And while it’s not filled with many people, if you talk to anyone here they’ll kindly tell you that’s just how they like it.