In mid June we decided to check out an area of Oregon that not many travel to. Southeastern Oregon is almost forgotten. From a few locals we would hear of the beauty that it held, but would the drive be worth it? Was there enough to do? Our original plan was to check out the Steens Mountains. A 50 mile long mountain range created 17 million years ago from lava flow. Because of this, the mountain holds beautiful lakes and deep gorges. The main road hits a high of 9,700′, making it the highest road in Oregon! This plan was quickly squashed when we found out the loop was closed due to high snow drifts still, in June! We were told that the earliest it would be open would be 4th of July.
We did find that you could drive in as far as South Campground. It was worth the short detour as we came across our first wild horses! This was one of three groups we saw. The first was a large community with fouls and the next two groups were three stallions each just roaming freely. There is also a cabin from the late 1800s that beaver trappers lived at. We started exploring the grounds until we saw a rattler!
So what to do now? I had heard that there was a desert close by, but how close could it be to this huge mountain range? As it so happens it is literally across the gravel road, but to drive, you have to go south into Fields, Oregon from where we were.
Fields is situated perfectly. A town made up of just a roadside cafe, you can get gas, beer, some groceries and lunch. Specifically, lunch is a burger and one of their famous milkshakes!
A small tidbit of Oregon information. You cannot pump your own gas in Oregon. An old law, that is definitely outdated, but employs 10,000+ Oregonians, so it is hard to remove. However, in some very rural ares, they are not required to employ someone to pump your gas. It is the case here and they even take it a step further, you pump your gas and then go into the cafe and tell them how much you pumped and then pay.
As you leave Fields, you still cannot believe that something so vast could be right around the corner. As you get closer your eyes affix onto the mirage of water and then the 5 mile by 10 mile sun dried and crack desert floor.
There are a couple access points to drive to the playa. Yes you can drive out on it with almost any vehicle. OHV, Vehicle, Trailer, Van and then sleep overnight for free! We heard that it can be difficult to find an access point since a lot of the land is private. After getting onto the playa we saw quite a few, but if you want the security of knowing, head to the Alvord Desert Hot Springs.
The Alvord Desert Hot Springs has a private access road that they charge a $5 fee. If you stay at one of their bunkers or campsites you can use it for free. They also have, as their name indicates, a hot springs! You can soak in one of their two hot springs for $8/person or it is also free if you camp there.
It was the perfect time of year to soak and with snow capped mountains on one side and the desert on the other, it was some of the best scenery we have had for a hot springs. It is a short walk, which makes it feel all that much more secluded.
We are suckers for hot springs and being a cool 60 degrees we had to do it. These hot springs had no scent to them. We have experienced some hot springs that the sulfur smell is just too strong to enjoy.
We then ventured onto the playa and wow. We drove around, stopped for a picnic and let the dogs run as far and as fast as they could. It’s a place that doesn’t have much to offer, but you could spend hours, even days (if it isn’t too hot) roaming around. We have heard that during the summer that you could actually find people playing live music. I would love to come when someone has brought a piano (which has happened)!
Fun facts. When you are there you might see some fighter jets, as one of their training paths is through the Steens Mountains. The other, if you are camping overnight and hear a couple loud booms, which are not alarming, people will tell you are due to seismic activity beneath the floor of the desert, but not verified.
The Alvord Desert turned out to be an amazing day trip and backup to the Steens Mountain. We can’t wait to get back to camp out under the stars in the middle of the playa and explore Steens Mountain.
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