An Eastern Oregon Road Trip
When you think of Oregon, lush waterfalls, ferns, tall trees, and rivers might come to mind. But if you travel east of Bend towards Burns, the skyline of mountains and trees turns quickly into sage brush and grass and the road is a straight line with nothing ahead of you. This past weekend, I had the chance to head towards Steens Mountain in the SE corner of the state with a few friends.
The plan had been to do a few short scrambles in the area with the main focus being on stargazing in the Alvord Desert during the meteor shower. However, it’s mid-august, which now seems to code for “wildfire smoke season”. A fairly thick haze hung in the air the entire drive over on Friday as we stopped at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, stopped by Frenchglen (population 12) to get a cold drink at the Mercantile, and setup camp at Page Springs Campground, which is 3 miles off the gravel Steens Mountain Loop Road.
Juniper trees provided a nice base for my hammock and I also setup my tent before making dinner. We headed up a short hike to the top of a rocky overlook for the sunset. Even though the smoke wasn’t ideal, it does make for some nice sunset photos. Our one mile loop hike turned a bit adventurous as it started to get dark and we didn’t have our headlamps, but did notice a rattlesnake in front of us on the trail. We waited for it to slither a bit up the hill and hurried past it. We were really happy to find the end of the trail and went back to camp.
The next day we set out to do an 8 mile hike that would open up to a canyon. We drove on the other side of the Steens Mountain Loop Road, since the entire loop has a 6 mile section that is only recommended for 4-wheel drive vehicles, which did not include us. After 2 miles of hiking in thick smoke, we decided to head back. It wasn’t pleasant to breathe the air, and we really couldn’t see views anyway. We did stop by the Riddle Brothers Homestead, where three brothers had ranched in the early 1900’s. The area is really well preserved and it was fun to go in all the buildings on our own and just explore.
We headed out towards Fields, which is a very small town with a gas station/restaurant/hotel called Fields Station. It is now owned by a couple, and other than their son and a specific milkshake person, is a 2-person show. Cooking, running the till, taking orders for food…and it’s pretty much busy all the time. We sat down at the counter and all ordered a milkshake. They are $6.50 and definitely will fill you up and cool you off on a hot 100 degree august day.
We then checked out Borax Hot Springs, which includes a lake and multiple hot springs that are too hot for humans and filled with unsafe minerals.
After a hot walk back to the car, we headed towards Alvord Desert. It is unlike anywhere I have ever been, where there is a big flat salt playa that you can drive on. We cruised up to 80 mph on the playa and it felt like being on another planet.
We decided to spend the night at Alvord Hot Springs. It’s $8 to soak per person, $30 to camp, or $60 to rent their “MASH” unit, which is basically like a military bunker with beds. Since it was super windy, we chose to stay in a MASH unit instead of tents. We attempted to stargaze at 3 a.m. but it was too hazy to see much. We did have a chance to soak in the 101 degree hot spring in the morning, took photos on the playa, and headed back towards Fields for breakfast.
It again was packed with just the couple managing all the orders. It took over an hour for our food, but it was definitely worth the wait. Full and happy, we headed back towards Frenchglen to take the Steens Mountain road to the summit. We stopped at Kiger Gorge Overlook and then to the summit, where you can park and hike 400 ft. to the top.
It was clearer that day, and it was amazing to see all the different gorges and peaks that were carved by ancient glaciers.
After a brief stop at Frog Lake, we decided to head out. Two of the people in our group headed towards the Painted Hills on their way back to Portland and I headed back with my friend. Even though it’s a long drive, we just drove back to Salem, arriving back at 10:15 p.m.
Being out in that area of the state, gives you a deeper appreciation of how we take things for granted where we live. Out there, you have to be more self-reliant, there is limited cell coverage (if at all in places), wide open spaces filled with cows, wildhorses, rattlesnakes, rabbits, and other creatures. There is often 100 miles between gas stations, and limited choices for food or water. But there is a beauty in that simplicity, and a remarkable history of the power of the earth to change and renew our landscapes.