“After a week or more out here you begin to
understand why coyote is always grinning.”
– a bit of wisdom scribbled at the hot springs shack
It is a predictable condition for Pacific North westerners. After months of gloom, damp, cold, and snow, the oppressive cloud and cool rain can induce a feverish need to flee our grey cauldron of cloud to seek some precious vitamin D.
Jamie and I were eager to explore southeastern Oregon’s sage basins and scalding geothermal features and our attention was captured by the Alvord Desert, which possessed both in abundance. Most importantly the Alvord area offered just the vitamin we were looking for: Desert.
The Alvord playa (a former lakebed of cracked mud) is 12 miles by 7 miles at 4200 feet in elevation. It sits in the shadow of Steens Mountain, a 9733-foot high block-fault scarp tectonically lifted million years ago. During the Ice Age 10,000 years ago the basin was filled with 200 feet of water. The glacial sediments now form an alkali plain during summer months.
After an 11-hour drive the striking playa came into view. We located a short rutted road that allowed us to park “lakeside”. We stumbled out of the truck at sunset, suddenly confronted with silence and a grand sweep of emptiness under a blue void. Jamie wordlessly wandered toward the expanse as if in a trance, seeking the last sun settling on the playa’s far side.
The all-encompassing quiet was a presence. The first morning, the distant sound of a truck in rumbling passage on the washboard-surfaced road was swallowed by the silence. Our ears were left to ring with exotic birdsong and the buzzing of insects.
We set camp on the edge of the basin where greasewood bushes and sage provided meager shade and a place to stash food & water away from the heat. Dust devils could be seen spinning buff-colored columns hundreds of feet above the lake surface. We’d brought bicycles and a trailer to explore the desert plain and haul water. Water. The length of our stay was determined by this natural limit. In the mountains, water was an important consideration. In the desert it was the focus of our existence.
The grandest day was spent riding the playa on our bikes. There were miles and miles of smooth flat riding; we loved it! We rode with the dust devils, through shimmering heat, over baked mud, and under the looming range in the west. We rode to a watery bit of playa still being fed by snowmelt coursing down from the Steens range. Many birds stop and feed here on brine shrimp during their breeding and migration through the area. We were able to identify American Avocet, Sandhill Crane, Whimbrel, Western Meadowlark, Yellow-headed blackbird, Common Nighthawk, Rock wren, Long-billed Dowitcher, Sage Thrasher, American Pipit, and Long-billed Curlew. Being transient ourselves, we resonated with their fleeting presence.
The days warmed from 70 degrees to just over 80. Nothing much moved out there during the heat of the day except for birds and antelope ground squirrels dashing tail-high from bush to bush. We were left to contemplate blue sky laced with decorative cirrus, and the occasional high altitude jet.
There were photos late, photos at night, photos early, up with the sun, busy with the ants. Siestas became an important way to get sleep, as well as avoid the heat of the afternoon. Hysterical coyote calls enlivened the mornings and evenings. Each night the moon would rise a little later. We were enraptured by the variations on a theme of splendor.
The real story of the desert was at our own feet. Mega scenery changed little on a ramble, but the ground had much to tell of critters, plants, geology, and erstwhile waters. There were bones, scat, rocks, rattlesnake skins, and tracks to contemplate. Even a scramble onto a modest dune yielded a much larger perspective of the expansive surroundings. A pinch of sage held to the nose tantalized the senses.
We sought out hot springs. We were grimy and sweaty, burnished and dusted by the playa, so a soothing soak was a welcome prospect. As if on cue the weather turned cooler, making warm water all the more inviting.
The Alvord hot springs are on the west side, between the playa and Steens Mountain. The privately owned springs are improved with two concrete pools, washing machine spin-drums for seats, wooden deck, and a tin shack for dressing/sheltering clothing. The area is monitored and a small fee charged for access. A stoppered irrigation pipe allowed water temperature control. We luxuriated in steamy water that smelled slightly of iron and sulfur, delighted in a cricket serenade, and gazed at the Steens massif still clad in winter white.
Mickey Hot Springs were accessed on a rocky and sometimes rutted double-track. A pronghorn antelope, seemingly on springs, bounded ahead through the surrounding sage and grass, briefly making us feel as though we were on safari. Geothermal elements abounded: sputtering mud pots, boiling pools with mineralized margins, and brilliant algae. The color scheme was almost startling.
As with all journeys, ours eventually had to end and we reluctantly packed to go. The experience could not be stuffed into a sack like a sleeping bag to be trundled home. It didn’t fold up like a tent. It would not be poured, yet we drank our fill and will keep it within for as long as we can.
We found what we were looking for and more: the quiet was therapeutic, and the sunshine downright medicinal. We could feel it in our bones.
Access to the Alvord Desert varies greatly due to seasonal variations in the playa density; the surface may look dry and firm, but a mire of mud may lurk beneath. The approach roads can be deeply rutted double-track so 4-WD and clearance is prudent. Weather watching is also warranted because those same roads (and the playa surface) can transform themselves into greasy glop with enough rainfall, stranding the unwary.
Additional reading: Remote Wonders; An Explorer’s Guide to Southeast Oregon, WSU Press
David Inscho is a believer in coffee, beer, and the profound power of wilderness. When not at his day job, he is backpacking, working as a volunteer janitor at a couple of fire lookouts, or genuflecting with camera in the silent wilds of our public lands. See more at david-inscho.smugmug.com.