The Oregon Outback: Steens Mountain and the Alvord Desert

After departing Yosemite we traveled through northern Nevada to return to Oregon and spend the last week of OTR 3.0 in the high desert of eastern Oregon. We had originally planned to spend time here after leaving Boise but the temperatures in the Alvord Desert persuaded us to defer visiting until later in the trip.

The area around the Steens is known as the Oregon “Outback” with good reason. Steens sits within Harney County which is the ninth largest county in the United States, spanning more than 10,000 square miles. The population is a mere 7600 people of which 4400 live in two adjacent towns. Because the population is so sparse Harney County operates a public boarding high school in Crane, Oregon. It is one of a handful of public boarding high schools remaining in the United States.

Economically this area is predominately supported by cattle ranching and farming. There are 14 head of cattle for every person living in the county. The cattle and farming economy has been in conflict with the federal government on a number of occasions. Federal agencies (BLM, USFWS, USDA) manage about 75% of the land in the county. Some of the ranchers believe that they should have access to the public land without having to pay for grazing rights.

The conflict came to a head in 2016 the Malheur Wildlife Refuge headquarters was occupied by Amon Bundy and a group of armed anti-government activists. The occupation lasted for 40 days and culminated with the death of one protestor and the arrest of many of the activists.

Geologically the Steens formed as a result of glacial and volcanic activity which has created a fascinating landscape of impressive glacial gorges and volcanic cones and craters. The BLM has created a number of auto tour routes through the craters and up onto Steens Mountain. The road to the summit is the highest road in Oregon at just over 9700 feet. We drove both the Diamond Craters and Steens Mountain loops.

There are also numerous hikes throughout the area which provide views of the gorges from the rims and access into the gorges.

From the Steens we drove north and then circled back south to spend time on the eastern slope of the Steens and the Alvord Desert. The Alvord is a small (84 sq. miles) desert that is suitable for driving during the dry season. It is not uncommon to see small planes land on the playa. The area shows up as Princeton, Oregon on a map but there is no town or station – just cattle ranches and BLM administered land including the desert playa. Opportunities for solitude abound. An evening by the campfire brings a miraculous night sky and the howls and yips of coyotes in the distance.

During the day the view of the already snow covered Steens rising from the desert floor from the eastern side was quite impressive. There are several excellent hikes from the desert side up through creeks into the Steens.The Alvord Desert sits in a rain shadow created by the north-south running Steens Mountain. We watched rain and snow fall on the mountain and dissipate before reaching the playa.

We definitely recommend driving out on to the playa. You can access the playa at Alvord Hot Springs for a five dollar fee or if you have a high clearance vehicle for free about two miles south of the hot springs. Driving on the playa is exhilarating – you can drive as fast as you like or as fast as your vehicle will go or as fast as you are comfortable going – your call – there are no rules!!! By the way, the hot springs are terrific! Sort of a ramshackle affair but the 130 degree water is very enjoyable and therapeutic. Nude bathing is allowed if you are so inclined – thankfully we did not encounter any nudists during our soak!

It takes some time to get to the Orgeon Outback of Harney County but we found the experience more than worth the effort it takes to get there. One thing to keep in mind is that many of the roads are not paved in this area – the roads are very rutted and rough on the Steen and Diamond Craters Loops – and you and your vehicle will be absolutely covered with dust!

Heading across northern Nevada to Salt Lake City and our flight home.

Be seeing you!

Winnemucca Mountain, Winnemucca, Nevada

Water Canyon Road, Winnemucca, Nevada

On The Road – Powered by Caffeine – Global Espresso and Telegraph Cofffee

Oregon 205, Fields, Oregon

Pueblo Mountains

Fields Station, Fields, Oregon (population 9) Established 1881

Driving the Rim of Red Bomb Crater, Diamond Craters ONA

Diamond Craters ONA

Frenchglen, Oregon (Population 97)

Our New Friend Drover @ Frenchglen Mercantile

Kiger Gorge, Steens Mountain

Alvord Desert from East Rim of Steens Mountain

Big Indian Gorge, Steens Mountain

Little Blitzen Gorge, Steens Mountain

High Desert – Oregon Outback

Steens Mountain

Mann Lake, Princeton, Oregon

Alvord Playa and Steens Mountain

3 thoughts on “The Oregon Outback: Steens Mountain and the Alvord Desert

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