Camping on the Alvord Desert Playa

Eastern Oregon is definitely underrated when people think of the beautiful scenery this unbelievable state has to offer. Most will think of the lush forests surrounding the coastline and all of the picturesque waterfalls in the Columbia Gorge, but with the drier climate on the Eastern side, we’re able to experience the huge, rolling landscapes that come with never ending solitude.

I think the most rewarding experience from this whole trip was the fact that we barely saw anybody else! Even on the drive up, we hardly saw any other cars, allowing us to have the open road all to ourselves.

The Alvord Desert is a 12 by 7 mile dry lake bed, located in SouthEastern Oregon (aka: the middle of nowhere!). The desert gets an average of 7 inches of rain a year, and is one of the hottest, driest places in the state. I’ve really been fascinated with desert ecosystems lately, so I couldn’t think of a better place to spend our long, 4th of July weekend!

Grain Cilo located in Seneca, Oregon.

We cut through Pendleton and made our way down through the small towns of John Day, Burns, and Crane, to name a few.

Make sure to stop in Burns to fill up your gas tank, because you wont see another gas station for the next 129 miles!

From Hwy 78, once you turn onto Folly Farm Rd, it quickly becomes E Steens Rd, where the pavement ends and leads the rest of the route down a gravel path.

E. Steens Rd

We drove on this road for well over an hour, with views of Steens Mountain teasing us the entire way. Most people drive through Frenchglen, which we also explored, but E Steens Rd is a more scenic route, in my opinion.

Google Maps got us lost (as usual) by directing us off the beaten path, somewhere near Mickey Hot Springs. We were able to see the playa from a distance and ended up asking the locals for directions. Turns out, you just have to continue on E Steens Rd, which will take you right to the area of the desert where you can actually drive onto the old lakebed.

Throughout the rest of our trip, we really had to rely on our map and compass, as GPS does not pick up most of the roads out here because it’s extremely isolated. So, be sure to bring those along with you and know how to use them!

Arrival

At last! After being in the car for over 7 hours, we had made it! The feeling you get when your tires first hit the desert surface is unreal… The playa goes on for miles, so you can literally floor it and just take off! I seriously took my hands off the wheel for a few minutes, as we coasted to a spot that we felt would be a good place to set up camp.

All of the roads leading up to the desert were well maintained, but the smaller entry ways that you have to take to drive on the desert itself can be pretty horrendous. I would recommend that you drive a high-clearance vehicle with 4-wheel drive to get through the sand and around all the huge holes… but we did see a smaller car and an RV that somehow manged to tough it out.

Luckily, we arrived later in the afternoon and the skies were overcast, so the temperature was really comfortable! From what we could see, there were only 3 other groups camped out, but they were so far away that they just looked like tiny little specks in the distance.

Sound here doesn’t really travel much either, and if you stop to listen, there is absolute SILENCE. If you’re looking for a getaway with complete peace and quiet, then this is the place for you! …Total isolation from the outside world.

Please keep in mind that there are no public restrooms out here in the middle of nowhere, and they firmly believe in the phrase, “Pack it in, Pack it out” (including your bathroom duties).

Reading up before this trip, I was advised to bring our own toilet, so I ordered this Luggable Loo  and it worked wonders! It’s basically a 5 gallon bucket with a toilet seat attached and it was surprisingly comfortable to sit on, as well as convenient. You just have to dump it into a pit toilet on your way home (there’s one near Mann Lake). That was probably the #1 thing that we were most thankful to have on this trip.

The ground here is made of a clay-like mud that’s been baked by the sun, making it a hard, dusty, cracked surface. It turned out that this area was great for skateboarding, so Joe was one happy fellow 🙂

We ended the day making dinner over our campfire, listening to music, and watching the most beautiful desert sunset! We didn’t really see any kind of wildlife while out on the desert, but the warmth of our campfire brought out the most interesting black and orange beetles from the cracks in the ground. That was sort of creepy!

Once the darkness of nighttime rolled in, we laid out on a blanket under the stars and looked at the moonlit sky for what seemed like forever.

Since we like to FULLY take advantage of being all alone, we took off our clothes and skateboarded naked and barefoot across the desert all night, which was such a freeing experience!

Up and at ’em!

The next morning, we woke up around 6:00am to get a fresh start to our day. I am so glad that we did this, because the forecast called for sunny skies without cloud cover… and I am here to tell you that the playa heats up fast! We even started to sweat while trying to enjoy our breakfast, so either bring a lot of shade cover and water to douse yourself in, or plan to see other things in the surrounding area during the hottest parts of the day.

If you’re into Yoga and/or meditation, the Alvord Desert is basically a dream come true. Such a relaxing atmosphere to totally clear the bustle from your head and get a good stretch! I’ve been trying to get into both lately, and this was a great place for a beginner like me, as the serenity of the landscape almost makes it come naturally.

There’s several hot springs nearby that would be great for relaxing after a long day, but it was so hot out, that the thought of jumping into hot water didn’t sound appealing to us WHATSOEVER, haha. There’s also hot springs in the area that are far too hot to swim in, so make sure to do some research before you go!

This area is full of the coolest abandoned cabins and old stone houses! We were tempted to go inside the one pictured above, but we had spotted a badger nearby and didn’t want to risk running into similar creatures hiding out from the heat. Badgers are so fat and cute! …But you definitely don’t want to have a stand-off with one of them because they are known to be ferocious!

Desert Horned lizards, Pronghorn antelope, and Jackrabbits are also common in the area, and we got to see quite a few of those dashing across the road, as well! So drive with caution and try not to harm the little guys 🙂

Desert Thistles and wildflowers grow abundantly here. There’s beauty everywhere!

Since the Alvord is located in the very SouthEastern tip of Oregon, the Nevada border is just a short drive away. I really wish we had a few more days to explore, because I would have loved to see more of the “Silver State”, but I guess we’ll just have to plan another weekend for that.

Let’s test my backcountry driving skills!

To get away from the heat, we decided to hike near the summit of Steens Mountain and Wildhorse Lake.

Huge butterflies are everywhere up here!

Funny fact: I’m deathly afraid of butterflies.. Even ask my mom! For some reason, butterflies and bees have always liked to chase me. I think it’s the hibiscus scent in the dry shampoo I’ve used for years? It’s absolutely terrifying!

But anyways.. There are SO many of these gorgeous butterflies at the base of Steens, that if you stand still, several will land on you! So if you’re up for it, that might be a pretty cool experience!

Steens Mountain Backcountry Byway

Although this photo of the road appears peaceful, the rest of it was a total nightmare for us. I didn’t think I was afraid of heights.. until we drove the Backcountry Byway that leads up to the summit of Steens Mountain (coming from the South entrance of the loop).

My palms are still sweating just thinking about it! This is currently the highest road you can drive in Oregon. The condition of this road is great, as it seems to be well kept, but it’s REALLY steep, narrow and full of sharp, winding turns. When we’d see another vehicle pull up, we just wanted to cry. Letting another car pass is tricky, because one wrong movement could send you straight down into the canyons below.

But, man…. Those views were totally worth it!

The summit of Steens Mountain has an elevation of 9,733 feet, giving you a spectacular view of Alvord Desert below. On a clear day, you can even see beyond Oregon to Nevada, Idaho and California!

View of WildHorse Lake near the summit.

We were told that Bighorn Sheep like to hang out in this area, but we unfortunately didn’t see any.

However… You wanna know why it’s called WildHorse Lake? Because there’s wild Mustangs that roam free here, thanks to the Bureau of Land Management preserving their wild-nature. And yes, we got to see them! They kept their distance, so we weren’t able to get any photos… But just seeing these creatures out in the open, drinking from reservoirs and grazing at the base of the mountain, was something that I’ll never forget!

While camping in the desert was amazing, we did stay at the Fields Station for one night to get a good shower and some much needed sleep to refresh ourselves for the long drive home.

The rooms actually really surprised us because they were updated with new carpet, modern decor, and the bathroom had recently been renovated. They only have two smaller motel-style rooms and one 2 bedroom house available to rent, but the smaller “room” we stayed in actually had two bedrooms, each with a queen sized bed. The beds were extremely hard and uncomfortable, but hey, it was better than sleeping in the tent!

The Fields Station is going to be your go-to place if you visit the Alvord Desert, because it’s located in Fields, Oregon, which will be the closest town for miles. Not only is this a motel, but the Fields Station is also a restaurant, small grocery store, and a gas station. You’ll want to make sure you fill up your tank here before heading out anywhere else! Just make sure that you’re there during business hours.

PS: They’re also known for their milkshakes, which were great!… But I was most impressed by the breakfast here. Crispy, shredded hashbrowns and an order of eggs were the best way to end our much-anticipated trip to the Alvord Desert.

Happy campers.

Until next time!

Thanks for following us on our adventures. Feel free to leave a comment on this post with any questions you may have about visiting the Alvord Desert, or to share experiences of your own!

If you go, please be respectful of the landscape and live by the “Leave it looking better than when you arrived!” mentality. I can’t stress this enough! This place is so special.. So don’t be that jerk who ruins it for everyone else!

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