The Alvord Desert and the Steens Mountain are great places to get away from everything, including gas stations, for a solid desolate weekend in Southeastern Oregon. The best way to experience this area is to pair a night of driving and camping on the Playa, with a day of hiking on the Steens Mountain overlooking the desert.
The Alvord Desert, named after Civil War Commander Benjamin Alvord, sits at 4,000 feet in elevation and is a 12-by-7 mile dry lake bed that averages 7 inches of rain a year. Situated on it’s “banks” is several geothermal hot springs, as well as a few cold springs.
The lakebed is flat enough to drive across during the dry season. We’ve heard many stories where people have put their truck in drive, strapped the steering wheel, and got in the back to enjoy ride (not recommended). In 1976, Kitty O’Neil set the unofficial women’s world land speed record on the Alvord Desert at 512 mph.
The Steens Mountain is a huge fault-block mountain that stretches 50 miles. It rises from the Alvord Desert some 4,200 feet to a peak elevation of 9,733 feet. It is named for US Army Major Enoch Steen, who fought and drove the Paiute Tribe off the mountain in the 1800’s. (Sadly speaking, I dislike how cool places are named after people who caused heartache and death, gotta love Merica.)
Burns- This is the best place to get all your provisions and gas before you head out on the desolate roads that await you. On the next trip down here, I will bring an extra 5 gallon jerry can of fuel, just in case. If you’re planning on camping away from a designated campground, make sure that you bring plenty of water, food, wine, and good beer, as it is not easy to .
French Glen- This historical town has a single hotel with a small restaurant, a very small general store, and one horse (joke). Make sure that you make a reservation for anything at the hotel, including meals. We tried to walk-in for dinner and were turned away with the claim that they wouldn’t have enough food. The 8- room hotel is open mid-March to November (Reservations-541-493-2825). The small general store is not significantly stocked and definitely makes you feel as if you’re in the dusty old west. They only take cash. There is no gas station.
Fields- Situated at the Southern end of both the Steens Mountain and the Alvord Desert, this town has a small hotel called the Alvord Inn, a gas station, and a small restaurant. The restaurant serves some of the best and biggest Milkshakes I’ve ever had, so be sure to snag one on your way through. I recommend sharing, as they are huge.
My personal favorites are…
Page Springs Campground- located at the base of Steens Mountain, just 3 miles from the town of Frenchglen. A trailhead for the Blitzen River Trail is located within the campground. It has 36 sites, but has a tendency to fill in during the busy summer months. It costs $8 per vehicle/night. Call 541-573-4400 to make reservations or get there early.
Fish Lake Campground- located on Steens Mountain, around 20 miles from the town of Frenchglen up the Steens Mountain Loop Road. There are 23 campsites. And, for you fisherman, the lake is stocked with good trout in the Spring by ODFW. It costs $8 per vehicle/night.
Jackman Park Campground- located on Steens Mountain as well. It has 6 small campsites located in aspen trees 3 miles from Fish Lake. This area has some of the best fall color viewing on the mountain. This campground is also close to the Kiger Gorge Overlook. It costs $6 per vehicle/night.
South Steens Campground- located on Steens Mountain, approximately 18 miles from Highway 205 via the Steens Mountain Loop Road. With 36 campsites is great place for Equestrians (horse trailer sites exist) and Hikers alike. The Campground is close to the Historic Riddle Brothers Ranch, several hiking trails, and Little Blitzen and Big Indian Gorges. It cost $6 per vehicle/night.
For all the above campgrounds… Call 541-573-4400 for reservations
The Alvord Playa- is a great place for astronomy, land sailing, driving, and camping. Along the edge of the desert sits several hot springs. The Alvord Hot Springs is a privately owned, no-fee hot spring that bubbles up from the fault line at 174 degrees, but cools considerably by the time it reaches man-made sitting pools. It is a pretty sweet spot, with a corrugated tin shed for changing. Even though the tub is pretty large, It can get a little crowded at times, so get there early. It is a great place to watch the sunrise. Other springs in the area, including Mickey Hot Springs, are too dangerously hot for use by anyone. Keep your animals and children a safe distance away. Camping is free on the playa.
Click HERE for a link to the BLM website for the area.
Big Indian Gorge Trail- This trail begins at South Steens Campground. This 8 mile hike to the headwall of the gorge and passes through numerous meadows and cottonwood and aspen groves. You will make 3 stream crossings, which can be difficult or impassable at times in the spring and early summer. The trail is easy to follow for the first 7 miles and then it fades away and becomes a cross-country hike. This is great spot for an overnight backpack trip as there are plenty of primitive campsites.
Steens Summit Trail- is a short hike that allows easy access to the summit of Steens Mountain. Park at the end of the Wildhorse Lake Overlook Road, hike past the gate and follow the closed run up to awesome views. On a clear day you can see 3 states and Mount Shasta.
Wildhorse Lake Trail- This is one of the more short and challenging trails around the Steens Mountain. To hike it, park at the end of the Wildhorse Lake Overlook Road and follow the trail 1/4 mile to the Wildhorse Lake Overlook. From there, it is a mile long trail segment to get to the lake. The trail does not see much traffic; therefore, it is not maintained very well and is pretty steep. There are a couple sites at the lake and fires are not allowed, so bring a stove. If the sites are full at the lake, continue down canyon. You will be moving cross-country so be ready for simple navigation. Also be aware that you will have a significant climb out the way you came in, as there is no trail leading out of the canyon the other direction.
Also…If you you’re into bird watching, you might as well check out the post on the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, as you’re going to be in the same area.
How to get there-
From Burns follow State Route 205 south for about 60 miles to Frenchglen. The Steens scenic loop road is found at the south end of town. This loop is Sixty-six miles long and the first half of the loop is gravel and pretty rough. Low clearance vehicles like Subarus and Hondas will do fine until September, or even into November if snow comes late in the year. Most of the good views that can be enjoyed from the first part of the loop are Fish Lake, The Kiger Gorge, and the Steens Mountain Summit.
The second half of the loop road needs to be traveled using a vehicle with high clearance and four wheel drive. This last half travels down the sidewall of Big Indian Gorge along a feature called the Roosters Comb offering some nice views back towards the summit and gorgeous views of Big Indian Gorge, but much of the mountain can be seen and enjoyed without ever traveling this second half of the loop.
Here is a topo map of the immediate area of interest…