Camping Guide: Eastern Promises

Head to Harney County for Hot Springs and Wild Horses

In Oregon's lonely southeastern corner, otherworldly wonders await.

By Margaret Seiler May 22, 2018 Published in the June 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

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The dried playa of the Alvord Desert (don't get stuck in any puddly patches!)

The pursuit of solitude (or at least a camping spot not swarming with people) hinges on how far one is not only from Portland but from Eugene, Bend, and Boise. A just-far-enough-away sweet spot that also checks off one of Oregon’s top bucket-list outdoors experiences? Southern Harney County, in the state’s lonely southeastern corner, where mountain ranges frame a desert landscape dotted with hot springs and roaming wild horses.

Burns (5.5 hours from Portland) is the best last chance for groceries, gas, firewood, and flat-tire repair kits. Then choose a clockwise or counterclockwise route around Steens Mountain, a massive, 9,733-foot-tall fault-block mountain that dominates the flat landscape like Mars’s Olympus Mons. For the former, consider a trip down US 95 to Whitehorse Ranch Road, 50 miles of gravel with views of Steens and the Pueblo range, with the Oregon Canyon and Trout Creek Mountains on one side and the flat Alvord Desert in the distance on the other. Near the road’s halfway point, a rocky spur leads to Willow Creek Hot Springs, a muddy-bottomed pair of warm-bath-temp pools on BLM land next to some windblown campsites and a pit toilet. (Some area springs are boiling; research before you hop in.)

If that’s too far, turn south instead off OR 78 onto a road called East Steens, Fields-Denio, or Fields-Follyfarm, depending on your map, and head for Alvord Hot Springs (soaking fee $8). Perch on old washing machine drums in the concrete-lined tubs. The view? The otherworldly flatness of the Alvord Desert.

The (usually) dry bed of a lake that once stretched into Nevada, the Alvord’s desert playa is a tempting canvas for joy riders, full-moon campers, photographers driver’s-ed students, glider pilots, and Burning Man festival spillover. To stand on its cracked clay and look up at Steens is to wonder if you’re still in the Northwest or a strange parallel universe.

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Clockwise from top left: The Steens Mountain Loop, open seasonally; the pool view from Alvord Hot Springs; some local residents

The lack of shade, water, windbreak, and any bush behind which to squat makes camping on the playa itself largely a novelty (albeit a really cool one—pitch tents near the edge to lessen the chance of being run over by inebriated drivers). Find more serviceable spots along East Steens Road, including the BLM-managed Mann Lake Recreation Site to the north and primitive sites up Little Cottonwood Creek in the Pueblos, south of Fields. If you don’t mind gravel and noise, pay to camp back at Alvord Hot Springs ($30, includes soaking for two).

About two miles north of Alvord Hot Springs, Pike Creek offers a stunning hike up toward Steens’s snowy top. Whether you walk for 10 minutes or an hour before turning back, the trail rewards with views of wildflowers, the sky through keyhole tunnels, and the desert below. (There’s hike-in free camping on BLM land nearby, but parking or camping at the Pike Creek sites requires paying a $30 fee at Alvord Hot Springs.)

About 25 miles south, Fields Station is an oasis with a store, gas, lodging, beer, diner fare, and gigantic, undrinkably thick milkshakes blended to order. Heading back to Burns from Fields takes you along Steens’s damper, greener western side. It lacks the “Are we still in Oregon?” feel of the east but offers views of Hart Mountain and summer access to the Steens Mountain Loop, with crazy gorge overlooks and seasonal camping at BLM’s Fish Lake and South Steens Recreation Sites ($6–8 per vehicle). There’s year-round camping at Page Springs ($8), whose grassy, shady sites on the Donner und Blitzen River are close to nature trails, the birder’s paradise Malheur Wildlife Refuge, and the century-old Frenchglen Hotel. Small rooms in the charming former meat-company boardinghouse start at $79, with pricier, more spacious options in the Drovers Inn annex out back. You don’t have to be a guest to make a reservation for dinner ($25) and share platters of hearty fare like pineapple-marinated Cornish game hen and cheesy spinach-artichoke casserole.

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