The Alvord Desert, located near the southeastern corner of Oregon, rivals the splendor and solitude of many of the better known desert playa landscapes in Nevada or California and is an under-appreciated jewel of the state of Oregon. With the Steens Mountain looming to the west, the alkali flat of the Alvord Desert is not only one of the largest in Oregon, but it is the most remote and sensationally wild. The flat stretches 6 miles wide and 11 miles long during the dry season after the runoff from the Steens has abide and the sun has scorched the playa to a truly dry and barren land. During the wet months, the playa is a shallow alkali lake posing a much contrasted scene from the more desirable desert landscape. Yet, year-round Mann Lake which is located below the east-face of the Steens Mountain is a desert oasis attracting anglers with its abundance of Lahonton cutthroat trout which have adapted to survive in the alkaline desert waters. Truly a destination for recreation, the Alvord Desert is popular for camping, hiking, land sailing, glider flying, recreational driving, photography, and wildlife viewing.
Nearby Mann Lake is a shallow playa lake on the northern portion of the Alvord Valley. The waters of Mann Lake are fed by a system of intermittent streams created by the snow runoff from the east slope of the Steens Mountain. Mann Lake is managed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which maintains the lake’s population of Lahontan cutthroat trout. The oval shaped lake basin is only 14 feet deep at its maximum depth and is relatively small at just 276 acres. Featuring extensive weed-beds that are easily wadeable at the shoreline makes it a popular fishing destination. There are two boat ramps and two vault restrooms at Mann Lake. Camping is possible in open areas away from the lake shore which are accessible by a rugged gravel road looping the lake. With prime fishing and exceptional views of the Steens Mountain, Mann Lake is a recommended fishing spot for those seeking a desolate fishing experience.
Most notable in the Alvord Desert playa is the ever-looming magnificence of the Steens Mountain. The Steens Mountain stretches along Harney County with its peak towering above the Alvord Desert. The summit is certainly impressive at 9,733 feet, but considering the valley floor of the Alvord Desert is already at 4,200 feet, the entire area is considered high desert. The length of the Steens Mountain is impressive and running 50 miles, it is often confused as a series of mountains. Yet, the majestic Steens is a single mountain and is the largest-fault block mountain in the northern Great Basin. Many animals make home on the Steens Mountain and surrounding valley. Bighorn sheep can be spotted on the rocky escarpments, along with pronghorn antelope, elk, mule deer, mountain lions, and golden eagles. There is no finer place in Oregon to view Steens Mountain than from the Alvord Desert. With its famous notch in the east ridge of Kiger Gorge, the basalt craggy peaks tower above the Alvord Desert with impressive prominence and grandeur.
The Alvord Desert is home to the Alvord Hot Springs which is privately owned, but open year-round for a small fee to the public. The Alvord Hot Springs is a geothermal spring with a source temperature of 174 degrees, but thanks to a system of cooling pipes, it bubbles to the surface at a comfortable 112 degrees. This is a very rugged hot springs a few yards from the gravel East Steens Road. The concrete soaking pool has a partially covered seating area with much of the pool open to enjoy the views of the Alvord Desert. While not glamorous, this view of the Alvord Desert makes this hot springs exceptionally remarkable for a place to soak in this remote and uninhabited landscape.
During the wet season, the Alvord playa is a shallow lake. Bird watching provides a variety of resident and migratory species. The area is home to nesting long-billed curlew, killdeer, and snowy plover, along with various other species. However, receiving only 7 inches of rain a year, and during the late Spring and Summer months when the sun has evaporated the snow melt runoff from the Steens, the Alvord Desert emerges as a near perfectly flat dry lakebed that is suitable to drive across, or to land small aircraft. Ideal conditions exist June through November. This is the perfect time to visit the area as recreational activities are endless. While parts of the surrounding area are private land, much of the Alvord Desert is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Private areas are marked as ‘no access’ and the BLM portions are open for free reign to drive, camp, and explore. As long as you respect the environment and obey the signs and regulations when posted, the area is an ideal paradise for discovery and recreation.
With a couple rough dirt roads shooting off of the main East Steens Road, you can drive your vehicle directly onto the desert and drive openly for miles. The playa is remarkably flat and a very smooth ride with only the occasional pebble or stick rolling under the tires. Not only is driving on a dry desert in pretty much the middle of nowhere exciting, the absolute solitude makes it memorable. You can camp in the middle of the desert with nothing but 3 miles of dry cracked earth on either side of you. However, a word of caution: During the night, the high desert winds can easily whip water at far corners of the playa towards the center due to the near perfect flatness of the ground. Therefore, what was once a dry desert floor can become a muddy and sticky trap, stranding you in inches of mud and water.
This is truly a remote outback and inhospitable Oregon territory at its finest. The nearest town, Fields, is a 45 minute drive to the south. Throughout the area are Jeep trails that seem to lead yonder to the unknown and in many instances there is no real destination as it is the journey that is the purpose of the travel. There is no potable water, restroom facilities, or designated camping areas. Cell phone service is limited and assistance is unavailable except from fellow travelers to the area. Come prepared and anticipate the unexpected.
In the middle of the Alvord Desert, there is nothing but pure silence. Not just lacking the sound of cars or people, but absolute silence without any sound whatsoever. There are no leaves rustled by the wind, there are no birds flying above, there are no sounds of crickets. There is solely unquestionable true silence where the only sound is your heart beating. Occasionally a fly may make the journey 3 miles from the sagebrush lined shore which sounds like a jet engine buzzing its way towards you, but after that it is back to a truly eerie stillness. At night, with a wide-open celestial sky, the experience is vastly unworldly and reminiscent of a Martian terrain. The barren nature of the playa contrasted with the beauty of the Steens’ snow capped summit, along with the pure calm of solitude makes the Alvord Desert a top destination in Oregon for hiking and photography.
For more pictures of the Alvord Desert, visit www.photographyoregon.com.
To Get There:
From Burns, take State Highway 78 southeast for approximately 72 miles. Turn right onto the East Steens Road and travel southwest for approximately 23 miles until you reach the Mann Lake Recreation Site turn-off on your right. The Alvord Desert is located approximately 20 miles south of Mann Lake by way of the East Steens Road.
Oregon Photo Guide™ features the landscape photography of Michael Skourtes, Portland Oregon photographer and avid outdoorsman. I venture throughout the state searching for the top destinations for Oregon hiking, backpacking, camping, and photography. I share my experiences and photography of Oregon on my guide. I encourage you to explore Oregon and make your own outdoor adventure.
For picture galleries featuring Oregon photography, or to contact me, visit www.photographyoregon.com.