Remote, Barren, desolate, and staggeringly beautiful, the Alvord desert is a dry lake that sits at the foot of Steens Mountain, its flatness accentuated by the 5000 foot cliffs of the mountain’s west side.
It’s an unregulated zone. You can easily drive your vehicle onto the Alvord playa and tear across its clay floor. Small planes commonly touch down here as well. As you zoom around, you’ll see rooster tails of dust kicked up by speeding motorbikes. There’s an odd beauty to the way they bloom from a small point where the tire meets the ground, and then fade away.
The playa is 12 x 7 miles with main access points along the west edge via three public roads. Be careful on these access roads. They can be challenging unless you have a high clearance vehicle, or a motorcycle. There’s also a well maintained private road from the Alvord Hot Springs with a $5 fee (road access comes with the price of soaking admission).
The hot springs, owned by the Alvord Ranch, consists of two pools, one outdoor and one semi enclosed. A full time caretaker maintains the springs and keeps things orderly. Camping there costs $30 per night, which includes round-the-clock soaking access. Otherwise, $8.00 per person lets you soak all day until 10:00 pm.
Camping on the playa itself is free. As it’s high desert, be prepared for hot days and cold evening temperatures. The night we camped was extremely windy, and we used the truck as a windbreak. Once you’re settled, though, you can enjoy a beautifully clear starry sky. Then at daybreak, you’ll roll out of your tent onto the dead flat playa to watch the sunrise over the desert, also an amazing sight.
While in the area make sure to stop at The Fields Station, where you can top off your gas tank and get lunch. They have an impressive variety of milkshake flavors. We can vouch for the chocolate being delicious and big enough for two to share. Borax lake is another attraction at the south end of the Alvord. It’s a nice little hike and a beautiful sight in the middle of the desert. However, it’s not for swimming or soaking, as it contains 25x the safe level of arsenic and temperatures can vary greatly.
Lastly, if you’ve come all this way you will probably want to add Steens Mountain to your trip. See separate entry for Steens!
The Alvord is located in the far southeast corner of Oregon. It’s a solid 8 hour drive from Portland. Burns is the closest real town and the place you will want to stock up on snacks, water, and fuel. Crane, Fields and French Glen all have gas pumps, but given the remoteness you will pay a premium. Do top up when you need to, though. This isn’t an area where you want to take a chance on fuel!