Making the List
There’s a likely chance the Alvord Desert and Steens Mountain aren’t on the top of your list of destinations to ride, or possibly even to visit. They certainly hadn’t made our initial cut, either, but after a glowing recommendation, a fair amount of research, and our subsequent visit, we’d urge you to give serious consideration to not only adding them to your list but to moving them towards the top.
Offering one of the most unique geographic formations in Oregon, the area is incredibly isolated, presenting an ancient alkaline flat, or playa, that abruptly abuts a jagged and scenic snow-capped mountain. Replete with rugged terrain, relentless sun, gravel roads, and a near absence of other humans, it checked several boxes and proved to be an ideal locale for our latest adventure.
The grandeur of nearby Steens Mountain, coupled with the solitude and otherworldly appearance of the desert, had us giddy with excitement, and with morning light spreading across the desert we rode out from our campground and straight to the playa.
Knowing that we would return to the playa the following morning for a sunrise ride, we dedicated our day to exploring the primarily flat, 52-mile section of gravel road that parallels the eastern side of Steens Mountain, extending from the town of Fields at the southern end (population: 86) and up towards Folly Farm Road and HW 78 (population: 0, unless you're counting livestock) to the northeast.
Our route north presented numerous side roads calling for exploration, many of them simply consisting of twin wheel tracks grown over with light grass. Several led no further than a couple of hundred yards into the hills before requiring us to turn back, with trails either abruptly ending or turning into a near-vertical and unrideable mess. However, the exceptions proved the reward, so we continued our trials on trails.
On our return we came across the sudden blue of Mann Lake. Seemingly a world away from the nearby desert, the shallow lake pushed up against green shoreline grass and made for a spectacular foreground to the snowy peaks to the west.
Desolation makes no concession for idiocy, and with virtually nonexistent cell reception and a desire to avoid becoming one of the many bereft and deflated statistics about which we’d read – either in car or on bike – we’d made sure we were stocked with ample supplies of food and beverage to see us through four days of adventure, even though our planned stay was for three. Let’s just say that once you arrive, there aren’t really opportunities to stock up on, well…anything.
We saw almost no one on this remote gravel road until we happened upon a cowboy (the Wild West lives!), his two canine herding companions, and what we guestimated to be 70 head of cattle. We had no idea from where they came or to where they were headed, but it certainly added a nice twist to our ride, save the section of the road over which they passed and the plentitude of reminders that what we had just witnessed was in fact real.
Although it was in the upper 80’s and plenty warm, we decided to head over to the Alvord Hot Springs, simply because it was there and we knew we would have it to ourselves. The geothermal springs are looked after by a surly caretaker who lives in a trailer onsite and manages the springs, along with the system of pipes which regulate the incoming water to 112 degrees, cooled considerably from its source temperature of 174 degrees.
The Springs offer two concrete soaking pools surrounded by a bucolic boardwalk, and one of the ponds is enclosed by rustic, corrugated sheet metal walls, offering shelter from both the sun and the wind. Far from what anyone might consider fancy, it was a pretty perfect way to wind down the day and take in the sunset as the sunlight disappeared behind the mountain.
Located in Harney County in Central Oregon, the Alvord Desert is situated in the rain shadow immediately east of Steens Mountain, and sits at an altitude just north of 4,000’. Once a great lake, extending 100 miles in length and with a depth in excess of 200’, the area is now completely dry from July to November, and an otherworldly playa, approximately 20 miles long and 7 miles wide, has taken its place.
At the end of our 2nd day we were joined by the final members of our squad, and we all awoke to soft pre-dawn light. Reluctantly forgoing coffee, we headed again to the playa for the morning opportunity to ride the flats as the sun emerged from the eastern horizon.
The dry, cracked, relatively smooth alkaline surface of the playa begs for both exploration and speed. In 1976, Kitty O’Neil set an unofficial women’s land speed world record of 512 miles/hour. Perfectly flat, void of any obstacles, and with the ground turning into a white blur underneath you as you ride, the playa felt lightning fast, especially after spending the previous days on gravel.
The desert lies over a tectonic fault which lifted the basalt fault block and created Steens Mountain some eight to fifteen million years ago during the Miocene Epoch. The mountain, a north-south escarpment extending over 40 miles and resembling a legitimate mountain range, rises over 5,000’ steeply and quickly from the desert floor to reach its peak of 9,773’. Spectacular is an apt descriptor of the mountain and its surrounding area.
Into the hills
A completely different experience awaited us west of the playa, upwards and towards the mountain. According to Google maps, the hillsides were littered with old roads and trails and, although we hadn’t heard of anyone riding them (on the east side of the mountain; the western side of Steens Mountain offers great sections of rideable and good quality gravel roads), we were confident that our new bikes and tires could handle whatever the mountain presented. Plus, the Googler never lies, right?
Rugged, as in straight up
This wasn’t the first time – and we certainly hope not the last! – where our zeal to ride was overruled by a dose of reality, and we quickly realized why we’d never heard of cycling exploits up the east side of the mountain. Incredibly rough terrain and unrideable pitches quickly greeted us. Not letting common sense get the better of us, we continued on and upwards with stubborn determination, a bit of hiking, circumventing cattle fences, and crossing creeks, all requiring significant effort but adding to the fun of adventure. Although the temperatures had ticked past 90 degrees, our map indicated an impending stream crossing and, with snow still on the peaks of the mountain, we knew the snow melt would offer relief in the form of icy water. Besides, 'rugged, as in straight up' had become both an inside joke and an ongoing challenge to the Squad, so undaunted we remained.
Miner Miner Forty Niner
We had heard of a long-abandoned mining cabin a few miles up the hill, which provided a bit of carrot dangling from the front of our handlebars. We eventually came upon the creek and, along with it, temporary respite from the heat. Once we reached the cabin, the effort immediately became worthwhile, as is often the case when discovering your destination. Imagining the hardships of building such a remote structure, let alone the struggles of daily living and labors of mining the land certainly put our efforts into perspective.
The stream crossing on our descent re-energized us, and we decided to spend the last couple hours of light riding to the southernmost edge of the playa on the gravel road and back on the playa itself. None of us necessarily had the energy to continue riding, but we also realized this would likely be our last opportunity to play on the playa before we packed up camp and headed home the following morning.
Sunset On The Playa
Playing on the bicycle has a way of bringing out the youthful exuberance in all of us, and as we watched the sun near the horizon we continued to chase our lengthening shadows. By this point we were exhausted and hungry, but we wanted to catch the final rays of light from the playa. Plus, we’d brought our lights for a little night riding. Boys and toys… We ended up heading back to camp in an almost total darkness, with the faint yet quickly disappearing outline of the mountain helping guide our general direction. Eventually engulfed by the darkness, we felt we had truly wrung out every last bit of adventure out of our 3-day excursion.
Call it what you will
The definition of adventure can vary greatly depending on whom you ask. Exploring new roads and riding new areas and terrain are key tenets of our definition, but probably most enjoyable of all is riding with friends, and having a chance to share your experiences and stories with one another. As we usually do, we spent the final evening both reliving the adventures of this trip and planning the next.
Thoreau professed “We need the tonic of wildness…earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild…We can never have enough of nature.” We certainly agree, and if you too are searching for an escape offering a feeling of solitude and wilderness, the Alvord Desert and Steens Mountain are certainly a worthy destination