Category Archives: All Around the Steens

Diamond Craters

December 31, 2013.

Pete French Round Barn and Diamond Craters Auto Tour, plus touring by foot
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Photos from the entire trip are on Google+

Last night, we camped at Idlewild Campground north of Burns. We had to get to La Pine State Park tonight to settle down in our New Year’s Eve rental cabin, so our itinerary had to link these two locations in some way. I’d been to both Pete French Round Barn and Diamond Craters before, and I knew they would be worth taking the scenic route to get there.

We first stopped at the visitor’s center near Pete French Round Barn. It was just as I’d remembered: filled with gifts, cookbooks, western clothing, cold beverages and good, old fashioned hospitality. Here, we picked up our Diamond Craters Auto Tour Brochure for use later today.

Next, we checked out the round barn. It has been kept up well, and still stands rugged and strong in the middle of the unforgiving desert. We admired the craftsmanship of the wooden and stone structures, as well as the beauty of the design. This is an excellent little roadside attraction.

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Then, we pulled out the aforementioned brochure and drove towards Diamond Craters. At each designated stop, we pulled off the road, got out of the car, and I read the description aloud. It was like a fun, nerdy, motorized scavenger hunt. We learned some new vocabulary words, like graben, maar and tephra. It was really freaking cold outside, so we didn’t wander around at all of the stops. By the time we made it to #10, however, we were ready to stretch our legs.

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First we walked around Dry Maar and Malheur Maar, taking numerous pictures from every angle without realizing they’d pretty much all look the same once we got back home. Then we continued cross country to the best-named feature in the park: Multiple Explosion Crater. It was pretty big. All I wanted to do was run down inside it. This was the beginning of our foray through the lava features, walking through narrow cracks, balancing on pointy rock surfaces, peeking into caves and scrambling on top of rocky bumps. It was fun to adventure around, free from the confines of a trail, with a wide array of route options and volcanic features to investigate. This was a much more invigorating style of scavenger hunt.

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When we finished having our fun, we meandered back towards the car and completed the driving loop. All that fun meant we’d be rolling into camp after dark, and that was okay with me.

We had a choice leaving Diamond Craters: head straight back to highway 20 via the quickest and most familiar route possible or take a longer detour through BLM land hoping to stumble across something cool. We chose the latter. It’s awfully nice to have a road trip partner who thinks the same way I do (most of the time).

The map pointed us to L-shaped Double O Road, heading west and then north through BLM land, Malheur Wildlife Refuge, and some private ranch land. Double O Road turned out to be gravel, but we took it anyways. Driving was slow but scenic, although there was nothing particularly special about the drive.

Or so we thought…

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As we were on the home stretch to highway 20, we noticed some unfamiliar animal figures milling about on the sides of the road. We stopped and watched as (wild?) horses trotted, grazed and milled about just in front of the car. They were beautiful animals, curious, lively, and entertaining. We watched them for several minutes, then continued driving. Not ten minutes up the road Aaron spotted a huge herd of pronghorn on the east side of the road. One by one, their little ears perked up to the sky and all heads turned towards us. We watched them with delight and surprise. This was the most I’d ever seen at once before. We slowly crept up the road and kept our eyes on the leader of the pack. It looked like they were going to make a run for it and cross the street.

Caught ya:

It turned out the endless gravel road detour was totally worth it, although I can not guarantee repeat animal sightings in the future!

The rest of the afternoon and evening, we drove on to La Pine State Park. To celebrate the new year we cooked a ridiculously good steak and ramen noodle dinner, made fresh ice cream with an ice cream ball, drank sparkling apple cider and sank deep into sleep just after midnight—our first night in an actual bed in a week.

Another Eastern Oregon desert trip in the books. Will it ever get old? I don’t think so. I haven’t noticed an uptick in visitor density since I’ve been writing about my adventures out there, so I’m going to keep exploring, photographing and writing.

Continue reading about our eastern Oregon adventure here:

West Side of Steens Mountain
Pueblo Mountain
Borax Hot Springs
The Alvord Desert
Pike Creek Canyon
Mickey Hot Springs and Mann Lake

Mickey Hot Springs and Mann Lake

December 30, 2013.

Ramblin’ around at Mickey Hot Springs and Mann Lake (no trails)

Photos from the entire trip are on Google+

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Sullivan casually mentions Mickey Hot Springs in the yellow guidebook, and this sort of mystery grabbed my attention. Since we were all the way out here, I supposed, we may as well go see what there is to see.

Several gravel roads later, we arrived at Mickey Hot Springs. There was a tiny parking area, and a plethora of warning signs telling us that we were certain to die if we walked beyond the fence. Cameras in hand, we headed towards the steaming vents in the ground.

The place was eerie. There were no developed pathways so it was a total free-for-all. There were many footprints left in the earth, and I scanned for paths that had footprints heading in each direction. That way I hoped to minimize my chances of being swallowed up into the boiling cauldron lurking beneath my feet. Aaron was a bit more adventurous than me, and so I followed his footsteps.

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The earth gurgled and simmered around us. There were pools of algae surrounded by crusty, white mineral formations. There were mounds that rose up and holes that sunk down. There were patches of matted, yellow grass. There was not an animal in sight.

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After wandering around for about 45 minutes, we called it and drove back up the road to have lunch. We had spied a dry lakebed nearby that looked like as good a place as any to refuel. Our boots sunk into the unusual soil as we headed off to find the perfect spot to perch on our camp chairs and make sandwiches. It was chilly, but the sun was out, and we rather enjoyed a quiet lunch in this desolate place.

Next stop: Mann Lake Recreation Area. Why? It was on the way to Crane, where we were going to soak in the hot springs before finding a place to camp. Mann Lake is located just off the main road heading out of the Steens. We pulled in and drove up to the lake, locating some short trails leading to the lake. The lake was clearly a favorite of the local cattle herd; the muddy ground was pitted with deep hoof-prints. We arrived at the lake to find it totally frozen over. It was actually easier to walk on the ice than on the pock-marked, muddy shoreline. In the right season, this would be a great place to see birds. In December, it felt abandoned.

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When traveling along the eastern side of the Steens, it is worth it to take a couple of short detours to these places. There’s no reason to miss Mann Lake, since it’s a stone’s throw from the road. Mickey Hot Springs is a bit more of a drive, but maybe just stop and ask yourself: why the rush?

Continue reading about our eastern Oregon adventure here:

West Side of Steens Mountain
Pueblo Mountain
Borax Hot Springs
The Alvord Desert
Pike Creek Canyon
Diamond Craters

Pike Creek Canyon

December 29, 2013.

Pike Creek Trail > Pike Knob out and back | 6.5 miles | 2000′ elevation gain | 4.25 hours

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Photos from the entire trip are on Google+

In between nights of camping in the Alvord Desert, we took a stroll up Pike Creek Canyon. The trailhead is located at a primitive campsite up a godawful dirt road. The road wouldn’t be too bad, if not for the deep ruts and huge boulders poking out. In a high clearance vehicle, no problem. In the Subaru, well, we had to park just a little ways down the road from the trailhead.

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We walked up to the campground to find various animal bones, shotgun shells and splintered plastic shooting target things, plus this really big tree splitting open a rock in slow motion. It was a neat place.

We crossed the creek on an ice bridge, although the liquid water coursing beneath the ice gave us pause. Right from the start, the trail was in the shade so we hurried along to generate some body heat. We passed a trailhead register, which had an interesting, ranty dialogue with unpleasant words being passed between a grizzled, old country redneck and some city-dwellin’ granola types (stereotypes based on the register text).

We followed the trail as it climbed up and away from the stream, then switchbacked down to cross over it. We ascended back up on the other side, where we stopped to catch our breath.

While resting, we saw two figures. It was clear immediately that these were bighorn sheep. They were much closer to us than the ones we saw on Pueblo Mountain. They stopped to check us out for a little bit, then continued grazing along the hillside. We watched them for several minutes, then continued with the hike.

The trail continued into the sunshine, gradually climbing up and then flattening out a little. The tread became more rugged and tiny cairns started popping up everywhere. We followed this path down to another stream crossing, then climbed steeply up on the other side. Eventually we reached the base of Pike Knob and the path became less obvious. We picked out a lunch spot and sat down to devour our soup and trail mix.

While this was a pretty hike, it didn’t provide the stellar views we were after. So, we ditched our packs and began poking around in the terrain above us. After a few false starts and progress-halting cliff edges, we came across a route that placed us right up on top of Pike Knob. The view from the broad top of the Knob was dramatic. In front of us, the Steens Mountain headwall rose up in a hurry. Long, tumbling cascades of water poured down from the mountain top. Snow blanketed the rocky outcrops and the sun blazed overhead. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Cameras in hand, we wandered around taking pictures, striking yoga poses, and absorbing the sun. It was a great place to hang out for a while.

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On the way back, we looked for the sheep again but they were long gone. It was a cold walk out of the dark canyon in the late afternoon. The only thing that was motivating me was anticipation of a soak in the hot springs on the way back to camp!

Continue reading about our eastern Oregon adventure here:

West Side of Steens Mountain
Pueblo Mountain
Borax Hot Springs
The Alvord Desert
Mickey Hot Springs and Mann Lake
Diamond Craters

The Alvord Desert

December 28-30, 2013.

Exploring the Alvord desert and hot springs | 0′ ele. gain

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Photos from the entire trip are on Google+

After a leisurely day of wandering through Borax Hot Springs, we drove up to the desert to scope out the camping situation. It was Aaron’s first visit to the Alvord desert so I got my camera ready to film the drive out onto the playa. This is what we saw:

So the desert was as vast and awesome as I’d remembered. There was barely a breeze and not another person in sight. We got out of the car and ran around a bit, then Aaron got back in and did some crazy bro-driving while I walked back to the grassy shore. We searched for a nice campsite for later, then drove up to the hot springs.

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The Alvord Hot Springs are available for soaking for a $5-a-person charge. There’s a little shop with a restroom and a year-round caretaker on-site. The water from the springs are piped into two soaking pools. One is open air and the other is surrounded by corrugated metal sides. The water is wonderfully warm, cutting the sharp cold of the desert evening. We watched the sun set while sitting in the tub, then drove back to camp in the desert.

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For a couple days, we explored the desert, took off for day trips, and came back to camp. It was a surreal place to camp; our “campsite” had no boundaries. We used an established fire ring so we left minimal impact behind. For both nights, we had no neighbors. A nearby light shone brightly from a house, but besides our campfire there was no other point source of light. Looking up at the stars was spectacular.

One morning we drove east to check out the other edge of the desert. Across the vast, flat expanse, we found tiny hills with deep channels carved into them by water. We played around on the hills and were excited to find windblown piles of fluffy snow. Huge ice crystals filled shallow puddles on the cracked surface of the desert. It was quite beautiful.

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Of course, driving back across the playa was fun. You could literally drive with your eyes closed, no hands. It was perfectly flat, barren, and long.

Winter is probably one of the best times to visit the Alvord Desert, since it’s at a pretty comfortable temperature, there’s no one out four-wheeling on it, and it’s incredibly dry. The silence, the stars, the bitter cold nights and sunny days, and the neighboring hot springs make the drive out here totally worthwhile.

Continue reading about our eastern Oregon adventure here:

West Side of Steens Mountain
Pueblo Mountain
Borax Hot Springs
Pike Creek Canyon
Mickey Hot Springs and Mann Lake (coming soon!)
Diamond Craters (coming soon!)

Borax Hot Springs

December 28, 2013.

Borax Hot Springs road out-and-back | 3 miles | 60′ ele gain | 3 hours

Photos from the entire trip are on Google+

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We had a long day yesterday, so we savored a late wake-up time and a big, tasty breakfast.

Before heading to the Alvord Desert, we decided to take a detour to Borax Hot Springs. It was a short, level hike between the Pueblos and the Alvord, with a mildly interesting description in the Sullivan guidebook.

When we arrived, we were greeted by a sign with the following assertions:

SCALDING WATER

GROUND MAY COLLAPSE

CONTROL CHILDREN AND PETS

Okay, now this roadside attraction had captured my attention.

We parked by a gate and walked up a dirt road through ordinary, brown sagebrush. In the distance, we could see large patches of golden grass. We passed through another gate, then the road began to take on a different texture. It was spongy, and there were patches of white crystals coating the road surface.

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On the side of the road we saw some old, rusted boiling vats that were used when this was an active borax mining operation over a century ago. These vats were used to process the raw sodium borate gathered from the area into crystalline borax, which could then be sold for use as a household or industrial chemical.

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Continuing along the road, we came to the muddy shores of Borax Lake, the only home of the Borax Lake chub. This tough little fish thrives in the warm waters of Borax Lake. Although arsenic levels in the lake are 25 times the lethal limit for humans, they pose no threat to the fish. We chose not to take a dip in the lake.

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As we walked up the road further, we began to come across the hot springs, lined up in a row on the right hand side of the road. We were amazed by the delicate shapes on the lip of each lake. Algae of all imaginable colors grew in intricate, unusual structures in the steamy water. Each pool was unique. We wandered slowly, investigating each pool, and choosing the least mucky way to walk from one pool to the next. My winter Crocs were a poor choice; boots would have been better to negotiate the deep mud and standing water on the road.

We kept walking down the road to a stair-step ladder that took us over a barbed wire fence, then continued to the last couple of large pools. From there, we baked in the warm sunshine and enjoyed the silent, never-ending views of the desert and surrounding mountain ranges. We could see Pueblo Mountain (where we were yesterday), the Steens, and the Trout Creek Mountains. 

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As we slowly and carefully returned to the car, I reflected on the last minute choice to come here. I wasn’t particularly interested, due to the short mileage, minimal elevation gain, and lack of soaking options, but I quickly warmed to the experience of visiting such a unique and isolated place. I highly recommend a stop here if you ever make the drive along the east side of Steens Mountain.

We ate lunch at the car, and drove up to the Alvord Desert next.

Continue reading about our eastern Oregon adventure here:

West Side of Steens Mountain
Pueblo Mountain
The Alvord Desert
Pike Creek Canyon
Mickey Hot Springs and Mann Lake 
Diamond Craters

Pueblo Mountain

December 27, 2013.

Northeast Ridge route, as described on Summitpost | 10-12 miles | 4000′ ele. gain | 7.5 hours

Photos from the entire trip are on Google+

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We arose with the sun on a cold desert morning, ready to face a long day of walking. Not having an accurate idea of how many miles we had ahead of us and how challenging the terrain would be, I wanted to be sure we had all the sunlight we could get. Pueblo Mountain (8632′) is the second highest peak in southeast Oregon, behind Steens Mountain (9733′). The descriptions I’d read were anywhere from 10-14 miles in length out-and-back, with 4000′ of elevation gain from car to summit. There were no trails, so it was cross-country the whole way. The nice thing about this high desert peak was that it was mostly bare of trees, leaving a maze of sagebrush, dirt, grass, and snow to navigate. That ranked pretty low on the difficulty scale.

We hiked up the road a couple hundred yards, then veered left across a narrow wash and up a broad hill. We could see what appeared to be a white post so we made our way over to that. Upon reaching it we found a 3′ long PVC pipe with small holes drilled neatly into the sides. Ahead of us we found a few more, but they didn’t seem to be markers of any sort. With that distraction behind us, we kept walking to a level meadow and scoped out the climb ahead. From here we saw two distinct ridges. There appeared to be a dirt road switchbacking up towards the summit on the further of the two ridges. We decided to head for the road, which was faster than negotiating the sagebrush.

Once we reached a good spot to leave the road, we charged straight up the hill presumably leading towards Pueblo’s summit ridge. Occasionally we’d come across a bit of the road, which clearly had not seen recent use, and take it easy for a few steps before trudging uphill again. Methodically we made quick work and headed into the more interesting, rocky bits.

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The hillside got steeper and steeper. Nearing what appeared to be the summit, we hit some snow. Lucky for me, some deer had broken trail ahead of me. The snow was hard-packed from the wind and kicking steps was much harder than following the deer prints. We paused briefly behind a tall rock to put on a wind layer before stepping out into who knows what next, which turned out to be a great idea. The wind picked up, and we soon found that we were nowhere near a summit.

Ahead, we saw another rockpile that looked higher. Then another. A long, gentle ridge stretched out for what felt like forever but in reality was closer to a half a mile. The bitter cold and steady wind helped put some pep in our step as we raced for our summit. You can almost feel the wind in this video:

I was elated to find the USGS summit marker atop one of the rockpiles I investigated. No more searching! Time to eat lunch.

I initiated a SPOT “ok” message, and we bundled up to eat lunch and wait for the message to send. We were getting a little taste of winter mountaineering with the relentless wind and freezing temps. It was awesome. Just as we were beginning to pack up, I caught some movement across the plateau we crossed earlier. It was clearly two animals, but they were too stocky to be deer. They didn’t move like deer, either. Aaron suggested we were looking at our first bighorn sheep. Incredible! It was hard to make out much detail, but it was the only logical guess. See for yourself:

As soon as that SPOT sent, we packed up and bolted down out of the wind. Instead of retracing our steps exactly, we decided to make a little loop and head back down the other prominent ridge that we saw from the meadow. Little did we know, this was the windy side. The seemingly endless wind eventually dissipated enough to take off a few layers and breathe normally again. We ambled down the rockier, steeper ridge until the dirt road again came into sight. From the road, we walked to the meadow and returned roughly the way we came up, stopping to marvel at the lush moss growing beneath the brown and dusty sagebrush at the dried up wash.

Back at camp, we watched a beautiful sunset, then cooked up a storm. A couple of heaping bowls of curry later, we were well poised for a good night’s sleep.

Continue reading about our eastern Oregon adventure here:

West Side of Steens Mountain
Borax Hot Springs
The Alvord Desert
Pike Creek Canyon
Mickey Hot Springs and Mann Lake
Diamond Craters

West Side of Steens Mountain

December 25-26, 2013.

Page Springs Nature Trail Loop, Blitzen River Trail

Photos from the entire trip are on Google+

map1It was that time of year again. No, not Christmastime. I mean time to escape to the vast, cold desert of Eastern Oregon for an end of the year car camping extravaganza. After a late Christmas breakfast with Aaron’s family, we left town with the intention of staying gone til New Year’s Day.

We drove straight through to the first developed campground on the west side of Steens Mountain: Page Springs. It was after dark, so we did our best to scout out a riverside site with little tree cover, close to the bathroom. Once settled in, we fired up the camp stove and ate the first of many delicious meals: Christmas Eve leftovers. We heated up day-old ham and turkey with a side of green beans and a fresh green salad. One benefit of consistently cold temperatures is near perfect refrigeration and freezing conditions for fresh produce and meat. I planned to eat well this trip.

The evening was cold and quiet, save for the bright-eyed raccoon that lurked around our picnic table. Well after the sun set, the coyotes began singing Christmas carols, and lulled us to sleep.

The next morning, we woke up and explored the campground in the daylight. It was a beautifully laid out space, with several convenient and clean bathrooms, sites designed for tents and RVs, and choices of shady or non-shady sites. After a nice breakfast and some camp chores, we walked the trails that began in the camp.

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The first trail began at a sign reading “Nature Trail” near campsite #25. This 1.4 mile walk took us up to the rimrock, where we had a nice aerial view of the campground. We enjoyed the sun along the edge of the rim, explored some small caves in the rock, and followed the trail down into a shady canyon, where we lost the trail a couple of times, but ended up back at the parking lot anyways.

Next we headed through the fence to the Blitzen River trail. The Sullivan book described this as being a 0.7 mile one-way trail. The sign at the trailhead said the trail extended 4 miles along the river, warning that the trail may be brushy. So, we planned to go as far as we could go, then turn around. The air felt warm in the sun, and this trail was much more open than the nature trail. We walked across an icy bog, through tall cattails and a variety of mangled, brushy plants with seeds that clung to your clothes. We didn’t get too far down the trail before meeting an impenetrable mass of vegetation that would require some serious trail clearing to get through. To make matters worse, the ground surface ranged from icy to dry, with much of the ground either mucky or masquerading as solid and walkable. We made this our turnaround point, which likely meshes with Sullivan’s description in the book.

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On the way back we investigated clumps of downy feathers left from a successful hunt and a perfect foot slide and butt smear preserved in the hardening mud on the trail. We could see the belt loops, stitching, and pocket outline where he hit the ground. It was the most fun sighting of the day.

That was until I saw the heron perched in a tree.

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After a late lunch, we left the campground and drove on. I’d found a hike description on Less Traveled Northwest for Home Creek Canyon, a “very challenging cross-country hike into a dramatic and scenic canyon.” Sounded sweet. It was between Page Springs and the Pueblo Mountains, our destination for the evening.

We enjoyed the dramatic and scenic drive to the canyon, but the canyon itself didn’t particularly grab me and I’d describe it as moderately challenging. Maybe it was the poor light or the fact I’d been in one too many canyons before, but I felt a bit cheated on this one. We walked along the river, then did some boulder-hopping until it was getting close to our turn-around time, then headed back.

We’d hoped to catch the restaurant in Fields before they closed so we could enjoy one of their world famous milkshakes, but it turned out it was closed for the holiday. The good news was that meant we’d be able to set up camp before dark and watch the sun set. Not a bad consolation prize.

In preparation for a big hike the next day, we ate fajitas until we just couldn’t eat any more.

Continue reading about our eastern Oregon adventure here:

Pueblo Mountain
Borax Hot Springs
The Alvord Desert
Pike Creek Canyon
Mickey Hot Springs and Mann Lake
Diamond Craters