September 17-18, 2023.
On our way to Steens Mountain, we made a last minute decision to pull off for the night at Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area. Most folks will never make it here once in their lifetime; this would be my third visit. It is remote, there are no services and it gets no press. But it truly is outstanding, and this visit it was unusually so.
As we drove past one of the first volcanic features, I had an “Aaron, stop the van!” moment. What at first looked like autumn red leaves on the ground turned out to be a superbloom of Nesom’s monkeyflowers: showy, bright, fuchsia blooms peppered throughout the cinder. It was a magnificent sight. I jumped out of the vehicle to get a closer look. While I was out there, I also noticed some delicate buckwheat flowers and the characteristic late summer bloomers: smoothstem blazing star.
Yes, we’d stay here.
Another surprise on our evening walk
Further up the road, we found a nice pullout with a hilltop view of the surrounding hills and craters. According to the BLM website, this designated area has the entire suite of basalt volcano features, such as spatter cones, lava tubes and maars. If you are curious enough to Google those things, you might want to schedule a trip to Diamond Craters to see them in person!
That evening, Aaron and I took a short stroll along a the road. We found thousands more flowers in bloom, and then…a flurry of activity. Hummingbird moths were busily zipping from flower to flower, feeding on the sugary nectar inside. I’d never seen so many of them at once! The pastel colors spreading across the dusky sky provided a beautiful backdrop for the scene unfolding in front of us. Sometimes the most memorable moments are unplanned.
Take a hike
The following morning, Aaron got to work and I took off on a hike. We were within a few miles of Malheur maar, a volcanic crater with a spring-fed pond inside. I made that my destination.
It would be another oppressively hot day, so I started walking right after breakfast. Along the road I saw some interesting flowers in bloom, which I later learned are introduced weeds. Nonetheless, I enjoyed looking at the delicate, translucent petals tucked between sharp points projecting from the stems. Apparently, some local butterflies appreciated the plants too.
I veered off the road at Twin Craters, following a use path along the east side of one of the twins, then bushwhacking around the northern perimeter to the other one. The whole time, I was very cognizant of the possibility of running into a rattlesnake like I’d done just a few days before. No snakes today.
On the other side of the craters, I stumbled across many other cool lava features, including deep cracks in the ground and what I like to call sourdough loaves. I think these are more properly called “tumuli,” but they look so much like the cracked tops of freshly baked loaves of bread that I can’t resist renaming them.
I wandered through the features, poking around anywhere that looked interesting, until I eventually made it to a lava balcony above Malheur maar. This location was incredible because here, out in this hot and dry expanse, I heard a cacophony of water-loving birds. I saw a ring of luscious green grass. I felt like I was transported into a new and unexpected landscape. The maar is quite small, but it creates its own riparian ecosystem surrounded by sagebrush and craggy volcanic rock.
It was a scene that asked to be painted. So, I sat there to paint. As I did so, the morning clouds began to part and make way for the blazing sun. The hike back was much hotter and sunnier than before. The bright light now glinted off of the many bottles and cans carelessly thrown from vehicles years, even decades, before. I collected them as I walked.
Another feature distracted me from my beeline to the van: an old wooden structure. I veered off the road to investigate, and even as I walked all around it, I couldn’t figure out what it was. It couldn’t be an entrance to a mine, out here? It was just lava for miles. And it couldn’t have been a bridge, because why? Perhaps a little encampment? Again, why here? The mysterious wood remnants brought me, however, to another magnificent patch of monkeyflower. I lingered for a few more moments to bask in their beauty before the sweaty hike back.
This brief stop reminded me of several things about travel. One: just because you’ve been somewhere once doesn’t mean you’ve checked that place off your list for good. You can have many different experiences in the same place, especially if you visit during a different season, with a different person, in different weather or with a different attitude. Two: it’s important to leave flexibility in your travel agenda. I had no plans to stop here. About twenty minutes from the road intersection, I just happened to notice it while scrolling around on my map and said “hey let’s stop at Diamond Craters tonight.” Three: the unexpected little things often bring more delight than the big, much anticipated ones. Seeing the purple wildflowers carpeting the desert in September shocked and amazed me. Then, when we saw all the moths flying around, I felt like I’d found myself in paradise.
I love the childlike sense of wonder that I often feel when we’re on the road. That’s one reason I think we’ll keep doing it beyond our initial timeline. We’re already about five months in, but it seems like we’re just getting started…