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Adventurer’s Guide to Southeastern Oregon

Written by James Stolen

Adventurer’s Guide to Southeastern Oregon

Sprawling out for more than 10,000 square miles of high desert, the southeastern corner of Oregon is the ultimate off-the-grid destination, with little-known trails, scenic vistas and remote campsites. This adventurous territory is all contained within the massive Harney County, so large that it outsizes states like Maryland and Vermont. Yes, it’s a trek to get here. The six-hour drive from Portland tends to keep the crowds away. But cyclists and others up for a rugged road trip are at home in the quiet backcountry, where you can explore the iconic Steens Mountain, take a nature walk beside famed birding marshlands, grind gravel on two wheels or discover secluded hot springs in the playa. So load up your bikes, backpacks and binoculars, and get ready to make your basecamp here for an epic long-weekend getaway. Consider this your official adventurer’s guide to the region.

Day 1: Exploring Burns and Beyond

The region is so expansive that you may want to spend each night in a different town to maximize daytime fun. Make your first night in Burns at the boutique Historic Central Hotel, a newly renovated 1929 building with Prohibition-era decor and style and that includes smaller rooms for bike travelers. Relax next door at the Central Pastime, a casual watering hole where locals go for live music alongside a pint and a bacon cheeseburger and fries.

Spend the afternoon touring the small, friendly towns of Burns and Hines (just six minutes south), starting with a visit to the Harney County Chamber of Commerce. Here, you can pick up a map and traveler’s guide and get acquainted with your surroundings. Head up the street to the Harney County Historical Society and Museum at the north end of Burns to see regional artifacts and exhibits, including photos of Old West settlers. Take a selfie at the angel-wings mural in downtown Burns on your way out of town, then cruise 35 miles south to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where you can peek at migrating sandhill cranes or try to spy on the elusive American bittern. (Bird nerds shouldn’t miss the Migratory Bird Festival in Burns in April.)

Grab a snack, coffee and supplies just down the road at The Narrows, an RV park with a convenience store and homestyle restaurant. Next, head 26 scenic miles southeast to Diamond Craters for a hike across the basalt lava fields. By early evening, head back to the town of Diamond (pop. 5) and keep an eye out for the wide pull-outs along the road, so you can catch the sunset on the high-desert plains. Settle in for your second night at the historic Hotel Diamond, owned and operated by a six-generation ranching family. Enjoy a hearty dinner at the hotel and make sure to step outside to watch the Milky Way wheel across the open sky before bed.


Day 2: Biking and Dinner Under the Stars

Rise and shine with a lovely continental breakfast at Hotel Diamond and get ready for your cycling day (ideal for an early fall, spring or early summer trip). If you didn’t bring your own bike, look to rent one at The Hub Cyclery or the WebCyclery on your way through Bend. Load the bikes onto the car rack and head south on Highway 205 toward Alvord Desert, with a quick stop at The Fields Station for a world-famous milkshake and groceries for a do-it-yourself campsite dinner on the playa, which is quite isolated. If you’re itching to ride, turn off at the bottom of the highway descent from Summit Springs into Sunrise Valley. This is a great spot to hop on the saddle for a short ride along part of the Steens Mountain Loop, a popular bikepacking route at the base of the mountain. (Cyclists should make sure to check their spare-tire pressure and invest in a bike patch kit and extra bike tire tube.)

Cyclists on the Alvord Desert

Bring your bike to pedal across the Alvord Desert, or just stand in the shadow of Steens Mountain in awe. (Photo by: Clayton Cotterell)

Plan to camp on the playa or at the campground located at Alvord Hot Springs, where there are both tent sites and bunkhouses for rent. After rinsing off the gravel dust, head on over to the two hot spring pools for a soak. Take in the full beauty of the Steens, a 50-mile long massif that boasts the highest-elevation road in the state, at 9,700 feet. Your tent-side dinner on the desert under the stars will be one for the books.

Day 3: High-Desert Hot Springs

Good morning from the Alvord Desert. Brew some tent-side coffee and take a far more leisurely bike ride east across the playa to score views of Steens Mountain. After breaking down camp on the playa, head north towards Burns for about 90 minutes to Crystal Crane Hot Springs for a soak in the large outdoor pond or in a private bathhouse. Cool off in front of one of the several glamping teepee rentals and take in the views of the Crane Creek Mountains beyond.

Return to Hines, home of the classic Harney County Fair and rodeo, which celebrated its 95th year in September 2019. Cap your adventure with a last big meal. Boomer’s Place is a locals’ favorite fly fishing-themed restaurant and sports bar, with trivia and karaoke nights and Sunday breakfast buffets. Also find solid comfort food at the log-cabin-inspired Bosch’s Big Bear Lodge, where you can relax beside the handmade river-rock fireplace or at a picnic table outside. Stretch your legs afterward with a tour of the Hines Pine Mill House, just north of the lodge, with rooms set to open soon to visitors. The mill, originally built in 1931, established the community of Hines and is being restored to its former state by a local family.

If You Go:

Weather and travel: Before you head out to Eastern Oregon any time of year, check weather and road conditions. Between late November and March, snow and ice can lock in much of this rugged terrain — major highways are still accessible, but snowmobiles are needed for back roads. Remember that roadside services and cell coverage is spotty at best, so leave your trip itinerary with others before embarking into the backcountry. Also plan on stocking up on water, food, fuel, a paper map and possibly a personal safety satellite device such as the SPOT or Garmin InReach.

Lodging: There are lots of great places to stay in Harney County. You can book a private cabin at the Steens Mountain Wilderness Resort, located on the western flanks of the range. Budget-friendly options include camping at Yellowjacket or Delintment Lake campgrounds, located north of Harney Valley. Find more lodging and food options here.

Mark your calendar: One of the most exciting events here is the annual Skull 120 Gravel Grind Race, which bills Burns as the best gravel cycling destination in America. The June event sets you up to pedal over 31 cattle guards and three water crossings along rugged cattle trails and logging roads for a gain and loss of 9,636 feet in elevation above the valley. Come prepared for the heady climbs and descents; race organizers recommend using gravel tires larger than 42c in size. If 120 miles seems daunting, there are also 60- and 30-mile circuits that still leave riders more than ready for the special race-issue pints from nanobrewery Steens Mountain Brewing at the finish line.

First published on Travel Oregon