Road Trip from Burns to the Alvord Desert
Burns, a friendly western outpost in the center of the state, is the jumping off point for your southeast Oregon adventure.
Burns sits in the wide-open high desert in the heart of Harney County, Oregon’s largest and least populated county. Here you’ll find hotels, markets and sporting goods. Grab a meal at the steakhouse Pine Room or swing by Steens Mountain Brewing Company, a family-owned nanobrewery where all beer is small-batch brewed with regional heirloom hops. Each beer name is inspired by a must-visit Harney County landmark or event, like the McCoy Creek Scottish Ale. For a taste of culture, visit Gallery 15, with artwork by regional artists, and the Book Parlor, an independent bookstore offering good reads and home décor.
A Bevy of Birds
Thirty miles south of Burns lies a bird lover’s paradise. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a crucial breeding ground and migratory rest stop along the Pacific Flyway. Considered one of the top bird-watching areas in the Pacific Northwest, Malheur teems with resident wildlife and hundreds of migratory species of birds. Start your exploration at the refuge headquarters, with a visitors center, museum and gift store. Then grab your binoculars and a camera to explore the 187,757-acre, federally protected wildlife habitat. Spring and fall are great times to visit. In addition to unparalleled bird watching, enjoy educational opportunities, wildlife viewing, hiking, and regulated fishing and hunting for anyone on their own migration path to this region. In April, catch the Harney County Migratory Bird Fest.
Lava, Horses and History
Take the Diamond Loop to see Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area, a curious array of collapsed craters, lava domes, lava tubes, wrinkled ridges, cones, spires and other formations created 25,000 years ago, when molten basalt billowed up through fissures in the earth and spread across a dry lakebed. Nearby, discover the Peter French Round Barn, the circular 1880s structure built by cattle baron Peter French from stone and juniper, and used for breaking horses in inclement weather. In the tiny community of Diamond, rest your head at the historic Hotel Diamond, built in 1898, which offers comfortable rooms and meals. Alternately, choose Steens Mountain Guest Ranch for an authentic dude ranch experience.
In tiny Frenchglen, book a room at the historic Frenchglen Hotel, established in 1916 and maintaining century-old charm. Relax on the front porch, and enjoy a communal meal in the dining room. If camping is your cup of tea, choose Page Springs Campground on the Donner und Blitzen River. Steens Mountain Wilderness Resort is nearby, where cabins, tent sites and RV sites welcome guests.
A Slow Climb to Grandeur
From here, set out to Steens Mountain, the largest fault-block mountain in the Northern Great Basin, formed when immense geologic forces pushed the east edge of the mountain up along the edge of the Alvord Desert. The Steens Tour Loop takes travelers up the backside to a summit that rises more than a mile above the east-facing landscape, affording dramatic views. From the summit, descend on a short, steep trail to Wildhorse Lake for a dip in the cold and cobalt blue waters.
Hike the twenty-eight-mile Steens Mountain Gorges Loop, which treats hikers to waterfalls and leads to the massive, U-shaped Blitzen and Big Indian gorges that were carved during the last ice age. At Steens’ lower elevations, abundant wildlife draws hunters and anglers to stocked lakes and streams ripe with red-band trout. Summer in the Steens brings wildflower displays in a profusion of color.
10,000 Milkshakes a Year
Drive south from Frenchglen to Fields, paralleling Catlow Rim, keeping your eyes open for bighorn sheep and wild horse herds. At Fields, the action is all at Fields Station, which offers burgers and milkshakes by the thousands to hungry desert travelers each year, along with hotel rooms, groceries and fuel.
Playa As Far As the Eye Can See
North of Fields is the incredible Alvord Desert. Here on the expansive, surreal playa, you’re at the bottom of what once was a 200-feet-deep lake that stretched from Steens Mountain to Nevada. Walk out onto the white crusty surface, drive across the open space where rules allow, or simply take in the impressive expanse with your eyes. The remote Alvord Hot Springs is a chance to soak in a semi-developed pool with a view of the playa.
Pack your fishing rod for nearby Mann Lake where trophy Lahontan cutthroat trout cruise the waters. Mickey Hot Springs is also on the north end of the Alvord; look for its deep pool, clear with near-boiling water, the ground hissing with steam and gurgling mud pots. These are not waters for soaking or drinking, and don’t expect much water anywhere else in this region—desert climates bring temperature swings and long expanses of scenic highway.
Holly and Mason Watson
Owners, Hines Pine Mill House, Hines
We came up to Eastern Oregon from the Rogue Valley in Southern Oregon. After a few years, we found ourselves in a beautiful historic building that just needed a little love. We ended with a beautiful bed and breakfast that we operate with our three daughters. We couldn’t be happier to be a family run business.
We like it here because:
We love Hines because it’s a wonderful small town to raise kids, that’s off the beaten trail enough to enjoy small town living. We enjoy hunting and exploring all around Eastern Oregon.
Don’t miss a stop:
A few stops a road trip shouldn’t miss would be the Steens Mountains, the Riddle Brother Ranch, and our place, of course! It is totally worth the trip.
Locals love to visit:
Every local should have a favorite hot spring location! With many just around the corner, be it public or secluded, you should always have a suit with you.