Escape Reality at This Other Worldly Oregon Destination

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Deep in the Oregon outback sits a landmark that has been attracting land speed record chasers, campers, and adventure seekers for decades. What was once a flourishing lake now this area is now one of the flattest stretches of land in the country and the perfect place to experience the surreal experience of driving, biking, or walking for miles across a featureless, unchanging terrain.

This place is the Alvord Desert, and it is one of the ultimate remote destinations in the entire state. The massive playa turns into a muddy mess in the winter and a flat sheet of hardpacked lakebed in the summer.

It is during these summer months that adventure seekers flock to the desert to camp under the stars, soak in the nearby hot springs, and explore this incredible area.

Fields-Denio Road Alvord Desert, Oregon. Steens Mountain is in the distance
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Exploring the Alvord Desert

Getting to the Alvord Desert is no small feat, as it is nearly 7 hours from Portland. There isn’t even a gas station within 1 1/2 hours of the desert, so make sure to fill up on the way there and bring a little extra if you plan on exploring the playa extensively.

The only civilization around the desert is the remote Alvord Hot Springs. Here, you can rent a campsite or a room in the bunkhouse, enjoy a soak in their natural hot springs, or grab some last-minute provisions from their general store.

Alvord Desert landscape. Alvord Desert Sunset. Salt flat.  Deep in the rain shadow of Steens Mountain is Alvord Desert. Sunshine in the desert. Salt Flat Crinkles
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You can also enter the desert via their private road. There is a fee to do so, but it beats taking the much rougher entrance a bit further down.

Once in the desert, the world is your oyster. Just stay away from the areas near the entrance where spring water makes the mud a sticky mess and the private land on the western edge.

Driving the Desert

One of the most popular activities in the desert is to go for a drive. Here, there are no lines, no roads, and nothing to get in your way (except for other visitors, that is)

Land sailing in Alvord desert, Oregon. A blow cart surfing across playa,  Steens mountains in the background
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The desert has been the site of multiple land speed record attempts, with the fastest taking place in 2019. During the latest attempt, the driver, Jessi Combs, was tragically killed, but not before setting a new land speed record for women at over 522 miles per hour.

Check the conditions of the lake bed before heading out, as the crust can give way if there is underlying moisture beneath the surface. And the last thing you want to have to do is pay a tow truck bill this far away from civilization!

Camping on the Playa

Camping is an incredibly popular activity on the playa, but be prepared for the unique circumstances of camping on a 12-mile-long by 7-mile-wide patch of dirt. With no restrooms, no shelter from the wind or sun, and no privacy (other than setting up miles away from anyone else), you’ll need to come prepared with everything you’ll need for life in the desert.

Car trails on a playa of Alvord Desert, South Ogeron. Steens mountains in the background
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This includes sun shades, sturdy stakes for your tent (it gets WINDY here), a portable restroom, and plenty of water. No fires are allowed in the desert either, so bring a portable stove if you want a warm dinner.

Those who choose to do it, though, are treated to one of the most incredible camping experiences ever.

Gazing at the Stars

The Alvord Desert’s remote location makes it one of the best star-gazing locations in the country. On clear nights, you’ll be treated to views of the Milky Way, which stretches across the sky.

Other Things to Do Around the Desert

A trip to the Alvord Desert doesn’t have to stop there. This section of Eastern Oregon is home to countless hidden gems that are far off the normal tourist path.

Explore the Steens

Wildhorse Lake on Steens Mountain, Oregon
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Towering over the Alvord Desert is Steens Mountain. This nearly 10,000-foot peak stands thousands of feet over the desert below and is home to herds of wild horses, miles of remote trails, and stunning views of the Oregon outback.

At the base of the mountain’s west side, you can find the remote outpost of Frenchglen. The main attraction here is the historic Frenchglen Hotel and its fantastic family-style dinners, which attract residents and visitors alike from miles around.

Crane Hot Springs

On the way into the desert, you’ll pass by Crane Hot Springs, which rises up out of the sagebrush-covered plains like an oasis. Here, travelers can rent a room at one of the resort’s cabins or teepees or one of the RV or tent sites.

The star of the show is their large natural hot spring pool, which is open 24 hours a day to resort guests. Visitors just passing through can purchase a day pass, which is often much needed after camping in the desert.

About the author
Derek Carlson
Pacific Northwest native, cross-country skier, hiker, mountain biker, wannabe fly fisherman, writer and owner of Roam the Northwest