Trail-ah on the Playa at Oregon’s Alvord Desert

We pulled away from Hart mountain and found ourselves on a familiar road, highway 140 down into Nevada towards Denio Junction. Bog hot springs, which we visited on the way home from our last excursion is located along this stretch of road, and as tempted as we were, we did not stop (it was too hot to sit in a hot spring anyway). At Denio Junction we headed north back into Oregon, passing the Pueblo Mountains, before seeing the dust rising up from the Alvord desert in the distance. On the left side of the desert, the Steen Mountains towered high above us; snow still visible in little patches even in late August.

     Twelve miles long by seven miles wide, the desert is a dry lake-bed much of the year. On the far side was a curtain of dust as a few cars and motorcycles sped back and forth, taking advantage of the smooth empty surface. We found our way down to the playa from the Frog Spring access.  The road was fairly rutted but we took our time and picked our way through the ruts and potholes. Once down on the surface of the desert, I mentioned wanting to camp out in the middle of the vast flat plain, but was cautioned by Cate that by all accounts, the wind and dust could be oppressive out in the middle. She was not wrong. We chose a spot near the grassy edge, unhooked tray, and settled in. Frankie looked mildly displeased at her surroundings, nothing to eat, not a blade of grass….. she lightly test licked the cracked, salty ground.

About a mile from our camping spot was  Alvord Hot Springs, a developed hot spring and campground, but again, a little too warm out for us to be interested in a soak. Apparently they have a very nice access road to the desert  that you can pay a small fee to use, rather than the more rutted route we took. The campground looked great and would be a fantastic option for anyone not interested in camping on the playa proper.

After setting up our camper, it was time for a drive! We hopped into the truck and sped off across the flat, a rooster tail of dust pluming up behind us! It was a hoot! How many times in your life can you close your eyes and drive 70mph for any length of time!? After a while of driving around, the desert seems to take on the feeling of driving a boat on a lake, which it can become in the spring. The flat surface, coupled with the vegetation around the edges, and the difficulty in judging distances all contributed to that feeling.

It wasn’t long before the dinosaurs came out to harass us but unlike Jurassic Park, these dinos did not want to eat Frankie Rae!  The sun started to slide behind the Steens and hunger was getting the best of us. We made some dinner and watched the sun set as a new camper drove out onto the playa. Unlike us, they chose to park further out into the desert. As darkness fell, the wind rose. It wasn’t long before the wind was howling  and the camper was rocking back and forth. Frankie was alarmed and our thoughts kept returning to the new campers in their un-aerodynamic pop-up A-frame camper. If we had not been in similar winds in the Alabama hills and the Texas panhandle, we would have been very worried.

Morning came much too soon as the wind did not afford us much sleep. Marveling at the amount of dust that made its way through every crevice in the camper over night, we made coffee, had breakfast, and took some family pictures. Although we had a long day of travel ahead, we had one last mission on the Alvord, to get some epic footage of the Argosy flying across the desert floor…. so we hooked her up, stowed our stuff and drove! Cate captured the footage as I drove back and forth giggling madly, even closing my eyes for minutes at a time!

Soon playtime was over, it was time to charge up the phones, and set a course for Leslie Gulch.

PS-We were saddened to hear the news that Jessi Combs, former mythbusters member and land speed racer lost her life in the Alvord desert last tuesday, shortly after we left.

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