The Alvord Desert is simultaneously simple and complex, stormy and calm, untouchable and embracing. It is a dry lakebed 12 miles long by 7 miles wide located 260 miles southeast of Bend in the eastern shadow of the Steens Mountains. The desert never called out to me as it does for some. Friends told me that I was “missing out” when I didn’t join them at the Alvord for Burning Man-like weekends in the heat of the summer. It just didn’t seem like a place for me. It took the request of a quiet, introspective, gentle one to accompany him on an adventure to arguably his favorite place on Earth to get me to go. Through those eyes, I fell in love.
At the Alvord playa, I found a dome of stars the likes of which I’d never seen. The Milky Way shone full length and breadth with incredible clarity. I found freedom – complete freedom – to walk and dance and sing knowing no one would scare me or judge me or bother me. I found silence. I found that the playa was never the same, yet always what I was looking forward to at the end of a long drive. I learned to listen for the sound of the lakebed drying – to notice the wide variety of patterns each cycle of damp and parch would create. I learned to pick a reference point on the Steens or Tule Springs Rim when I went for miles-long headphones-on mind-cleansing walks lest I become completely disoriented in the wide open.
My guide instilled in me a deep respect for the potential danger inherent in driving miles out into the middle of what is sometimes a shallow lake and most of the time a series of sun baked tiles. You can get impossibly stuck in the fine mud with no hope of a tow for hours and it’s often difficult to tell where solid ends and mud begins.
For me these days, the Alvord Desert is a regular several-times-yearly pilgrimage. Sometimes I arrive and the playa is inaccessible due to its current wish to become a lake again. Sometimes I hope for the most glorious night under the stars and there is cloud cover. Sometimes I’m reminded that, even though I can, I ought not drive at top speed because of the fragile lives – human and animal – that I may disrupt. I’m always glad I made the trip.
If you go, plan your trip around a stop at The Fields Station for gas, groceries, a burger and shake. Visit the Alvord Hot Springs, a spot for a wonderful soak with a killer view. Bring the kids to offer them a lesson in the power of nothingness. Let their senses acclimate to the pace and subtleties. The Steens are nearby for a completely different experience on a day trip. Bring along your common sense, your respect for nature and fellow humans, extra water, extra gas, your plan B, and, most importantly, your sense of wonder.
Getting There: Take Hwy 205 south from Burns and turn left at Fields-Denio Road. Find free playa access at Frog Springs.
Where to Stay: The Alvord Hot Springs, bunkhouse/MASH (Mobile Alvord Sleeping Hut) or camping spots. AlvordHotSprings.com. The Fields Station, hotel rooms or RV spaces. TheFieldsStation.com. Free camping on the playa.
Leave No Trace: No fires can touch the playa. Pack your trash. Respect private lands. Emergency services are two hours away.