The Alvord Desert is a desolate landscape; the snow-capped peaks of the Steens Mountain range tower above a cracked desert floor. This is unlike the Oregon most people know.
The Alvord Desert sits on the east side of the Steens Mountain Range at an elevation of 4,000 feet. The area see’s very little rain with only seven inches on average annually. This unique land formation is located in one of the most isolated parts of Oregon therefore receives very little visitor’s. The desert is situated over a tectonic fault that is responsible for the uplift of the Steens Mountain fault block and the numerous geothermal springs found here.
The Alvord Desert was once a lake extending over 100 miles but has since completely dried up. This desert landscape is now known as what is called a playa (like the one in Death Valley National Park) and is approximately 20 miles long and 7 miles wide. A playa is a dry lake that is usually found in interior desert basins. They require interior drainage to a zone where evaporation greatly exceeds inflow. The 70 mile-long Steens Mountain Range runs alongside the playa towering 5,000 feet above providing a spectacular backdrop.
Best Times To Visit
The Alvord Desert is beautiful to visit at an time of the year however winters can be really cold and summers very warm. Spring is when the area see’s the most rainfall, therefore this is not the best time for camping on the playa. This is because the rain collects on the playa and the water is known to move very quickly which causes the desert floor to become very sticky and muddy making it difficult to travel across. Autumn is the most ideal time to plan a visit when there is little rainfall and temperatures begin to cool down.
Where To Stay
Camping at Alvord Desert
One of the biggest draw cards for visiting the Alvord Desert is being able to camp on the desert playa. We recommend that you at least spend one night camping on the salt flats as it is a unique experience and there aren’t too many places that you can do this. It’s free too! Most campers set up on the outer edges of the playa because some visitors like to drive rather crazily on the salt flats and you don’t want to risk being hit accidentally. Also remember this is the desert and the temperatures do drop dramatically at night and there is no protection from the wind so bring some warm layers.
Lodging at Alvord Desert
Not into camping? You can stay at these hotels in Burns or at the rustic Frenchglen Motel in Fields. Your other option is to stay at the bunkhouses offered by the folks who run Alvord Hot Springs (they also have a campground) which means you will have 24 hour access to their hot springs.
Things To Do At Alvord & Nearby
Drive On The Playa
Some people enjoy driving on the playa really fast! It can be thrilling with no speed limits I guess, but be careful.
Stargazing in this area is fantastic because there is very little light pollution. All the more reason to camp and spend the night under the blanket of stars.
Soak in the Hot Springs
One of the best things about taking a trip out to the Alvord Desert is being able to visit the hot springs found in the area. The most popular is the privately owned Alvord Hot Springs which is located just on the edge of the playa itself. Passes are $5 and it will give you access for 24 hours. They have restrooms and a small store run by live-in caretakers on the property.
Another option is Willow Hot Springs but it is located much further away approximately 40 miles south of Fields but it is much bigger and is in a natural setting.
Take a Drive To Steens Mountain
At nearly 10,000 feet in elevation, Steens Mountain is the highest mountain in Eastern Oregon however it is very little known. You can take a drive along the 52 mile loop road which begins in Frenchglen. There are incredible views of massive glaicer-carved gorges and the vastly beautiful desert below which you can view from the Kiger Gorge lookout or at the East Rim lookout.
The Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area is 17,000 acres of diverse volcanic features, including basaltic lava flows, lava tubes, cinder cones, and maars. It is a surreal landscape and worth visiting on your way to Alvord Desert if you are coming from Burns. You can hike the desert around Diamond Craters but the best way to see it is by car. The area is largely unmarked but you can get there by taking Oregon Route 205 south past the Malheur refuge then follow signs east to the craters. You can learn more and see some pretty cool images in this article published by the Oregonian.
Tips for visiting Alvord Desert:
Make sure you fill your tank up with gas because this is a very remote part of the state.
Phone reception can be a little spotty out here so make sure you have the directions written down somewhere.
Be sure to bring lots of water!
Check the weather - if there is rain predicted you may want to re-think your plans or come prepared. You don’t want your tent to flood or have your car stuck in mud and be stranded.
Don’t forget to pack swimwear so you can visit the hot springs nearby.
You can use the restroom at Alvord Hotsprings if you need for a $2 fee.
Getting to Alvord Desert
Alvord can be reached via the Fields-Denio Road from either Burns if you’re coming from the north, or from the town of Fields if you’re driving up from the south. It is about 40 miles on unpaved Fields-Denio Road from Highway 76. From the south it is 23 miles on Fields-Denio Road and 12 miles of the first stretch is paved. You can drive onto the desert from several different dirt access roads.