Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Alvord Desert Road Trip

After talking about the Alvord Playa with my wife for 2 years now ad nauseam, and she insisting I should just do it, I finally made the long drive down the to the region. Located in a very remote area of Oregon about an eight-hour drive from the Portland area. I knew this time of year is one of the worst in terms of visiting the area but I don’t always get the vacation time I would like. The plan was to take my Boxer dog Scout with me in my 4Wd Montero. I finally figured out the seats in this vehicle will fold down flat including the back jump seats making an incredible bed for a tall person and that I would be totally sheltered from the elements and feel much more secure than being in a tent.

   When photographing the Playa (dry lakebed) it is preferable to go during dryer months so that the cracks that develop will be the most spectacular, and that driving out and even camping on the Playa will be possible. Well I can report that none of the above happened for me. The forecast was calling for 20% chance of snow and low temps around 27 degrees- Yaaah…Wikipedia says that this region only gets 7 inches of annual rainfall, I think 1/3 of that fell while I was there.
When I finally arrived there around 2:00pm after leaving my home in Clackamas at 4:30am very tired but excited to scout the area. This is one remote area I never saw another human other than one guy on a tractor meandering down Steens Mt. Rd. For being such a remote area I was totally shocked when my wife called me that afternoon, cellular service was crystal clear giving me more peace of mind should any thing happen. Driving down Steens Mt Rd towards the playa, the snow capped Steen Mountains were towering above me to my right and eventually I could see this huge light colored expanse on my left that I knew had to be the Playa that I drove all this way to see.

   I noticed that there was a lot of water in places sitting on the Playa and I was not hopeful at all about driving out on it. I found only one spot that cars could access the lakebed, I drove with caution to the edge. The water was several inches deep, I decided against trying to drive out on it at that point. After making my retreat I continued heading west for several miles until I reached the end of Steens Mt rd and the beginning of Fields-denio rd, which also marked the end of me being able to flank the playa. I noticed some faint 4WD roads that skirted the upper portion of the west end of the Playa. I thought at the very least I could catch a view of a grand vista or a nice camping spot. At this point the storms were coming in one after another rolling right over the Steen Mountains. I really had a mixed bag of weather including snow and fierce sustained winds of around 40mph gusts to 60mph, not exactly photography weather.

   As you can see from the photos I got what I was after, and a whole lot more. The view from above looking down on the Playa was spectacular; the wind, not so much. I also noticed that I had a flat tire on my brand new Les Schwabbies presumably from one of the sharp rocks, it slit the rubber between the treads. During my research of the area I had read accounts of the people getting numerous flats out here and sure enough I was also a victim. Now I know why people buy off-road jacks, they are much easier to use than crawling under a vehicle to prop up a 11/2 ton hydraulic car jack that only raise the tire about 5 inches. It took about one hour for me to change that tire and boy was I glad I brought a shovel. I just could not get that spare on without some excavation work.

   I was determined to set foot on the Playa and try some photography after driving all that way, Scout and I headed down a very steep hillside that would allow some access to what looked like a dry section of the lakebed. Distances are very tricky out there with no discernable landmarks. It took twice as long as I would have thought to reach the playa. The photography gods smiled on us for a brief time allowing for a little photography that you can see here. I was also pretty impressed with the cracks, if only I could keep scout from running in circles in front of my comps with his muddy paws and ruining my shots.

   After returning up the hill and to the car it was nearly 4:30pm and I decided to wait and see what kind of sunset might transpire in terms of a lightshow or lack thereof. I waited patiently and watched the storms continue to come, finally the weather broke and I was able to set up the tripod and make an attempt at an image. Cloud cover mostly obscured the sun and the sunset was, for the most part a bust as you can see in this photo.

   Camping in this area was totally out of the question the wind and rain was so intense it ripped the shovel off of my luggage rack that I had attached with bungees. I knew I wanted to go home via an alternate route that would take me into Nevada and then onto Lakeview Oregon via Hwy 140, then through K-falls and Medford and up I-5 to home.  I got gas at a place called Denio Station for about $5.00/ gallon I'm not really sure what I paid I just know I told the guy $40.00/worth. At this point in the evening it was clear and cold, I was exhausted and needed to find an area to camp for the night. I drove about twenty more miles and found a very small rest area where I promptly pulled over. I ripped every thing out of the vehicle so I could make the sleeping configurations with the seats, then blew up the therma-rest and pulled out the 0-dgree bag. We spent 11 hours in the car getting up several times two warm up the car. It got very cold that night and it snowed on us as well. The photo you see below is Hwy 140 after the snowstorm. Needless to say that the 100 miles to Lakeview were a little hairy.

 It took about five hours to reach Medford from the Alvord Desert. All in all I drove 1100 miles in about 38 hours. If I ever decided to come back to this area again I would prefer to go in the late summer, maybe September. I will also bring two spares, it is unnerving to have already used your spare and not have a backup in such a remote area.

   If you plan on coming to the Alvord Desert the best and shortest way from Portland is to come through bend then onto Burns. Take Steens Hwy out of burns #78 south; turn right on to Steens Mountain Road it is well marked. This road will take you to the Alvord desert. Another option is to go south out of Burns on Hwy #205 towards the town of Frenchglen. This road eventually turns into Catlow Valley Rd. It takes just over two hours from Burns with this option.  Enjoy.. 

Note* For higher quality images of this area go here.
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