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|October 2018 — Southeast Oregon|
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Copyright © 2015 - 2018 Larrie Easterly
Several years ago Ann and I went on a hot springs tour of Southeast Oregon and really enjoyed the area. A friend from Boise posted on the Expedition Portal Forum that he was going to lead a trip to that area the beginning of October. After a quick discussion we signed up to go.
The starting point for the trip was the general store and restaurant in Fields Oregon. We got there around noon on Thursday the 4th after spending the night in Burns. The rest of the group was already seated when we arrived. After introductions were made we ordered the house specialities, great tasting hamburgers and milkshakes made with fresh fruit.
With lunch over and the six vehicles fueled up we headed to Borax Lake Hot Springs. The road into the hot springs was like many remote roads in that part of Oregon, a mix of gravel and dirt with large potholes and ruts. A short walk from the parking area brought us to the edge of the mist shrouded hot lake.
Borax Lake Hot Spring — Photo Galley
Borax, Alvord, and Mickey Hot Springs are all fed from the same source, an active fault line several hundred feet below the surface. Borax got its name in 1898 when when Charles Taylor and John Fulton set up a borax mining operation near the lake. The refined borax was hauled to Winnemucca, NV by mule train where it was sold. There are still remnants of the board works in the area. Soaking at Borax is prohibited due to the endangered Borax Lake Chub fish, extremely high levels of borax, arsenic, and lead as well as the exceptionally delicate ecosystem.
Since we could not soak we headed for Alvord Lake to look for a camping spot. Most of the year Alvord Lake is dry. With the recent rains there was two to three inches of water that covered a large portion of the lake. We stopped to assess the situation and a couple of the group, with lighter vehicles, agreed to drive out on the lake to see if it would support them. The next thing we knew they were speeding across the wet muddy surface doing donuts and having a great time. We lost track of them as they disappeared across the lake bed.
The three of us with heavier rigs were deciding if we wanted to go out on the lake bed when we saw two motor homes pulling trailers drive past us on the wet and muddy lake bed. That was all the encouragement we needed. We started across.
The top couple of inches of lake bed was slick mud. The layer under that was firm enough to support the vehicles. Driving was easy as long as we were going straight. Turning on mud is a lot like turning on ice or snow. The front tires may be turned in the direction you want to go but the vehicle momentum wants to continue going straight instead of turning. The van’s four wheel drive system helped compensate for the slickness and we were able to maneuver with only a little difficulty.
About half way across the late the water became a little deeper and perfectly flat. Ann said “It was like driving through a mirage.” The distant shore line, clouds and sky were perfectly mirrored in the water. It was somewhat disorienting to drive through. A bit further on we came up a shallow rise in the lake bed onto a dry area.
We regrouped on the other side of the lake and a couple of our team drove on to the shore to look for a camp site. They reported that they had found one that was dry and well drained although the road to it was a wet and muddy track. The rest of us reached the site after slipping and sliding along the track.
We setup camp, ate dinner and enjoyed getting to know each other better around the campfire while basking in the glow of the Milky Way. It is amazing how dark it is when you are in the middle of nowhere and several hundred miles, as the crow flies, from any large town.
Campsite — Photo Galley
The next morning dawned sunny and clear. We headed back to the lake following the track we came in on. It was not nearly as muddy as the day before. We got to the lake bed and started across. Ann reminded me to check to see how wide the lake was so I looked at the odometer and noted the starting mileage. About half way across we stopped for a group photo. The lake bed was much drier than the day before. All the water that we drove through the day before had seeped into the ground.
The six mile wide lake bed is incredibly flat making it difficult to see any useful landmarks on the other side. It is easy to miss the entry point and wind up searching the shore line for it. I was glad that I was ran a GPS track on the way over. We were able to follow the track back to the entry point we started from.
After we were all back together we headed to Mickey Hot Springs. The drive north along the east side of the Steens is one of contrasts. On the left the snow capped Steens Mountains rise up to 9,750 feet. On the right is the sagebrush dotted Alvord Desert and the dry Lake Alvord.
The road into Mickey Hot Springs is similar to the one into Borax Lake; dirt and gravel. Mickey consists of multiple 187 degree F pools some of which bubble from the steam rising up from below. Other smaller pools are nothing but bubbling mud. The clarity of the water and the colors of the pools is impressive. Like Borax there are warning signs not to drink the water. It is hot and toxic.
Mickey Hot Springs — Photo Galley
Continuing north we were hoping to visit Malheur Cave. We tried, and failed, to get permission to visit the cave from the property owners before we left. The cave, like many in the area, is an old lava tube. This one is special because of the underground lake at the back of it. Swinging around the north end of the Steens range we crossed the Malheur Wild Life Refuge headed west to the Narrows where we got fuel and snacks for our drive back south through the Blitzen Valley the Steens.
The valley is part of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. It is formed by the Steens Mountains on the west and the Jackass Mountains on the right. There are areas where it looks like the basalt formations that make up the area were torn apart. It is a beautiful drive.
Our next stop was at the Peter French Round Barn. Three round barns were built in late 1800’s by the crew of the P Ranch. This one is the only survivor and was restored in 2010. It is listed on the National Record of Historic Places and is administered by the Oregon State Parks System. Although called a barn it is more of a covered arena for training horses and mules during the winter months. It is 100 feet in diameter with a 25 foot tall juniper tree center pole. The thing that surprised us the most was the excellent museum and gift shop that is located near the barn. It is well worth the visit.
Peter French Round Barn — Photo Galley
The next stop was the area called Diamond Craters a few miles south of the barn. The area covers about 27 square miles of basaltic lava flows, cinder cones, and maars. The volcanic vents in the area only erupted one time between 7320 and 7790 years ago. It is listed by the Bureau of Land Management as an Outstanding Natural Area.
We passed through Frenchglen on our way to the Steens Mountain Loop Road. We were hoping to stay at the BLM Page Springs campground. Hunting season was just starting so it was packed with hunters. We continued on the loop road looking for a campsite. Taking a dirt track leading off to the left we found a nice camping spot next to a reservoir. The wind was blowing and there was a light rain falling. We parked the vehicles close together to form a wind break and strung tarps between some of them to help protect the people that were sleeping in tents, give us some dry areas to cook in, and a place to sit around the campfire.
The wind and rain had died down by the next morning. After breaking camp we went back to the loop road and headed up towards the top of the mountain. It started snowing and blowing at about 5,000 feet. By the time we got to the high point of the loop road, at 9,500 feet, we were in near white out conditions. Due to the snow covered road, wind and blowing snow visibility was down to about 50 feet. We decided not to try to drive to the summit at 9,750 feet. We could have made it to the summit but we would not have been able to see any of the spectacular views of the valleys and Alvord Desert below.
Steens Mountains Group — Photo Galley
This was the second time that Ann and I have not been able to summit due to snow. After a quick photograph at the 9,500 foot sign we headed down the mountain to Fields. At Fields we got fuel and milkshakes. Then headed south into Nevada to Bog Hot Springs.
As we got close to Bog Hot Springs we could see a long line of meandering mist rising just above the sagebrush. The mist was rising from creek that is fed by the spring. After taking a wrong turn and driving on a slippery muddy track next to the creek we found the soaking pools and set up camp.
The water in the creek was nice and warm. Unfortunately the wind made getting out colder than it would normally be. Several of the group went for a soak. Ann and I made the mistake of relaxing in the van. The next thing we knew an hour and a half had passed in a peaceful nap.
Bogg Hot Springs — Photo Galley
Once again we parked a couple of the larger vehicles to form a wind break. This helped to protect the tents and us as we sat around the campfire that evening.
We said our goodbyes the next morning and headed our separate ways. The rest of the group headed north back to Idaho while Ann and I headed west on Nevada route 140 to Lakeview and then north to Bend and finely west to home. We had not been in that part of Nevada and Oregon before. It was a very picturesque drive past ranches, rivers with water falls, and dry lake beds with lush grass growing on them. We both enjoyed the trip and it was a great counterpoint to the excitement that was coming the following week.
Barrancas del Cobre
282 feet below sea level
Summer Lake Hot Springs