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Alvord Desert Adventure Trail

Updated: Feb 9, 2023

In the high desert of eastern Oregon, lies a vast desert playa known as the Alvord Desert. Known for its isolation, rugged river canyons, and brilliant night skies, the Alvord Desert is bordered by the nearly 10,000 foot Steens Mountain; an awesome site to behold!

Route Overview

Adventure Rating: Baja

Trip Length: 299 miles, 4-6 days.

Season: Late June - October if you plan to drive up Steens Mountain. Otherwise April - November should work, but the shoulder seasons provide the best weather. Avoid after heavy rains (4-5 days at least), as the eastern Oregon mud is a thing of the devil!

Avg Technical Rating: 2

Peak Technical Rating: 4

Typical Terrain: The majority of the terrain consists of wide dirt and gravel roads, and some lesser travelled BLM roads (dirt). There is some pavement along the route, primarily at the beginning near Burns.

Recommended Vehicle: 4x4 with all terrain tires.

Adventure Vans: Most of the route, especially around Steen's Mountain and the Alvord Desert can be managed by a Sprinter 4x4.

Alternative Routes: Yes! See bottom of route guide for more info.

Adventure Badge: Get your Alvord Desert adventure badge at our online store.





 

Route Details

Far away from the temperate rainforests along Oregon's western front, there's a place that sits on the northern range of the Great Basin desert, a place where mountains rise a mile from the desert floor into magnificently blue skies. This is the Alvord Desert, which sees a mere 6 inches of rain per year. At nearly 10,000 feet (9,733 to be exact), Steens Mountain is to blame as it creates a nearly 70 mile long rain shadow, squeezing whatever moisture may be left in the heavens before cloudfronts move eastward over the Alvord. And like the majestic Cascades, this land was also formed by violent geothermal activity-- the dark reds and burnt maroon rocks on the mountainslopes provide the most obvious evidence of the region's coming of age. This corner of Oregon also happens to have some of the darkest skies in the lower 48, and is a popular destination for serious and amateur stargazers alike. During late spring, Steens Mountain and its four glacier carved gorges awaken with life-- an explosion of wildflowers! Just keep in mind, that during year's of heavy snowfall, Steens' may not be accessible until late June or even early July! Of course, when you have geothermal activity you're bound to have hot springs! And yes, there are a few that are great for soaking (more on that below), and a few that are dangerous either due to extreme temperatures or deadly arsenic levels.


Your adventure begins in Burns, Oregon, made infamous by the Bundy Brothers who led a 41 day occupation at Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 2016. This is rugged, wild, and ranching country, where the cattle outnumber local population by 14 to 1. The first discovery point along the route is at Malheur Lake (DP1), which is a major migratory stop as well as breeding ground for over 300 species of foul. This first section of the route follows a seres of paved county roads, until reaching the dirt at Moon Hill Road (DP2). Moonhill is a great way to experiences Steens Mountain, as it sees little traffic and impressive views as you climb higher and higher. Just note, it can get a bit bumpy depending on seasonal weather patterns! There's a trio of nice campgrounds near the top before reaching Kiger Gorge. Kiger Gorge (DP3) is the largest of the 4 glacier carved gorges in Steens Mountain, and the short out-and-back drive to the viewpoint is definitely worth it. Both the East Rim Lookout (DP4) and Steens Mountain (DP5) provide fantastic 360 degree views, especially of the Alvord Desert 5,000 feet below. From Steens Mountain descend down the gravel road to the old Riddle Brothers ranch and homestead (DP6). There are a number of old ranch buildings still standing, and a hiking trail if you'd like to venture our further on foot. Jump back on the pavement heading south to Fields Station (you'd be wise to fuel up here too!), before heading over to Borax hot springs (DP7). While Borax hot springs and lake may not be safe for soaking, the amount of geothermal activity is impressive. From Boraz, well head north along the graded dirt road until reaching the Alvord Desert (DP8). At 5 miles across and 10 miles long, the Alvord may not be as large as Black Rock's playa, but the juxtoposition of the rugged Steens Mountain against the pale lake bed of the Alvord Desert creates quite the scene-- and it's a fantastic place for camp as well. If you're looking for a soak, try the Alvord Hot Springs right around the corner (just make sure you bring cash, but last we checked it was only $5). The route continues north into the rugged canyons and plateaus of the northern Alvord Desert, looping around Mickey Hot Springs (DP10, and also not safe for soaking) before spitting out on Highway 95. Those looking to extend their adventure should read on below.


Alternative Route

Avg Technical Rating: 2

Peak Technical Rating: 3-4


Take Highway 95 south past Blue Mountain and swing a left onto the dirt. You're now leaving the Alvord Desert and entering into the Owyhee Canyonlands, an expansive wilderness that covers portions of Eastern Oregon, Northern Nevada, and Southern Idaho. This route goes through the western section of the Owyhee, and while on dirt, there's a good chance you won't see any other travelers along the way (so make sure you're well prepared).


While this portion of the desert is littered with dirt roads and double track, there's a good chance you won't see another human until you reach Rome Station. We recommend paying close attention to your GPS, as a means of staying on the route. You'll be taking the long way to Rome Station, one of the few outposts of civlization in these parts (they also have gas and food). From Rome Station, be sure to check out the Pillars of Rome (DP12), a series of short cliffs that resemble Roman columns. From Rome Station, the route parallels the Owyhee River below, as it snakes across the desert mesa. Be sure to take advantage of the viewpoints of the river canyon along the way. There's even an opportunity to drive down into the canyon that's been noted on the map and GPX track. The final leg of the journey departs the Owyhee River canyon, and heads west back towards Burns. The isolation is striking, and perhaps even overwhelming to those that haven't experienced this type of solitude. Dusty dirt roads work there way over hill tops and mesas, until reaching Crane. Those seeking a more resort-like atmosphere may want to stop by the Cyrstal Crane Hot Springs. From Crane, the Steens Highway leads back to Burns. Camping Recommendations

Dispersed camping is permitted throughout BLM managed land. As there are no designated campsites along the route, we recommend exploring the surrounding trails and finding a location that suits your needs. The Alvord Desert playa is by far the most popular place to camp in the area. The campgrounds below Kiger Gorge are also nice, and we have also love the solitude along the alternative route, especially the section that parallels the Owyhee River canyon just north of the Rome Pillars.

Discovery Points

  • DP1 - Malheur Lake National Wildlife Refuge

  • DP2 - Moon Hill Road

  • DP3 - Kiger Gorge Overlook

  • DP4 - East Rim Overlook

  • DP5 - Steens Mountain

  • DP6 - Riddle Brothers Historic Ranch

  • DP7 - Borax Hot Springs (no soaking)

  • DP8 - Alvord Desert

  • DP9 - Alvord Hot Springs

  • DP10 - Mickey Hot Springs (no soaking)

  • DP11 - Owyhee River Viewpoint 1

  • DP12 - Pillars of Rome and Rome Cliffs

  • DP13 - Owyhee Canyonlands Viewpoint

  • DP14 - Owyhee River

  • DP15 - Crystal Crane Hot Springs

 

Maps + Navigation


Gaia GPS Recommended Map Layers

  • Gaia base layer

Download GPX files


 

Resources


Land Managers

Other Resources

 

Gallery



Terms of Use: Should you decide to travel a route that is published on Overlandtrailguides.com, you do so at your own risk. Always take the appropriate precautions when planning and traveling, including checking the current local weather, permit requirements, trail/road conditions, and land/road closures. While traveling, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, and carry the appropriate safety, recovery, and navigational equipment. The information found on this site is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by Overland Trail Guides, the route accuracy and current conditions of roads and trails cannot be guaranteed.



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3 kommentarer


Just got back from running the SE portion of the Owyhee Canyon Lands west from 95 East then up north to the where the route intersects hwy 95 near Rome. Other than a nice view of the canyon at the WP DP11, this segment is really not worth the time. It's a lot of miles with nothing much to see. Lot of BLM cattle grazing. We did not continue north past Rome because of the lack of interesting things south of Rome.




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Juan Pardo
Juan Pardo
03. jul. 2021

Just came home from completing this entire route with 3 other people and our kids. We had 2 Land Cruisers, a Dodge Durango, and my 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon JLU. All of them lifted and with oversized tires. I note this because we all found this route more challenging than expected considering the comment that this can be completed in a “Sprinter van”.











A few notes:


  1. Bring lots of extra fuel and lots of water. As stated above, you will be extremely remote, we went 250 miles and three days without seeing another human. 3 of the 4 vehicles needed gas between Fields station and Rome station.

  2. Bring shade shelter. East of the Steens trees do not exist.


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Isaac Miller
Isaac Miller
09. aug. 2020

Ran through much of this route this last week. It was quite beautiful and we even saw a couple hundred wild horses (not even counting those on Steens), a ton of antelope, and many mule deer. I did, however, loose track of how many times one of us said "yeah, sure, run your Sprinter Van through here." We went backwards from the description, and skipped the long, lower Owyhee section between Rome and Highway 95 and opted to just run down the highway because we were short on time. The section between Rome and Crane has a dozen gates to be mindful of, and, even in August, a couple small water crossings. This area is definitely NOT suggested if there…










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