Tuesday was mostly getting out to Burns, Oregon where we had our base camp (a motel with DSL so we could both work). Gotta love the portable job! On the way down we passed through the Crooked River Outstanding Natural Area (for the purposes of this discourse, ONA). Driving south from Prineville, we found ourselves in a narrow canyon hemmed with vertical walls of basalt several hundred feet tall. As the name suggests it was a crooked river, and it carved out a magnificent landscape.
The next stop was Glass Butte, visited for thousands of years by native tribes to collect obsidian, which was littered all over the ground from a volcanic explosion. The arrowheads made from the stone were traded for hundreds of miles in all directions. The rumors were true, and a few miles in on a primitive dirt road we found an incredible amount of it scattered about. I selected three or four handfuls of interesting specimens to bring home.
Wednesday morning brought biting cold and angry skies. It rained on and off throughout the morning, carried by brisk 30mph gusts. Determined to get the most out of our trip, we forged on with the hope the forecasters were right and the weather would clear by afternoon. We first visited Peter French's round barn. The only one of three still standing, it was used to break horses indoors during the inhospitable winters that settled in the area. The circular structure allowed a continuous path for the horses to run in, and the trees used to build its radiating rafters were cut over 150 miles away in the Blue Mountains near La Grande.
Our next step was Diamond Craters ONA. This area contained to separate crater complexes, from volcanic events spanning over tens of thousands of years. Of key interest was Malheur Maar. A Maar is a crater leftover from a volcanic explosion where no magma rose to the surface. Only steam and hot gas were involved in the explosion. The steam came from a spring in the area, and the spring continued to well up and came to fill the crater to form a small pond. What is significant about this Maar is that plants in the surrounding desert could get a foothold here with a constant water source, and did so for thousands of years, leaving organic debris and pollen in the sediments, which piled atop one another year after year. Climate scientists are able to take core samples and observe what kinds of plants were present in each layer. This gives a snapshot of what the surrounding desert ecosystem was comprised of, and consequently this Maar is the most significant desert lake in all of North America when it comes to studying the history of the inter-mountain desert eco-system.
From there it was off to Steens Mountain. We had plans to drive to the 9700ft summit, which is accessed from the west on a 40 mile long, gently sloping dirt road. Upon reaching the summit, there is nothing gently sloping about it, a 5,000 foot drop in 2 miles to the floor of the Alvord Desert below. This road is the highest road in Oregon, and possibly the highest east of the Rockies, and the vista at the top is immense. Unfortunately the road was closed by the BLM a week before due to early snow. It's usually open until the end of October. Oh well, a reason to go back! :) The Alvord desert is the remnants of a desert lake that extended south into Nevada, but has since dried up. What remains is a perfectly flat, 5x15 mile lake bed that can be driven on in a car or in a three-wheeled glider-mobile, king of like windsurf connected to a kayak on wheels. People also bring gliders to catch the thermals coming off the desert in the summertime.
Twenty miles into our drive below the towering ridgeline the weather began to ease, going from tumultuous wind and rain to dynamic clouds punctuated by clear blue sky. And not a moment to soon, as we pulled up to Alvord Hot Springs. Situated at the edge of the playa, the primitive structure featured a wooden frame with corrugated aluminum shielding you on (only) two sides, from the wind whipping off the mountain. Two tubs, a narrow dressing room, and an exterior bench was all there was. I donned my bathing suit and quickly got in the water, which was warm, but not as warm as I would of liked. It was enjoyable nonetheless. I mean how often can you take a dip in hot springs next to a desert in one of the most desolate parts of the country?
After quickly drying off (brrr!), we headed into the hills above the springs to eat lunch. After gaining 1500-2000 feet, we parked and took some photos, making sure not to get blown off the mountain in the process (It was REALLY windy up there!). At the southern end of the mountain we stopped in Fields, Oregon, population 69, to get gas for our return trip.
With the summit drive closed, we altered our planes, and headed east to visit the Pillars of Rome formation and on to Leslie Gulch. The Pillars of Rome are grey cliffs rising out of the sagebrush that have been eroded such that they appear like columns. To get there we turned off of Highway 97, also named the ION Highway (Idaho-Oregon-Nevada), onto the Old ION Highway, which consisted of nothing more than two tire tracks that appeared to lead nowhere over the grey sands of the surrounding desert. This is where I have to give thanks to my Dad for sending Michael out with his new GPS unit. On more than one occasion it showed the way there and back on unmarked, unnamed dirt and gravel roads without error. On the Old ION, we came across and old dump with its retinue of rusty tin cans, beer bottles, assorted bullet-hole ridden appliances from decades past, and, evidently, the drop off spot for any deer or antelope struck on the highway. It was a veritable graveyard with dozens of bleached bone skeletons of unlucky beasts. The Pillars were indeed impressive, and we made our way on to Leslie Gulch in the extreme east of the state.
Leslie Gulch, named after a gentleman who was struck by lightning there, is the result of multiple volcanic explosions depositing over a thousand feet of consolidated ash that has weather away over the past 15.5 million years. The result is a narrow canyon, 20-300 feet wide, with towering column of pinkish red ash streaked brown and riddled with holes. The photos do not do justice, as many shots are taken with the camera pointed almost straight up to encompass the entirety of these massive formations, causing foreshortening in the perspective and denying them their full glory when viewed this way. The 10-mile road ends at the Owyhee reservoir, which at the moment was not present, only the river itself in a narrow band at the center remained this late in the year. We drove out onto the reservoir bottom and found a nice spot to eat lunch, with nothing by dead silence punctuated by the call of a raptor gliding along the cliff walls.
Instead of returning from whence we came, we made a circuit of our trip, taking in the Succor Creek State Park, a lush chasm-like area with a decent sized creek sandwiched between 100 foot vertical basalt walls. At times, there was only enough room for the road bed, shoulder and creek, with rock walls looming over either side. It was a welcome change to see trees in fall color, and hear rushing water after spending so much time in the desert. A short steep climb into what I thought was an adit and brief brush with the Idaho border and Snake River rounded out our journey as we made our way back to Burns.
It's a shame it took five years to get out there. It is truly a magnificent part of the state, so raw, virtually unpopulated, save for the smallest of towns, if that's what you call them (more like a general store and a few homes). I will definitely be returning for more, and for a longer stay. I recommend it to anyone as a break from the routine of modern life, for it is unlike any other place I've been.