An Eastern Oregon Road Trip

November 23, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

( Approaching Steens MountainApproaching Steens Mountain Better a few months late than never? This was actually written a while ago, but I got so busy this Fall that I forgot to do a final cleanup and hit "Publish" until now. Anyway, without further ado...)

It's become a tradition for us to go camping on the weekend after Memorial Day. Last year, we went to the Olympic Beach, and the year before that, we went to the Elwha River. This year, however, we had something a bit more elaborate in mind: a road trip to Steens Mountain, in the southeast corner of the state of Oregon.

Steens Mountain is an oddity if you look at it on a map; it's a long, fifty-mile stretch of branching and intersecting ridgelines, looking more like a landscape than a mountain. It's just to the southeast of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge (made famous by the "Y'all Qaeda" occupation earlier this year), a 300 square mile stretch of wetlands amidst the high desert of eastern Oregon.

Stars over East LakeStars over East Lake It took us almost two full days of driving just to reach Steens Mountain; the first night, we camped at East Lake, just south of the city of Bend, OR. That night, amidst the noise of (conservatively estimating) ten billion frogs along the waterline, we set up our cameras and tripods and did some star photography. Lisa had a new 400mm lens which was fun to try out, but all in all, I preferred the wider shots I got, including a panorama of the Milky Way over the mountain. There was a bit of light to the north (probably from the city of Bend, which was about twenty miles to the north), but still a heck of a lot darker than our home in Seattle. Dark skies may be my favorite thing about camping in general.

Eastern Oregon is a geology nerd's dream, with lots of evidence of volcanic activity-- both recent and ancient. Our campsite was near the Newbery National Volcanic Monument, and the next day we hiked around the Big Obsidian Flow, a huge lava bed full of pumice and chunks of glassy obsidian the size of small cars.

Most of the day, though, was spent getting the rest of the way to Steens Mountain, and in the afternoon, we finally reached the high desert around the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. From a viewpoint, we were able to look down on the wet marshlands of the wildlife refuge, incongruous amidst the miles and miles of desert. Even in the day, hundreds of feet above the marsh, there were a fair number of mosquitoes out and about, but I didn't think too much of it as we enjoyed the view and headed back to the car. In retrospect, it was an ominous sign of things to come.

That night, we stayed at Page Springs Campground, on the south end of the refuge. It was a lovely little area, crisscrossed by streams, with some nature paths Evening mosquitoes at MalheurEvening mosquitoes at Malheur leading out from the camp. But from the moment we got out of the car, we were swarmed by as many mosquitoes as I've ever seen. We quickly put on insect repellent, but every moment we were outside meant being accompanied by an incessant swarm of mosquitoes. While the Sun was out, it was possible to stay in the heat of the Sun and avoid the worst of them (they seemed to prefer the shade), but as the evening came on and the Sun began to drop, the mosquitoes got worse. We ate dinner in the car, and after dinner, rather than sit out amidst the bloodsuckers, we took a drive through the refuge.

Along the drive, we saw a few deer, and had some decent views of Looking toward Steens Mountain in the eveningLooking toward Steens Mountain in the evening Steens Mountain, although every time we slowed the car down the car was enveloped by unreal swarms of mosquitoes-- maybe drawn in by the carbon dioxide from the exhaust. Either way, we stayed safely in the car until we got back to camp, made a dash for the tent, then stayed in the tent until morning, at which point we packed up as quick as we could and fled.

In staying at Page Springs, our goal had been to go further down the road that loops close to Steens Mountain, however, the road was still closed. Wild horsesWild horses So we drove about twenty miles south down the main road to the other side of the loop road, and luckily, this side of the loop was open. Away from the marsh, the mosquitoes were no longer a threat, and we stopped the car several times along the side of the road to watch wild horses roam, or to go hunting for rocks amidst dried up stream beds.

After a while, the road began to go up, and we were able to get pretty far up the mountain, to the top of the ridgelines, before finally being turned back by a closed gate on the road. (We could see the snow at the very top of the mountain, and we had been warned at the ranger station the previous day that the summit is usually closed until late July or August.) Still, we were pleased with how high up we had been able to get-- and we ate lunch sitting on some rocks overlooking a spectacular valley.

The landscape at Diamond Craters Natural AreaThe landscape at Diamond Craters Natural Area After lunch, we made our way back out to the main road and up north to Diamond Craters, an area full of craters, basalt flats, and other volcanic features in a small area. We followed a dirt road past several sights, including far out along the rim of a crater, before finally the road got too washboarded and we had to turn back.

Camping near Mann LakeCamping near Mann Lake We wanted to camp out in the desert, so after Diamond Crater, we made our way up and around the East side of Steens Mountain, then south toward the Alvord Desert. The paved road came to a halt, and we continued down a dirt road until we reached Mann Lake, a little pond with a campsite managed by the Bureau of Land Management. We weren't quite at the desert, but the campsite was nice-- no mosquitoes-- and there was an outhouse nearby. Moreover, the view of Steens Mountain from the campsite was fantastic, so rather than keep going into the unknown desert, we stayed put.

Starry skies over Steens MountainStarry skies over Steens Mountain That evening, we wandered down to the lakeside where there were a few waterbirds scampering around, then later that evening did another round of astrophotography-- the stars out here were amazing. And except for the occasional car or horse trailer coming down the nearby road, we had the area to ourselves. Well, except for the hundreds of cattle in the nearby fields that made their presence loudly known through most of the night-- but it all faded into the background, mostly, and we were able to get some sleep.

The next day we left Steens Mountain behind and began to head north and west, back in the general direction of Seattle. Along the way, we drove through some amazing landscapes in Central Oregon-- it was a blazingly hot summer day, but despite the heat, we stopped at several places along the way to get out of the car and admire the view. We dropped in at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, and after a walk around the Visitor Center in the very welcome air conditioning, we drove to the nearby Painted Hills, which were spectacular and more than lived up to their name.

That night, we stayed at the The Cove Palisades State Park on the Deschutes River, where we able to go for a swim in the evening-- after so much driving and walking around the desert, I had been craving a swim for days. Our campsite was nestled in under the cliffs, and we watched the vultures circling overhead from their nests around the cliffs as the final bit of daylight lit up the tops of the cliffs a vivid yellow-orange.

Our final day was spent driving back to Seattle, although we did stop in briefly at Mt. Hood along the way. Timberline Lodge, at Mt. HoodTimberline Lodge, at Mt. Hood Despite travelling the route several times, it's always been cloudy when I've passed by Mt. Hood, so we took advantage of the sunny day to finally see it up close and personal, as well as the Timberline Lodge, whose exterior served as the lodge in The Shining. (An episode of the TV show The Librarians was apparently being filmed while we were there, and there were lots of buses, trucks and trailers in the parking lot, as well as crew either standing around or directing traffic.)

After that, it was a quick jaunt up I-5, through Tacoma and Seattle traffic, and back home again, after a mere 5 days and 1500 miles.


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