Located in Harney County, Oregon, and tucked into the Steens Mountain rain shadow, the Alvord Desert is one of the most isolated and unique land formations in the state. With some areas only receiving 5 inches of annual precipitation, it is also one of the driest locations in Oregon.
The Alvord Desert was once a giant lake extending 100 miles from end to end with an estimated depth of 200 feet, a robust headwaters of a Snake River tributary. Today, the primary portion of this alkaline flat desert is roughly 20 miles long and 7 miles wide, and it is dry from July to November. Interestingly, several endemic fish species remain in two isolated bodies of water, Borax Lake at the desert's southern edge, and Mann Lake located just north of the desert's flat basin.
Flanked to the west by the 1-mile high Steens Mountain escarpment, the desert is located over a tectonic fault that has produced the uplift of the Steens Mountain fault block and numerous geothermal springs. Five notable springs located around the perimeter of the desert include Mickey Hot Springs, Alvord Hot Springs, Tule Springs, Buckbrush Springs and Borax Lake + Hot Springs, though Alvord Hot Springs is the only spring suitable for soaking.
Note: Vehicular traffic and hiking is permitted throughout the desert on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and driving on the flat is only advised during the dry season (July through November).
Be sure to fill up on gas before heading out to the Steens Mountain and Alvord Desert area. Year-round gas stations are in Burns and Fields, Oregon. The gas station in Frenchglen is only open during the summer months. Further, cell phone reception is virtually nonexistent in much of the area, so travel with extra provisions. If you plan to explore the area extensively, we highly recommend bringing additional, full gasoline canisters to ensure that you don't get stranded. Also, note that heavy rains can transform areas that are off road into thick, sticky mud that can easily detain even four-wheel drive vehicles; indeed, some dirt roads also need time to firm up before they are passable. Be aware and drive cautiously following heavy storms.