This following is the fifth of a seven part series. Part five is focused on visiting the desert. The remaining articles will be published, two per week, throughout October.
The desert is an environment of extremes, with hot days and cold nights. In the summer, a visit can be overwhelmingly oppressive. In the winter, access can disappear under layers of snow. But with clear blue skies and cooler fall days, the desert becomes a joy. Chilly nights still heat up quickly in the sun, and if you're lucky, the mountains that generally surround desert ecosystems in the U.S. West may have a beautiful layer of snow, offering a picturesque contrast. These are some of my favorite desert landscapes to camp in and explore into late fall.
Mann Lake is located in Southeastern Oregon. It's to the north of Alvord Desert on the eastern flanks of Steens Mountain. This is a very appealing place for the desert visitor, pairing remoteness and an unparalleled quietness with incredible natural contrasts. Water meets hard-cracked soil, and you'll have a view of Steen Mountain as a backdrop. Bring extra gas and water for the trip because the closest gas stations or stores are miles away.
Alvord Desert was once a giant lake that extended for 100 miles from end to end. Today, this flat desert that measures roughly 20 miles long and 7 miles wide is dry from July to November. It's flanked by Steens Mountain and hosts numerous mineral lakes and hot springs. You can drive on the desert in the dry season, and don't forget to take a soak at Alvord Hot Springs.
Fish Lake is another recommended desert landscape to visit on the flanks of Steens Mountain. Here, you'll find 23 campsites at 7,400 feet, but the area is only open from July 15 to November 1. Use it as a base camp for an incredible Steens adventure, with aspen groves to explore, incredible valley views, and late night stargazing.
The Oregon Badlands was protected as a wilderness area in 2008, and when you make the drive 16 miles east of Bend, you'll know why. Well-marked trails take you through a landscape of juniper trees and lichen-covered lava rocks. Native Americans lived in this area, and there's a good chance you'll encounter old fire pits and rock drawings when exploring in the area.
Convict Lake is one of the prettiest and most accessible lakes in Eastern California. Situated at 7,850 feet in the Eastern Sierra, the trail to the lake takes you up close to Mount Morrison. In the fall, the crowds thin out and the aspen change color, making it the perfect time for a visit before the snow comes.
To the northeast of Convict Lake, Wild Willy's Hot Spring, also known as Crowley Hot Springs, is a magical place. Here you can soak in the mineral pools while enjoying a dramatic view of the Sierra Nevada's eastern escarpment and the Glass Mountain Ridge. A boardwalk leads around the area and makes for a worthwhile stop even if a soak isn't in the cards.