It's safe to assume most people in the Willamette Valley haven't spent a lot of quality time in Southeastern Oregon. An unscientific polling of Portlanders produces two major contributing causes: It's really far, and there's nothing out there.
Yes, but no.
It's about a five-hour drive from Portland just to reach Burns, the gateway to the Southeast. So it's certainly not within day-trip range. And once you're beyond Burns, it's true you won't find much in the way of restaurants, lodging, grocery stores, gas stations—or even humans. What you will find, though, is a ton of wildlife along with a surprisingly varied and strikingly beautiful high desert landscape. If solitude and scenery are your jam, there's plenty of both in Southeastern Oregon, and a trip around Steens Mountain will prove it.
Provisions stops in Southeastern Oregon are few and far between and cellphone coverage can be spotty to nonexistent. So make sure you have reliable transportation, a spare tire and an analog map. The roads are either paved or well-graded gravel, but check conditions before you go. Always have extra food, water and perhaps even extra gas. Bring numerous layers of clothing, sun protection and insect repellent.
IDEAL TIME TO VISIT
July through October.
STOCK UP ON PROVISIONS
Burns might not look very big, but it's a metropolis compared to everywhere south of it, so you better get your supplies here. For stocking up, the Safeway might have more to choose from, but you've got those in Portland. Reid's Country Store (230 Hines Blvd., Burns, 541-573-7666) helps set the thematic tone for the trip much better, with an assortment of all things camouflage and a storefront resembling an Old West saloon. As an added bonus it has a stellar beer selection and offers growler fills. Also, if you plan to eat anything other than what you bring with you, timing will be important. If you need to, eat a light breakfast in Burns, bearing in mind that lunch is only a 40-minute drive out of town. Ensure you've got a full tank of gas before pulling out of town. In fact, from here on out, it's a good practice to top off whenever you can.
EAT LUNCH AT AN RV PARK
Almost the minute you turn onto OR 205 out of Burns, it feels as if you've entered an episode of Wild Kingdom, with jackrabbits darting across the road, raptors carrying off varmints, and the occasional lone and curious coyote taking you in from afar. Right at the turnoff for the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a solid stop for calories and info, the Narrows RV Park & Restaurant (33468 Sodhouse Lane, Princeton, 541-495-2006, narrowsrvpark.com). Just like Reid's, the Narrows main building looks like a set piece from an old Western, a feeling enhanced by the surrounding gravel road and tumbleweeds. The restaurant serves all the classics, with homemade soups, pies and a rotating list of specials. If you don't already have them, this is a great place to acquire the helpful maps and handouts detailing all the Southeastern Oregon hot spots you're about to visit. There's also a saloon if you're so inclined.
VISIT THE STATE'S MOST FAMOUS WILDLIFE REFUGE
Yes, there may have been an occupation of sorts there a few years back. But if you're a fan of wildlife, particularly migratory birds, or you enjoy a good wetland or riparian landscape, you'd want to occupy the 187,000-acre Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (36391 Sodhouse Lane, Princeton, 541-493-2612, fws.gov/refuge/malheur), too. Stop in at the visitor center to get the lay of the land and pick up a driving tour map, if you didn't already grab one at the Narrows. The best way to experience the refuge is by driving the length of it via the gravel Central Patrol Road. The road parallels and crisscrosses the winding Donner und Blitzen River, and affords expansive views of wide-open desert to the west and a tantalizing look at what's coming your way, the rising Steens Mountain, to the southeast. Note that in Southeastern Oregon the roads typically come in one of two forms, pristine and somewhat newly paved or well-graded gravel—miles and miles of gravel.
TOUR VOLCANIC CRATERS
The Diamond Craters (28910 Highway 20 West Hines, 541-573-4400) are fortuitously accessed via the Malheur driving tour. According to the brochure and the nameless geologist it quotes, the Diamond Craters are "the best and most diverse basaltic volcanic features in the United States, and all within a comparatively small and accessible area." The brochure goes on to say that if you're a few credits shy of a degree in geology, you might not be able to pick out all of that diversity among the sagebrush. That's good to know, because while untrained eyes could spot a number of standard volcanic attributes, the brochure proves invaluable in pointing out the more genuinely unique or subtle features, like rugged Driblet spires or the near-perfect circle of a maar crater. To drive haphazardly through the area without knowing where exactly the Devine Canyon Ash-Flow Tuff is and what it looks like would be a missed opportunity and a waste of precious petrol.
PAY HOMAGE TO THE CATTLE KING
Pete French quickly became the straw that stirred the drink in Southeastern Oregon when he arrived in 1872. Known as the "Cattle King," French was a bit of a polarizing figure, loved by some and reviled by others. He was known to step on toes from time to time, and his detractors claimed he didn't legally acquire land or water rights, which prompted some heated disputes. One of these dustups led to his murder in 1897. Controversial life aside, French was the first rancher in the area to put up hay, and the Round Barn (Diamond, 541-932-4453, oregonstateparks.org) he erected is quite unique by today's standards. It is, indeed, a circular barn, which were all the rage in this country in the late 1800s but fell out of favor some time ago. If you're looking to scratch a historical itch, this is a worthy side trip that's included in the driving tour.
STAY OVERNIGHT AT A HISTORIC HOTEL
Central Patrol Road spits you out in the town of Frenchglen. Following the same naming convention that brought us Vanport and Brangelina, the town of Frenchglen (pop. 12) blends the names of its founders, Pete French and Hugh Glenn. The historic hotel was a hostelry built in 1924 to provide overnight accommodations to stockmen visiting French's ranch. The hotel was transferred to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department in 1973 and is now known officially as the Frenchglen Hotel State Heritage Site (39184 Highway 205, Frenchglen, 541-493-2825, frenchglenhotel.com). As you might expect, the rooms aren't equipped with Jacuzzi tubs or faux-fireplaces. Instead, the accommodations are small but comfortable, with old windows, weathered wood and the occasional creaky floorboard. The hallways waft with wisdom, like a really good bookstore or well-cared-for antique shop. If you grew up around older relatives, it should trigger some fond memories. Since 1991, John Ross has been the hotel's keeper. He knows his way around a kitchen, and the family-style meals, particularly dinner, are worth the price of admission. The company at tableside typically comprises some combination of hotel guests, locals and folks just passing through. After dinner, take a walk through part of the wildlife refuge from the trailhead across the street.
RESTOCK ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF NOWHERE
Just like dinner the night before, you'll enjoy the Frenchglen's family-style breakfast. But make it light. You're going to want to save room for lunch, which is only about an hour away with no stops. When you reach the town of Fields, population 120, you've officially journeyed as far south as this trek is going to take you. You've driven the length of Steens Mountain on its western flank and are situated roughly 20 miles from the Nevada border. You need gas, food and perhaps a restock on the whiskey rations. The Fields Station (22276 Fields Drive, Fields, 541-495-2275) is there to help. The restaurant, gas station and general store isn't large, but the aisles are stocked with remarkable care and efficiency—which is good, because it's the last chance you'll have for necessities before properly entering the middle of nowhere in the form of the Alvord Desert. Just around the corner from the cashier, a step down through a doorway ushers you from the store into a diner that is equal parts backroads greasy spoon and '50s soda fountain. The Fields Station is rightfully famous for its cheeseburgers and thick milkshakes, so loosen the belt and get on with it.
GO OFF THE GRID
The drive around to the east side of Steens Mountain gets more inspiring by the mile. Then you turn a corner along the Fields-Denio Road and there it is—the vast playa of the Alvord Desert to the right and majestic Steens Mountain to the left. It's a hell of a reveal if weather conditions cooperate. There is plenty of hiking to be done on and around Steens Mountain in the summer and fall. But that will require a much longer trip than 36 hours, so table Steens for a return journey.
What you'll want to do now is access the playa. Not long after gaining first sight of the dry lake bed, you'll pass signage for Frog Springs. It's named only on the north side of the sign, but you'll see it. To get to one of the best access points to the playa, drive slowly down the bumpy dirt road to a mini parking area. Or if it's dry enough, which it usually is, continue along the road until it terminates at the banks of the former lake. Driving and camping are allowed, but make sure you turn back if conditions start to get gummy.
There isn't much in the way of phone service, and if you get stuck 2 miles out in the middle of the completely exposed desert, you've got a starter kit for a good time gone real bad. But if conditions are right and you're properly prepared, it's one of the most unique Oregon experiences to be had. Being alone in the middle of the white, parched playa, looking toward a majestic, forested mountain backdrop can force you to take a moment.
Continuing from Frog Springs, a stop at the Alvord Hot Springs (541-589-2282, alvordhotsprings.com) is almost a necessity. Though located on private property, the springs were generously left accessible to the public for free since the 1940s, but vandalism and sanitation issues changed that in 2013. So graciously pay your soaking fee, take a dip, and enjoy the view of the Alvord. Don't feel like you have to get all your soaking done at once, though. There'll be ample opportunity at your digs for the evening. Continuing from the hot springs, the one-and-a-half-hour drive from Alvord to Crane keeps the scenery meter nearly pegged.
REFUEL ONCE AGAIN
About 4 miles before reaching the Crystal Crane Hot Springs, you'll encounter the Crane Store & Cafe (7466 Highway 78, Crane, 541-493-2068, cranestoreandcafe.com). The Crane Store upholds the ongoing theme of Southeastern Oregon rations stops with aplomb. It packs everything you're going to need into a small space, the service is friendly, and there's a place in the back to drink. Stop there. Get gas, get provisions, get dinner. Get yourself a beer in the tavern. This is your only real shot at dinner and a restock of whatever, so don't pass it up. Besides, the BLT is outstanding. Don't get there too late, though. The grill closes at 7 pm.
SOAK AND STAY
If you weren't looking for it, you might miss it from the highway, which would be a shame. The Crystal Crane Hot Springs (59315 OR-78, Burns, 541-493-2312, cranehotsprings.com) is a true Southeastern Oregon desert oasis. You've got a lot of options there. For lodging, there's tent camping, tepees, a variety of cabins, apartment-style rooms, RV hookups—or if you really want to treat yourself, one of the new Crane Creek Rooms. The tepees and Crane Creek options come with their own private soaking tubs. There are private bunkhouses of varying sizes, as well as the spring-fed pond. The property has a common room with games and television, a small kitchen and grill area for cooking, and a gift and sundries shop. If you really want to end on a high note, come down to the pond sometime after midnight. Take a soak, look at the stars, and listen to the coyotes. The only downside to an experience like this is that the drive back to Portland is going to feel exceptionally long.