April 25, 2019.
It'd been several weeks since my last trip and as usual that meant I had a bad case of the shakes. Spring is such a frustrating time from an adventure perspective - the weather seems so nice, and yet everywhere interesting is still covered in snow. And, the winter staple - the desert - is getting hot.
You can imagine my delight when a check of the weather showed that the Alvord Desert - a place we'd visited for the first time last October - was going to have weather in the mid-70's. From my perspective, we hadn't spent nearly enough time there exploring the roads; from @mrs.turbodb's point of view: we'd skipped all of the hot springs!
The horror, I know.
We got a late start due to life getting in the way and arrived at the Alvord Playa in southeast Oregon just after 10:00pm. We found the perfect (random) spot two miles from the edge and with no need to level the truck, we quickly got setup - ready for some of the great sleep afforded by our Exped Megamat Duo and for what the next day would bring.
From the get-go, it didn't disappoint. Not by a long shot.
I poked around outside the truck for a few minutes, but it wasn't long before I climbed back in - the warmth and snuggles too alluring to keep me on the playa for an extended period. Plus - a secret that only early-risers know - there are two sunrises on the best mornings. There's that orange glow on the horizon that signals the continued existence of the sun, and then an hour later, the actual sunrise!
And there, now I've let the secret out of the bag.
While only I got to enjoy the first sunrise of the morning, we both soaked in the second - initially from the comfort of the tent, but shortly after, we were up and about, getting ready for what we thought would be a reasonably relaxed day.
As the sun rose to the east, "we" got breakfast ready to go, where "we" included me eating the Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds topped with fresh strawberries. To our west, Steens Mountain - still covered in snow - rose a mile above us, a reminder that this wouldn't be our last trip to the area - the highest road in Oregon on our list of places to visit.
While breakfast was prepared, I escaped the title of complete slouch by putting away the tent and breaking down camp. And with our amazing divide-and-conquer teamwork, we were ready to roll out of camp by 8:42am. We had some learning to do when it came to the definition of "relaxed day."
Our first destination was due east another 3 miles on the far side of the Alvord Playa: Big Sand Gap.
I don't know if anyone actually remembers the last time we visited, but one of the most remarkable things about the Playa is the surreal experience you get when driving on it at high speed. It's so flat, and so vast, that objects in the distance appear stationary while the ground around the truck is flying by. The only reaction I've ever seen to this phenomenon is a big-old-smile, and that's what happened this time as well, as dust kicked up behind us, hanging in the still air - a Taco contrail.
To @mrs.turbodb's delight, we both took turns making dust before turning east again - Steens Mountain rising up behind us.
The Alvord Playa is among the largest playas in all of Oregon. Formed when rain water falls, fills shallow depressions in the landscape, and then evaporates, this flat basin is a called a graben - a basin down-dropped by faulting around it. In this case, it's approximately 8 miles east-west and 70 miles north-south - though the "drive-it-like-you-stole-it" lake bed is really more like 5-by-10 miles - and marks the easternmost border of Oregon's Basin and Range, which is slowly extending westward. This movement, due to active faulting in the Alvord Desert has uplifted and tilted the surrounding ranges - Steens Mountain, etc. - leaving any water that enters the Alvord Playa to escape only via evaporation.
Our goal for the morning was to head to the eastern edge - to Big Sand Gap - where 13,000-14,000 years ago the water burst through the lake's rim and sent some 40,000 cubic yards per second of water down the drainage of Crooked Creek and into the Owyhee River, dramatically lowering the lake level.
We found a spot to park next to some horse hitching posts near the edge of the Playa and headed off, another two miles of flat sandy ground to cover before we reached the gap. Of course, to us it looked like a half-mile or so - distances in this desert, like Death Valley, messing with our internal range finders.
As has been the case on several trips so far this year, we hit this one at just the right time to get a completely unnatural experience - green. It was spring in the desert and not only was there green grass in place of the normally golden grass on the surrounding hills, but there were wildflowers bursting out of every hole.
Some of them fragrant. In a good way, not like my feet.
We made quick work of the two miles as we followed wild horse trails to the gap, stopping now and then to empty the fine sand out of our shoes.
To our surprise, the first thing we noticed upon our arrival was a road. I'd done quite a bit of research prior to the trip on the various roads around the Playa, and there were several that we were planning on exploring over the course of the next couple days. But nowhere had I found this road.
We ignored my oversight like you might a second-favorite-child, and added it to our list for the next day as we headed up the southern cliff to get a view of where we'd been.
It was a great one, and we enjoyed it - albeit gingerly, the rocks top of the cliff literally teetering on the edge of what was quite clearly an active fault.
As we climbed around, several species of lizard kept us company. This was even more exciting for me than the view, because I'm strange. I've always been fascinated by lizards, catching them every chance I get. It goes over really well with anyone who isn't squeamish about lizards - and especially @mini.turbodb, so that's good.
First, we saw a pretty-standard-nothing-to-really-get-all-excited-about but larger-than-normal blue belly lizard. Technically a Western Fence Lizard, though this guy was far from the nearest fence. Oh, and it scared the begeezus out of @mrs.turbodb as it scurried out from under her feet.
Next was the coolest lizard - a Desert Horned Lizard. I've never seen one of these in the wild before, so when I noticed it, I can only describe it as being like a kid in a lizard store - pretty pumped.
Others may say easily entertained.
Finally, as we were heading down - actually, I think I was bringing up the rear at this point - I noticed this guy out of the corner of my eye. It was huge - close to 15-inches long, I initially thought it might be an alligator lizard, but unlike any I'd seen before.
Turns out no, it was a Great Basin Collard Lizard. As if anyone but me cares, right?
OK, enough about lizards - I know that no one is here for that. We headed back to the truck and decided that our next order of business should be to drive back to Big Sand Gap. That's what any good American would do - it's American Hiking™.
So, with a bit of driving along the edge of the Playa, we found the road and bombed our way up to the gap to take in the view. Our plan was to eat lunch there as well, but there were swarms of mosquitoes that put the kibosh on that idea quickly.
But, we were hungry and we'd been here just an hour earlier, so we figured a good next step would be to find a place to eat lunch - perhaps across the Playa at the Alvord Hot Springs - a place that @mrs.turbodb was determined to visit this time, having skipped it on our first trip last year. Only a few miles away, we were making great time across the Playa until I slammed on the brakes.
Just in the nick of time I'd noticed - or we'd noticed - I don't really know who noticed, water on the Playa. Driving into that could have been a trip-ending disaster - the mud easily reaching depths of 18" or more. The water seemed to extend all the way to the hot springs, once again stymieing plans for a dip - OK by me at that point, since who really wants to get in some hot water under the blazing mid-day sun.
Instead, we found ourselves a nice little private spot in the middle of the Playa and I setup the tent (for some shade) as a delicious lunch of turkey-salami sandwiches was made out of the ARB fridge - still one of the best things I think we've ever bought for adventuring.
Lunch devoured, we did what only the most intelligent would do - we looked up above us and saw a deployed tent and a warm afternoon. Time for a nap! This was the life. We were actually doing it. We were having a reasonably relaxed day.
Well, for 90 minutes anyway. That's when we were awoken by a couple guys on bicycles who were riding around the truck in circles, trying to figure out what the tent was. Not that it says "Cascadia Vehicle Tent" on it anywhere.
Except on every side.
Roused from our nap and unable to contain our reasonable relaxation, we decided we'd get a jump on the next day's adventures and go explore the northern portion of the Alvord Desert. We'd gotten a quick look at this the last time we'd passed through, but there were a couple things we really wanted to explore:
- Crippled Horse Spring - we'd driven by Mickey Basin as we were looking for a way out last time, but running short on time and fuel we weren't able to look around.
- The East Entrance to Alvord Playa - I'd found a road that theoretically entered the Playa at the northeast. Seemed like a fun adventure if we could find it.
On our way to Crippled Horse Spring, we made a quick pit stop at Mickey Hot Springs - too hot to take a dip at 180°F, there are some amazing colors, bubbling mud, and even the occasional geyser here - a worthy hour of discovery if you haven't been before.
We'd seen this the last time though, and with another couple already there enjoying the solitude, we pushed on - excited for what we were sure was a much larger hot spring in Crippled Horse Spring. See, the last time we'd been through, we'd seen a huge cloud of steam rising from the playa. It was so large that at first we thought it was someone driving - or doing donuts - on the dusty ground, but as we got closer, there were no vehicles.
This time, we parked the truck as close as we could to what little steam we could see and headed out on foot. It was going to be great.
Distances were once again deceiving and we had a mile or so to go before we got to the location of the steam. Except that when we got there, all we found was dried mud. Cool looking for sure, but not the spectacular pool of bubbling water that we'd worked ourselves up over.
Sure that we'd simply missed it, we each explored in our own directions for a few minutes until... nothing. What the heck was going on? Were we crazy? (don't answer that!)
And then, as the wind whipped across the dry lake bed, we knew we'd been had.
Go figure. On our way back to the truck we summited a small mound in the middle of the playa to find Harry's Place - a memorial to Harry Webb - some dude who really liked it out here. Who could blame him, really?
By now, afternoon was turning to evening and we still had quite a few miles of unknown ahead of us if we were going to reach the east entrance to the Alvord Playa, so we high-tailed it out of there and back to the truck where we continued east, looking for the road that would carry us south and then west again, Steens Mountain still looming behind us for the time being.
We bombed along - a combination of the reasonably maintained roads, reasonably small amounts of rain - less than 7" falling here annually, and recently adjusted ADS coilovers on the truck. I'd removed about ⅓ of the preload and boy, did that make the ride so much better than it had been on the last trip! Eventually, we came to some ranching cabins and stopped in for a look.
With that, we headed south and west - the road not as well maintained in places, but still nothing that a little speed didn't smooth out. It won't be long before my snails pace reputation is no longer really applicable. and I can only imagine that that'll mean for truck maintenance costs. Dang.
The views were fabtacular.
And then, as we were on our way down over the last pass into the Alvord Playa - less than 2 miles to the flat speedway that we could take to the hot springs and another so-out-in-the-open-it's-private camp site - we hit a bit of a problem. Those 7" of rain - over the last year or two or five - had washed out the road something fierce.
And yes, I realize it doesn't look all that bad in the photos. I should have had @mrs.turbodb go stand in the ditch, to give it a bit of scale. We're talking armpit level here for her in places.
We tried to skirt around, but I realized after walking a half mile further down the road that while we might be able to skirt around to get down, if we ran into something else closer to the Playa, it could have been nearly impossible to climb back up onto the shoulder to get back out - the soft, sandy soil offering little traction to a beast as heavy as the Tacoma.
So we made the disappointing call to turn around. Well, not to actually turn around - there was nowhere to do that - but to back up the side of the road until we cleared the washout, and then turn around. Then, already after 6:45pm, it was a suspension-cycling mad-dash back the way we'd come. We had a lot of miles to cover, and we preferred to do it with at least some daylight so as to avoid any deer-across-the-road situations.
Reasonably calm wind-wise, our dust lingered on the road behind us as the sky started to change color.
We sped west, and then north - the green tundra as far as the eye could see. Pronghorn bouncing away (good) as the miles ticked by. A small herd of wild horses also distancing themselves from the trail of dust we left in our wake.
We didn't make it back before sunset - which we enjoyed from the truck - but it wasn't long after that we pulled into the parking lot for Alvord Hot Springs and forked over the small (depending on who you ask) entrance fee to take a soak in the warm water.
It had been a full day - full of great highlights, near disasters, and turn-around-and-go-back-the-way-you-came failures. And a nap. We need more naps on trips.
We soaked for 30 minutes or so before heading out to our place on the Playa to setup camp and make dinner - tacos with guac - before calling it a night and climbing into bed. As the wind picked up around us, we hoped our earplugs would be enough to keep the flapping at bay, allowing us to be well rested for the next day.
Because we'd only planned one reasonably relaxing day for this trip...