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Hiking Steens Mountain | Unfinished Business in Oregon #1

I was stir crazy.

I'd been back from our didn't-go-quite-as-planned trip to Colorado for two weeks and it was time to get out again. And this time I wanted it to be with @mrs.turbodb. Knowing that she'd be unable to resist a trip back to the Alvord Desert - and for our first time, Steens Mountain - I knew that would be our destination.

It'd be a relatively short trip - four days total - but I figured that even at that, we could do a couple things we'd wanted to do for quite some time:

  1. We could get to the top of Steens Mountain, which on every previous trip has been covered in snow. The highest road in Oregon, this is something we've wanted to do for years, since we first saw it while visiting the Malheur Refuge. In fact, @mrs.turbodb mentions Steens so often that it's become a running joke.
  2. We could make another run at Big Sand Gap on the east side of the Alvord Playa. Because we had a score to settle from our last attempt. Not that we're hard-headed or anything.

So, it was in the very early morning hours of October 10, 2019 that we piled into the Tacoma and headed south. It was so early in fact that we were in Portland before the sun even crested the horizon, it's orange glow illuminating Mt. Hood in the distance.

The miles continued to tick away as the sun rose into the blue sky and after a couple more hours we reached Mt. Hood itself, climbing up over the pass with it towering above.

Then - something we'd never seen before. As we drove through the area of Oregon near Madras, it became clear just how cold it was outside. To prevent freezing of their equipment, many ranchers had left their irrigation systems running. And the results were spectacular - the bright green grass encased in thick ice!

I don't know about @mrs.turbodb, but it was about now that I started wondering if we were crazy. Though the weather was forecast to be dry while we were in the Alvord, temps were projected to be in the high-teens to low-twenties at night.

I didn't mention it, and just continued driving.

After a stop for lunch and a couple more for fuel, we eventually arrived in the Alvord Desert a little before 4:00pm in the afternoon. Perfect timing for our first unfinished business - we wanted to hike Pike Creek. We'd attempted this on our last trip, but the water level in the creek had been high enough that we were unable to cross...and being too lazy to wade across bare foot, that had been the end of that.

We hoped as we headed up the short road to the trailhead that the same wouldn't be true today.

As we reached the trailhead and parked, we also had the chance to take a closer look at a tree I'd noticed the last time we were here, but also didn't investigate since there was already a camper parked in the spot. This tree is growing out of a crack in the middle of a small-house-sized granite boulder, and has been for decades. Nature truly is amazing.

Clearly, I was already amazed before we even started the hike - I'm easily entertained, I guess. At any rate, we made our way across the now-very-low-creek, and started up the trail - the views in front of us starting to get a bit shady; the playa behind us a brilliant gold.

An astute viewer may have noticed that we also had a cool view through a small tunnel in the ridge opposite us in the photo above. That small tunnel that turned into two(!) as we made our way a bit further up the trail. And you guessed it, I was once again entertained. Definitely a set of tunnels I'd love to go climb through in the future.

We continued up the trail, now excited for the next bit of entertainment, which @mrs.turbodb had related to me from her trusty book, 100 Hikes / Travel Guide: Eastern Oregon - a wilderness boundary sign, a dynamite shed by a cliff, and the entrance to a uranium mine. And who doesn't want to get up close and personal with some uranium? I for one couldn't wait to walk into an old mine shaft surrounded by the stuff.

At a little over 1 mile, we found the first two landmarks easily. I mean, they were right next to each other.

Finding the mine was a bit more tricky. First, we stumbled upon some old rail lines - likely from the ore cars that were used to move material off the mountain. Buried in 2 feet of dirt, I initially thought we might be able to follow them to the source, but decades of erosion meant that the rest of the lines were hidden for good.

Eventually though we found ourselves scrambling a good way up the side of the mountain and towards what appeared to be the opening of the mine shaft - we'd found it!

It was a small opening - no more than 4 feet tall - but to our surprise, it was in reasonably good shape. See, we'd expected that it would have collapsed after all these years, but in fact, it was just the contrary - even as I took flash photos into the shaft, I couldn't see the back wall.

Throwing all caution - and perhaps any future @mini.turbodb's - to the wind, I ventured in. The shaft continued south for 50 feet or so, with a easterly branch splitting off near the end and heading another 30 feet into the mountain. I decided not to explore that branch, instead opting to make my way back out. You know, no reason to push my luck.

Back out in the open air, I'm sure there was a new glow to my presence that hadn't been there just a few minutes before. I asked @mrs.turbodb if she wanted to go take a look, but she's a smarter cookie than me and opted to see the photos instead.

We continued on. From here, the trail crossed the creek again and headed up the other side of the ravine. A few switchbacks made this easier than if we'd gone straight up, and we made quick work of the elevation gain. Nearing the crest of the trail we kept our eyes peeled for thundereggs - fist-sized, red rock nodules on the slope. Rockhounds have cracked many of these open in search of quartz crystals or the colorful jasper and many have been carted off over the years, leaving only the worst of the bunch for us to admire before heading back.

They did look weird though. And it's a good thing I didn't get to name them - I'd have called them volcano poops.

As we headed back down, we were now completely in the shade - the orange of the playa now even more brilliant in the distance. A nice rock outcropping the perfect place to make it look like I was contemplating all life had to offer.

The trip down from that seat overlooking the playa could have been a quick one, but balance prevailed and we hiked our way back down the trail the way we'd come. Back at the truck a little after 5:30pm we decided it was the perfect time to make our way down onto the playa to find ourselves a nice spot to camp before our shadows got too long to find a flat spot.

At 12-by-7-miles, we didn't really have to worry about finding a nice flat spot - there was plenty of space for us and the one other group camped there this Thursday evening, and as the moon came up behind us we settled in on our designated camp site.

With the sun down, the temps dropped dramatically. It was only 6:30pm or so, and we were both chilly - our long pants, long underwear, and several layers of coats already not enough to keep us as toasty as we'd prefer.

As @mrs.turbodb got dinner - we were having chicken noodle soup - going, I setup the tent and got our Exped Megamat Duo LXW and two down comforters ready to warm us up. Now, I know I always talk about the Exped, but it really is that good - besides just being comfortable to sleep on, it also does a great job of insulating its occupants from the cold that often seeps up from below. Just in case though, I also pulled out a couple of Little Hotties that we could use on our feet once we were in bed - a trick I'd learned on my previous trip to Colorado.

And boy, was I glad that I did. It ended up being 21°F by the wee hours of the morning, and yet both @mrs.turbodb and I were toasty warm, our toes - and therefore the rest of our bodies - kept comfy all night as the stars spun overhead.

Hoping to catch those stars as they danced through the sky, I setup the camera to take as many 30 second exposures as it could, a Little Hottie strategically wrapped around the lens to keep it from fogging up during the cold night.

I'd have to wait until morning to know if it'd been a success...


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