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Alvord Desert Camping Tips

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A camp set up in the Alvord Desert

If you’re looking to get away from it all, take a trip to the Alvord Desert. There you’ll find an otherworldly landscape, plenty of solitude, and vast openness to roam. It’s a long drive to reach this SE corner of Oregon, but the experience of camping on the alkali flats is unique and well worth the haul. Make a great playlist, pack some snacks, and enjoy the ride.

The Alvord Desert is in a very remote location, so it’s important to go prepared. Here are our top tips to make your Alvord camping trip a success.

The Alvord Desert is super remote, so plan ahead and top up your gas tank every chance you get

FUEL UP EARLY & OFTEN – The closest full-service town to the Alvord Desert is Burns, OR. It’s over a hundred miles away from the playa though, so we recommend leaving town with a full tank of gas. Explore while you’re out on the lakebed, but keep your eye on your fuel gauge so you don’t have to stress about running out of gas on the trek back to town. There are small gas stations in Fields to the south (20 miles), and in Frenchglen on the other side of the Steens (70 miles) from April to November. Top-up your tank whenever you can even if it is a bit expensive.

A car filling up at a small gas station in Frenchglen, Oregon

The town of Frenchglen has a gas pump & you can access the Steens Mountain Loop Road from there July-September

CHECK THE FORECAST – Conditions can change quickly in the Alvord Desert, and rain could result in getting your car stuck in the mud on the playa. Check the closest weather forecast in Andrews, OR to make sure it’s been dry for several days and is likely to stay dry for the duration of your trip. It’s also critical to be prepared for dramatic temperature swings. Daytime to nighttime temperatures can fluctuate by as much as sixty degrees in the desert! Dress in layers to protect yourself from intense sun/wind exposure during the day, and bring a down jacket and warm sleep system for possible freezing conditions after sunset. To learn more, check out our 20 Tips for Backpacking in the Desert blog post and see the recommended gear list below.

A woman dressed in shorts and a down jacket in the Alvord Desert

Deserts like the Alvord can be hot by day and freezing by night, so bring sun protection and plenty of warm layers

DON’T PLAN ON HAVING CELL SERVICEWe were surprised to see that we still had decent cell service in the Alvord Desert using Verizon. But not all phones are reliable in this remote area, so it’s best to plan on an unplugged experience. We recommend bringing a good ol’ paper map for backup or downloading an offline map of the area before you head out. If you have a high-clearance vehicle, navigate to the Frog Spring Alvord Desert Access road. Vehicles with lower clearances can avoid a rutted, bumpy section of road by heading to the Alvord Desert Hot Springs Bath House and Campground and paying a fee to use their private access road instead. You may also want to give loved ones at home a heads up that you likely won’t have service, and let them know when you’ll be in touch so they don’t worry.

Hikers looking at a map in the Alvord Desert

There’s a good chance you won’t get phone service in the Alvord Desert, so it’s good to have a paper map for backup

BRING PLENTY OF WATER – We were told there is a water source that we could filter from at the Frog Springs Access Road, but we recommend bringing enough water for the duration of your trip to keep things simple. Fill a large water container or several collapsible water bottles before you hit the road and make sure they’re leakproof. Each person will need several liters to drink per day and their own water bottle orhydration bladder. You’ll also need water for refills, cooking, and cleaning up.

Bring several gallons of water for each day of your trip in collapsible water bottles or a large water container

CAPTURE THE BEAUTY – The Alvord is astoundingly beautiful and presents some really unique opportunities for photography. Make sure to bring a camera (or your phone) and an extra battery or power bank so you have plenty of juice to take advantage of the epic scenery. We also recommend bringing a tripod and wireless shutter remote so you can get in some of the photos for scale. A lens cloth is helpful as well since things can get pretty dusty out there. Check out our 10 Tips for Capturing Great Adventure Photos blog post for some ideas on how to take your photos to the next level.

A woman and her dog in from of the Steens Mountains in the Alvord Desert

The Steens Mts. are an epic backdrop – bring a power bank , tripod & remote to take advantage of the many photo ops

THE HOT SPRINGS – The Alvord Desert Hot Springs Bath House is a great place to take a relaxing soak in a natural setting. The soaking pools have a limited capacity and they’re a popular attraction, so it’s best to make a reservation ahead of time via phone. Last we checked, day use was $20 per person and is available from 8am-5pm. Camping is $25 per person and includes a soak as well as a few other amenities.

The Alvord Desert Hot Spring Bath House

The Alvord Desert Hot Springs is a great place to soak, get info., or access the lakebed in a low-clearance vehicle

CAMP NEAR THE EDGES OF THE PLAYA – Since the lakebed is flat and wide open, people have been known to drive fast and recklessly. Small aircraft can also land here, so it’s safest to camp near the edges instead of the middle. We went during the week in April, so there was hardly anyone there. But even if it’s busier, you’ll have plenty of space and endless options for campsites. The west side (along Fields-Denio Rd.) has hazardous mud and is dotted with unmarked private property, so it’s best to camp towards the east, north, or south edges. We recommend dropping a pin at the place you enter the lakebed with your phone’s GPS to take the guesswork out of finding your way back when it’s time to exit.

The Eureka Space Camp 4 tent in the Alvord Desert

The East, North, and south edges of the lakebed are the best places to camp

BATHROOMS – Digging a cathole to bury human waste would be pretty dang difficult in the Alvord, and it’s not allowed since it’s detrimental to this fragile environment. Bring waste bags for both human and dog deposits and pack them out. Storing the bags inside an OPSAK or an old stuff sack will keep smells at bay until you can pitch them in a garbage can. There are toilet facilities at the Frog Spring Alvord Desert Access and the Alvord Desert Hot Springs Bath House and Campground for those who are uncomfortable pooping in a bag. Get the lowdown on How to Poop in the Woods here.

Pit toilet at the Frog Spring Alvord Desert Access turnout

Pack out solid waste in waste bags or use the pit toilet at Frog Spring

NO FIRES – Dry lake beds, like the Alvord, are fragile and really important for recharging underground aquifers. It might be tempting to make a campfire since it’s chilly in the desert at night, but fires are not allowed. Bring warm clothing and a camping blanket to stay comfy instead, and tent lights if you want a glowing ambiance after dark.

The MSR Hubba Hubba 2 and NEMO Dagger Osmo in the Alvord Desert at night

Stargazing in the Alvord Desert is epic since the region gets very little light polution from cities!

BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHESThe Alvord Desert can be brutally windy at times, so bring stout tent stakes and guylines to secure your shelter. It’s also really handy to have a mallet to hammer stakes in since the ground can be very hard. Keep your camp as tidy as possible too, storing gear and garbage inside tents/vehicles to prevent it from blowing away. We got lucky when we were there and experienced unusually calm conditions. But we brought a large tarp, paracord, and extra tent stakes in case we needed to create a windbreak.

Using Orangescrew Anchors to camp in the Alvord Desert

Orangescrew Anchors are super secure in windy conditions – check them out on our Best Tent Stakes list

ALKALINE DUST – Fine dust from alkali flats gets stirred up really easily and will likely coat everything you bring to the Alvord Desert. This chalk dust-like powder can cause damage to your car – particularly if it finds its way into the electronics or engine compartment. No reason to worry, just give your car a thorough wash after your trip – a solution of soapy water with a little white vinegar will help cut alkaline dust and prevent it from turning into a messy paste. You may also want to check your air filter to make sure it’s not clogged if conditions were windy when you were in the desert.

Top-down view of two people in the REI Camp Dreamer Double Sleep System

Alkaline dust is part of the fun, but give your car & gear a good scrubdown when you get home to avoid damage

MAKE THE DRIVE PART OF THE EXPERIENCE – As we mentioned, the drive to the Alvord Desert is long no matter where you’re coming from. From Portland, it takes a little over seven hours to get there (four from Bend). We recommend spicing up the journey with music, podcasts, and of course plenty of snacks. The drive is scenic and can be a lot of fun, especially if you break it up by stopping to stretch your legs and see the sights along the way.

A hiker and her dog in the Alvord Desert

The drive to the Alvord Desert is long, but the experience is definitely worth it!

MORE TRIP IDEAS –If you’ve got more time to spend, there are plenty of other great places to explore in the Harney County area or along the route to the Alvord. Here are a few ideas:

Two women walking out to a viewpoint overlooking the Crooked River with the Yeti Hopper M20 Backpack Cooler

Pack a cooler for the road and stop off at some of the beautiful places along your route to break up the long drive

What to Pack


Camping and backpacking tents in the Alvord Desert

Any sturdy camping or backpacking tent will work in the Alvord if you stake & guy it out to prevent wind damage


The Iniu 20000 PD power bank being used for camping

Bring a power bank to keep your phone juiced & ready for photos!


A camping scene with the Eureka Space Camp 4 tent, Eureka Tagalong Chairs, Eureka Camp Table, and more.

Check out our Gear guides to quickly find your dream camp Cooler, Table, Chairs, or Stove


The GSI Bugaboo Base Camper Cookset in the Alvord Desert

CHeck out our Easy camping Recipes post for some delicious ideas for your Alvord Desert trip


A hiker getting clothing out of her backpack in the Alvord Desert

You’ll want comfy footwear, a sun shirt, a warm jacket, and eye protection for your Alvord Desert trip


The North Face Base Camp duffel bag in the Eureka Space Camp 4 Tent

A Duffle bag makes packing personal gear easy and will also help keep your stuff out of the dust on your Alvord Trip


A hiker relaxing in the MSR Hubba Hubba 2 tent

You don’t really need to bring anything for entertainment – the Alvord Desert is a peaceful place to relax


A dog wearing the Ruffwear Fernie jacket while camping in the Alvord Desert

The Alvord Desert is a great place to take your dog, but they’ll need a few things to stay comfortable out there

More Information

We hope this guide helps you plan an unforgettable adventure in the Oregon Desert. We hope this list helps make packing for your Alvord Desert camping trip a breeze. For more recommendations on our favorite camping and backpacking equipment, check out the CleverHiker Gear Guides as well as our Ultimate Camping and Backpacking Checklists.

If you enjoyed this review, you’ll probably like our other gear lists as well:

Some of the links on this page are affiliate links, which means we may receive a modest commission if purchases are made through those links. This adds no cost to our readers and helps us keep our site up and running. Our reputation is our most important asset, which is why we only provide completely honest and unbiased recommendations.