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.
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.
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.
DON’T PLAN ON HAVING CELL SERVICE– We 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES–The 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.
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.
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.
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:
- Backpacking in the Steens July through early October – we have a guide for that!
- Hike Pike Creek Canyon, a 5.6-mile out-and-back route in the foothills of the Steens on the west side of the Alvord Desert
- Drive or ride the Steens Mountain Loop Road for 59 miles of rugged mountain scenery, a chance to see bands of wild horses, and jaw-dropping views into U-shaped canyons (usually open June or July-September)
- Visit the small towns of Fields or Frenchglen for gas and a treat in the general store
- Camp and hike from Page Springs and South Steens Campgrounds
- Fish for trout in the Donner Ünd Blitzen River or Krumbo Reservoir
- Visit the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge – in the spring you can watch the migration of thousands of birds passing through on the Pacific Flyway
- Soak at Crystal Crane Hot Springs
- Camp, hike, or explore the outdoor-adventure centric towns of Central Oregon
- Hike or backpack in the Ochoco National Forest
- For more ideas and questions, contact BLM Burns District at 541-573-4400
What to Pack
- Chairs (camping / backpacking)
- Stove + fuel (camping / backpacking)
- Lighter or matches
- Cookware & utensils (camping / backpacking)
- Coffee maker
- Travel mug(s)
- Dishes & utensils
- Cutting board & knife
- Biodegradable soap & sponge
- Mini pack towel or paper towels
- Bags for garbage & recycling
- Ziploc bags
CLOTHING & FOOTWEAR
- Hiking pants (men’s / women’s) & shorts (men’s / women’s)
- Wicking shirt/tank & long-sleeve sun shirt (men’s / women’s)
- Quick-dry underwear
- Down jacket and/or fleece jacket
- Windbreaker or rain jacket (depending on forecast)
- Base layers
- Shoes & socks
- Hats (1 warm, 1 for sun)
- Swimsuit & pack towel for hot springs
- Sandals (men’s / women’s) or camp shoes
- Bandana orwashcloth
FUN & ENTERTAINMENT
- Food & bowls
- First aid kit
- Backpack (if your dog carries their own gear on hikes)
- Harness or collar & ID tags
- Collar light
- Poop bags
- Training treats & pouch
- Boots or Musher’s Wax (if you plan to hike on hot/rugged terrain)
- Fleece jacket
- Closed-cell foam pad or bed
- Dog sleeping bag or blanket
- Pack towel
- For more info check out our 14 Tips for Hiking & Backpacking with a Dog post
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.
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