Let’s start right off with an ode to local Chambers of Commerce. If I could give any bike tourist — or really anyone traveling at all — one piece of advice, it would be to stop at every local visitor info center. I mean, do your research beforehand too, but it’s almost always worth asking people who are truly steeped in the area what they love about it and what they’d recommend.
So though I had a general idea about what I wanted to do in SE Oregon, when I finally got off my bus in Burns, my first stop was the Chamber of Commerce. There, I met the the lovely and enthusiastic executive director Chelsea Harrison, who gave me great advice, ideas, and reading material about Harney County. She also helped me make up my mind about whether to stay in Burns for that night and set out in earnest the next day or leave right then, a decision that was much easier when she told me about all the awesome birding loops that went right through town.
Thus was born an overnight stay in Burns and the beginnings of a beautiful adventure.
The big picture
My basic idea for this journey was, in no particular order, to 1) try to find some cool birds in and otherwise explore the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, 2) visit the Steens Mountains and do a bunch of hiking there, 3) see the Alvord Desert, and 4) sample a hot spring or two. Beyond that, I was pretty flexible and hadn’t even really planned a route, figuring, as always, that the best course of action would become apparent once I was living it. (It always does.)
The way it shaped up was something like this:
(double click on the map to enlarge it)
So, that being said, what does an adventure in Harney County entail? If you want to see an overview in pictures, try my Harney County Adventure Album over here. If you click through them, there are cheesy explanations with more background story than I can fit here. For the overview version, though, Harney County has…
Such great riding! Compared to anywhere you can ride in a day from Portland, there is basically no traffic anywhere out here, so any road is a good road.
This trip was a mixture of paved roads and unpaved ones, since most of the best roads lose their pavement at some point, and the loop road through the Steens Mountains is entirely unpaved. The gravel is mostly good, though, even with my roadish tires, and the only spot I was denied due to road surface was on the south end of the “patrol road” that goes north/south through Malheur Wildlife Refuge. There, the gravel turned into large rocks that were unpleasant enough that I just turned around and went back to the roughly parallel main road.
Just wear lots of sunscreen or long layers, cuz there sure isn’t much shade.
A whole lot of solitude. I was particularly excited to go hiking in the Steens Mountains on this trip and managed to hike up three amazing canyons on three different days: Big Indian Gorge and Little Blitzen Gorge, both accessible from the South Steens Campground on the Steens Mountain Loop, and Pike Creek Canyon from the east side of the Steens. I also took smaller hikes in the wildlife refuge and the Malheur National Forest. And on all of my hiking combined, I saw a grand total of like 5 people on the trails. Seriously! This is five people over three looong, all-day hiking trips and lots of other little adventures in amazing places. Places that — if they were near Portland, for example — would be absolutely overrun.
The camping was super chill too. Though I usually hate them, I stayed in several developed campgrounds on this trip because it made getting enough water a lot easier. But out here developed campgrounds meant maybe two or four other people scattered throughout. I don’t know if I just happened to be traveling at a great time or what, but the solitude was exactly what I wanted. So awesome.
But, not much food. I stocked up for a few days’ worth of meals in Burns and then planned to resupply in both Frenchglen and Fields, but was pretty sad to discover that the stores there were mostly candy bars and chips. Not at all the real food I was hoping to use to make lunches and dinners. As a result, I spent a lot of time being hungry while I streeeeeeetched my rapidly dwindling food supply.
But on the other hand, I was also very kindly fed by a few elderly entomologists I ran into who plied me with lettuce and peas from one of their gardens, plus a group of three people I chatted with at Alvord Hot Springs who invited me to their campsite, fed me watermelon, and sent me off with more fruit for the road (people are awesome). And, y’know, it’s probably a good idea every once in a while to live on the edge of starvation just so you remember how lovely food is.
I should mention that both Frenchglen and Fields do have itty bitty restaurants where you can get food that’s delicious if not exactly vegan-friendly — there’s just not too much in the way of selection if you want to buy ingredients to keep having real food once you leave.
Wildlife! So much wildlife! Pronghorn, bighorn sheep, skunks, porcupine, badger, so many deer, snakes, lizards, all manner of amazing birds… I decided in the 9th hour to actually bring my binoculars despite their weight and bulk, and it was definitely the right decision. I kept them right in my front bag where I could whip them out at a moment’s notice and because of them saw a lot more (or rather, saw some things a lot better) than I would have otherwise.
THE STEENS MOUNTAINS AND ALVORD DESERT ARE AMAZING. I spent a lot of time on this trip absolutely ready to explode with happiness in these two places. The west side of the Steens Mountains has a loop road that closes during the winter for snow and is then reopened in stages via a series of gates. When I was there it still wasn’t open all the way, which was kind of a bummer — but to make up for it, the wildflowers were astounding, both in quantity and variety. If I’d gone later, when the road was all the way open, I would have missed the flowers. So take your pick.
Despite the road not being wholly open, the two places along the loop where I wanted to hike (Big Indian and Little Blitzen Gorges) were accessible, so other than being able to get to the purportedly amazing overlooks way the heck up at 10,000 feet, I got to do what I’d hoped. And with my hike up Pike Creek Canyon on the east side of the Steens, I even got up high enough to overlook the Alvord Desert sort of the way I imagine I would have been able to from the loop road overlooks, with the added bonus of having no one else around and having gone on maybe my favorite hike of the last few years.
If I went back later in the year, though, I’d definitely ride the whole 53-mile loop.
And man, that Alvord Desert. I’d seen pictures but was wholly unprepared for how awesome it is to simply bike out onto a desert, take your pick of wherever you want to go, and set out, seemingly never making any progress because there are no landmarks save distant mountains against which to gauge your progress. It was so much fun in that embracing-your-latent-kid-giddiness sort of way that made me smile and smile.
Hot Springs! I’ll admit I’m not the most giant of hot spring/sauna fans, at least not in the way of actively seeking them out, but I was pretty smitten with both hot springs I visited on this trip. Crystal Crane has a whole giant hot pool that you can swim in and everything. And if you camp there, you get access to it all day and night.
Alvord Hot Springs is also lovely, in no small part because of the fantastic views of the Steens Mountains and the Alvord Desert all around. Both hot springs are developed and thus you need to pay for them, but it was totally worth it. Nothing like a good soak after a long day of hiking:)
And, as always, a great escape. I went into this trip hoping for some good meditative time to unplug, slow down, and figure out some heavy life shit — and it was perfect for that. No, I haven’t figured out the meaning of life or anything, but I had an awful lot of good stewing time, time to read and write and be quiet in beautiful places and feel totally and wholly lost to the world in the best of ways. I’ve even managed to hold onto some of that feeling back in Portland, even several weeks later, even in the midst of work. Bike travel helps me remember the stasia I want to be, and I feel like I’m largely living that version of myself now too. Good deal.
Want more? More pictures complete with random thoughts are here. Enjoy! (But mostly, get psyched for your own adventure:)