The Alvord Desert, Oregon   7 comments

The Trout Creek Mountains in southeastern Oregon bask in last rays and the desert prepares for night.

The Trout Creek Mountains in southeastern Oregon bask in last rays as the desert prepares for night.

When I need some wide-open space, I come to this corner of Oregon that we call the state’s “outback”.  I drove through on my way to the Rockies recently and revisited a few old haunts.  But this was the first time I had actually camped on the playa of the Alvord Desert.  While this region is indeed technically a desert (averaging 7 inches/yr. precipitation), I’m not sure why they chose to call this particular place the Alvord Desert.

The Alvord part is predictable, named after a general from the East, from the Civil War no less.  But the desert part is curious.  The whole region is classified as a cold semi-arid desert.  It’s dry and it’s high (4000 feet/1220 meters).  But the area named the Alvord Desert is actually a large playa, a dry lake bed.  So why not call it the Alvord Playa?

Venus sets & the stars come out as night comes to the Alvord Desert in SE Oregon.

Venus sets & the stars come out as night comes to the Alvord Desert in SE Oregon.

Early morning reveals the Pueblo Mountains to have been dusted by snow overnight.

Early morning reveals the Pueblo Mountains to have been dusted by snow overnight.

Climate & Geology

The region’s aridity is caused by the rain shadow of the Cascades and other mountain ranges.  The Alvord itself is in the very dramatic rain shadow of Steen’s Mountain, which rises directly west.  (The Steen’s is also a very spectacular destination in it’s own right.)  The Alvord is a spectacular example of a playa, so dry and flat in summer and fall that you can easily drive and land a plane on it.  In fact, it’s been used to set land speed records, like the Bonneville Salt Flats down in Utah.

The salty playas of this region of North America form because erosion from surrounding mountains dumps fine sediment into the bottom of the basin and the shallow water that collects there cannot run out.  (This isn’t called the Great Basin for nothing.) The water evaporates, leaving behind salt flats and quickly drying muds.

The playa of the Alvord Desert in Oregon attracts a group of "wind-riders".

The playa of the Alvord Desert in Oregon attracts a group of “wind-riders”.

Even a light wind can propel these guys at quick speeds across the Alvord.  I can't imagine the speeds in heavy wind.

Even a light wind can propel these guys at quick speeds across the Alvord. I can’t imagine the speeds in heavy wind!

The Alvord lies near the northern extent of the the Basin and Range province, a term geologists prefer over Great Basin.  Extending down through Nevada and eastern California, and over into western Utah, it is a series of linear mountain ranges and adjacent basins formed by block faulting.  Huge sections of the earth’s crust rise up while on the other side of the fault the adjacent basins drop down.  It happens this way because the crust just below is being stretched and rifted apart, much like the Great Rift Valley in Africa. Since this shallower part of the crust is brittle, faults form.  Earthquakes along these faults still happen, so it is an ongoing process.

Fall-flowering shrubs dot the "pediment", the transition from basin to range, in this case from the Alvord playa to Steen's Mountain.

Fall-flowering shrubs dot the “pediment”, the transition from basin to range, in this case from the Alvord playa to Steen’s Mountain.

Reasons to Visit

I hope you get to visit this region one day.  Other than the glorious skies and wide-open spaces, it has a lot to offer.  It is a fantastic place for bird-watching in springtime (March/April).  Just northwest of the Alvord are huge & temporary, shallow lakes, which attract large flocks of migrating birds.  The area around Steen’s Mountain is home to Kiger mustangs, wild horses that are known far and wide for their spirit and strength. You’ll probably hear coyotes every night you camp.  And you might see a few buckaroos working cattle from horseback, as has been done here ever since white settlement in the 19th century.  The area is dotted with the remnants of old homesteads and ranches.

Hope you have a great week.  Thanks for reading!

View out onto the Alvord Desert at dusk, where recent rains have left small pools and channels of water.

View out onto the Alvord Desert at dusk, where small pools and channels of water from an early fall storm try to make their way out onto the playa.

The Trout Creek Mountains lie just south of the Alvord Desert near Oregon's border with Nevada.

The Trout Creek Mountains lie just south of the Alvord Desert near Oregon’s border with Nevada.

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7 responses to “The Alvord Desert, Oregon

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  1. Beautiful work.

  2. very dramatic and beautiful 🙂

  3. The first first one is spectacular! The playa must not be easy to capture.

  4. Striking in the perspective that you decided to use.

  5. WOW!! Your first couple of shots are amazing and shows so much depth. All your photos are always amazing.

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