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Alvord Desert Oregon: How to Plan a Trip?

Oregon is surprisingly diverse in its landscape. When you think of Oregon, you see a beautiful coast, dense green forests, and snowy mountains. But one of Oregon’s hidden gems is its desert. Alvord Desert is a vast, most isolated area of the state, with cracked earth under your shoes. The Alvord Desert is a place far from the tourist routes, off the beaten path. Visiting this desolate, alien landscape, full of mesmerizing silence, it’s a perfect idea for a road trip for adventure lovers. So, we share all the tips on preparing for a trip to Alvord Desert, Oregon.

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Alvord Desert in Oregon after sunset with yellow grass and mountain view in the backdrop.

Facts about Alvord Desert

The Alvord Desert is a remote desert in Harney County, southeastern Oregon. The closest town is Burns. Steens Mountain looms over the lake bed west of the desert, making a fabulous backdrop.

  • The Desert lies at an elevation of about 4,000 feet (1,200 m).
  • In the past, it used to be a lake extending over 100 miles, but it had dried up.
  • The Alvord Desert is a dry lake bed 12 miles long and 7 miles wide (19 by 11 km). This desert landscape is now known as a Playa.
  • It’s the driest place in the state, with averages of 7 inches (180 mm) of rain a year.
  • It’s the most isolated and unique land formation in Oregon. It is s dry because two mountain ranges separate it from the Pacific Ocean—the Coast Range and the Cascade Mountains with Steens Mountain.

Alvord Desert, Oregon, is perfect for outdoor adventures, including hiking, camping, stargazing, and soaking in eclectic and rustic hot springs.

desert in Oregon: the cracked white bottom of the former lake.

Our Experiences

During our year-long camper trip around the US, we had the opportunity to spend a lot of time on Oregon road trip. Moreover, we spent the entire weekend in the secluded Alvord Desert. That’s why we share our observations and tips based on our own experiences.

This place is magical, but because it is off the beaten track, it is worth planning your trip carefully. All photos presented in this article are taken by me and Chris, my partner.

yellow flowers on desert

How to Get To the Alvord Desert?

First, you must know that the Alvord Desert is a remote, isolated area. Moreover, there is no coverage most of the time, so you should take a good paper map, and a good GPS.

Before you go for the trip, fill up with gas, there are no services on the road for a long time. If you will explore the area for a few days, it is worth taking an additional gasoline canister.

Gas stations

You will find gas stations in Burns. Then after Alvord Desert, Oregon, south toward the Nevada border, at Fields. The gas station in Frenchglen is only open during the summer.

How do you get from Burns or from Fields to Alvord Desert?

You can get to Alvord Desert, Oregon, via the Fields-Denio Road from either Burns if you’re coming from the north or the town of Fields if you’re driving up from the south (close to the Nevada border).

It is about 40 miles on unpaved Fields-Denio Road from Highway 76. From the south, it is 23 miles on Fields-Denio Road. You can drive onto the Desert from several different dirt access roads, one of which is the road from Alvord Hot Springs.

Access to the Desert costs $10 from this road. However, if you stay overnight at their campground, you don’t have to pay to enter the desert.

You can also take one of the public roads. The Frog Spring entrance is a free entrance about two miles before Alvord Hot Springs.

Agnes Stabinska, the author, in yellow sweater and red hat is standing on the gravel road in Steens Mountain which leads to Alvord Desert.

How do you get from Bend to Alvord Desert?

You have 234 miles from Bend, or 4 hours and 50 minutes of driving. So, head east on US Hwy 20 toward Burns. Fill up with gas in Burns. Do your grocery shopping and buy more water because it’s the last place civilization is.

Continue straight/east on OR Hwy 78/E Monroe St toward Crane. After 64.6 miles, turn right onto Folly Farm Rd/Fields-Denio Rd toward Fields. After 11 miles the road turns to a gravel road.

Then, after an additional 30 miles (5.6 miles past Alvord Ranch), turn left into the Alvord Hot Springs parking area. You can also use the public Frog Spring entrance, 2 miles before Alvord Hot Springs.

Alvord Desert

Alvord Desert Weather

What is the best time to visit the Alvord Desert? The Alvord Desert has a cold desert climate. Mountain ranges stop the rain in the area.

  • Winter temperatures in the Alvord Basin are moderated. Daily average temperatures are between 40 and 50 °F (4 and 10 °C). Rare temperature fails to 32 °F (0 °C). At night, the temperature falls between 20 and 30 °F (−7 and −1 °C).
  • Spring months have storm rainfall in April, May, and June. Cold overnight temperatures are between 30 and 45 °F (−1 and 7 °C), but days are much warmer, between 50 and 60 °F (10 and 16 °C) in early spring and 70 and 80 °F (21 and 27 °C) in late spring. Rainfall might turn the playa into a small lake, which makes travel across it difficult.
  • Summer has the hottest temperatures in Oregon. The heat begins by late June when temperatures reach between 85 and 90 °F (29 and 32 °C). In July and August, the average daily temperature is between 90 and 100 °F (32 and 38 °C). Night temperatures during summer are between 50 and 70 °F (10 and 21 °C).
  • Fall is the driest time of the year. Temperatures during the day are between 60 and 80 °F (16 and 27 °C). At night are between 40 and 50 °F (4 and 10 °C).

So, Spring isn’t the best idea for a visit because of storms which make the desert sticky and muddy. The best season is Fall, the beginning of Winter, and Summer. But during Summer, prepare for the heat and bring plenty of water; during Winter, take warm clothes.

Alvord Desert landscape in Oregon with some bushes and mountains in the backdrop.
Yellow small flowers and dry grass on the desert.

Things To Do In The Alvord Desert

Drive on the Playa

The Alvord Desert is mostly public land. So, you can drive, hike, or bike throughout the desert on public lands. Take a map with marked public lands so as not to enter private property. Fill your tank up with gas.

Driving from July through November is recommended during the driest season. Another month’s desert might be muddy. Always check the weather before you go on the trip. It’s an unforgettable experience. It’s like driving on the stark surface of the moon.

Camp on the Playa

You can camp on the Alvord Desert Playa for free. It’s a great idea to stay overnight in the desert. But always check the weather before you go.

If it’s dry season, it’s safe. But even small rainfalls can be dangerous. Water may flood your camp, or you may wake up in the mud. The Desert is generally dry for nearly two-thirds of the year.

Camping on the Alvord Desert Oregon Rules & Tips

  • You can camp on the Playa, but you must remember that the part of the west side of the desert is private property as well. Private lands aren’t fenced, so keep a distance so that you don’t trespass on private property. There are many ranches along Fields-Denio Road, so be careful of cattle on the road.
  • Remember there is no phone reception or electricity, so pack an accurate map with marked public lands (we use & like this Oregon Atlas) and good GPS. We recommend Garmin GPSMAP 64sx, which has proven well in many challenging conditions.
  • If you camp in the middle of the desert, there is no protection from strong wind and moisture. So, consider camping at the edge of the desert. Moreover, people like to drive wild on the Playa and may not see your camp until it’s too late.
  • Check the weather forecast. If there is rain predicted, the road might be challenging even for 4×4 vehicles.
  • Campfires are not allowed. Respect this rule.
  • Respect this wilderness and LEAVE NO TRACE. Pack all your rubbish and all your feces. Desert does not have a toilet; if you camp in a tent or a van without a toilet, pack all, including excrement. There is a bin and restroom next to the Frog Spring entrance so that you can use it. You can also consider taking a portable toilet. This is an ideal solution if you love camping and van life but don’t have a bathroom in your van.
  • There is no cell service, so mark a point on GPS your localization and where you enter the desert. It’s easy to get lost.
  • Keep an eye out for wildlife and other people. Be respectful of private properties and your neighbors.
  • Check if your car is capable of driving in the desert and possibly mud. The temperature differences might make the area wet. Large RVs can have a problem, especially between December and June. The roads to the desert are bumpy. 4 wheel drive vehicle is perfect for this adventure.
  • If you’re entering through Alvord Desert Hot Springs, don’t turn left onto the desert from the access road. It is a place where the hot spring water runs off, so it’s a very muddy area, and there is a risk you stuck on it. So, drive straight for a while, and when you enter the desert, then turn where you want.

What to pack for a trip to the Alvord Desert in Oregon?

  • The temperature difference between day and night can be significant, so dressing in layers is the best idea. Thermal underwear for the night will come in handy. We like Merino 250 base layer, which is warm and pleasant to the body. Moreover, it helps maintain comfort, whether the climate is warm, cold, or in-between. Prepare for lower temperatures and wind even during summer.
  • Take warm sleeping bags depending on whether you sleep in a tent or the car. You may also need an extra blanket, especially when there are strong winds at night, or you can use it in the desert to have a romantic dinner with stargazing.
  • The winds are intense, so if you stay in a tent, you should have a durable one.
  • You certainly do not need to be reminded of a small camping stove, camping cookware, mugs, and utensils. But if you want a special night and you want to surprise your partner, don’t forget about camping wine glasses, a bottle of wine, and your partner’s favorite snacks. We have been using these Stainless Steel Nesting Wine Glasses for several years. They travel the world with us and are great!
  • Waterproof hiking shoes with a perfect grip will be the best. The clay surface might be slippery and muddy.
  • A Flashlight or headlamp and extra batteries are a must. At night, mostly if the sky is covered with clouds, it will be completely dark.
  • Quick-drying towel & swimwear. Immersing yourself in the hot springs will be a wonderful experience after a night in the desert!
  • A first aid kit. It should be in the first place. After the documents, the first aid kit is the most important thing for us on every trip and even an easy hike.
  • Bring plenty of water. You never know what will happen, maybe water will be needed to help someone. Bring more water than you intend to drink. You are in a desert.
  • Food. Bring what you like and enjoy a romantic dinner under the star. But don’t leave even a banana peel. The two grocery stores you will find in Burns. The nearest restaurant is in Burns and Fields Station.
  • You are on a desert, so everything you bring will get very dusty.

Admire Wildlife

This barren landscape is full of life. Wild horses sometimes drink from the springs on the eastern edge of the Alvord Desert. Nesting long-billed curlews are found around the Alvord Hot Springs. Coyotes’ howling pierces the silence of the Desert.

You can see killdeer and snowy plover, and occasional American avocet. At Steens Mountain Wilderness are bighorn sheep, mule deer, and elk. If you like wildlife photography or would like to bring the background closer to the subject, bring long lenses (we use Nikkor 80-400 and Canon 100-400), and take a solid tripod. The snow-capped peaks of the Steens Mountain range towering above a cracked desert floor are fabulous.

Relax in Alvord Desert Oregon Hot Springs

There are five springs in the Alvord Desert Oregon: Mickey Hot Springs, Tule Springs, Buckbrush Springs, Borax Hot Springs, and Alvord Hot Springs. However, Alvord Hot Springs is the only one that you can soak in and relax.

We were charmed by this place. It’s private land, and using soaking pools costs $10 per person. It’s one of the best outdoor adventures in the Alvord Desert.

Don’t forget a quick-drying towel. Swimwear is optional.

There is also a free hot spring far away from the Playa: Willow Hot Springs. It’s one small natural pool located 35 miles southeast of Fields. GPS coordinates are 42.275 x 118.265. But it’s not as eclectic and rustic as Alvord Hot Springs. There is no rustic charm.

Go For a Hike or Take a Drive To Steens Mountain

You can walk through the Alvord Desert in Oregon or hike to Steens Mountain. There are many hikes in the Steens wilderness, but you must have a permit. You can buy your Day Use Permits for Hikes on the private property owned by Alvord Ranch. It would help if you stopped by their office to buy a permit.

Steens Mountain is the highest mountain in Eastern Oregon however it is very little known; the elevation is 9,733 feet (2,967 m).

You can take a drive along the 52 mile loop road which begins in Frenchglen. There are fantastic views from the Kiger Gorge lookout or from the East Rim lookout. The loop is the highest road in Oregon, reaching almost 10,000 feet near the summit of Steens. 

Visit Diamond Crater

On the way south from Burns, you can stop at the Diamond Craters, which is a 27-square-mile basaltic volcanic field with basaltic lava flows, cinder cones, and a giant gaping crater you can walk around and into.

Alvord Desert Camping

If you want to find Alvord Desert camping, one of the best is Alvord Hot Springs Camping, which we described in this related post. You can book it on the camping website. They offer also bunkhouses, so check it. The Steens Wilderness has also a few campgrounds.

Alvord Desert Oregon – Lodging

If you don’t want to camp on the Alvord Desert, you also have a few hotel options nearby, but it requires some driving. In our opinion, Burns is a great place. There are several hotels to stay in. You can also stay at Crystal Crane Hot Springs Resort in Burns.
There is also Frenchglen Hotel (70 miles from the desert).

If you’re planning a trip to Oregon, please check out some of the other great places we describe in related posts:

Alvord Desert in Oregon after sunset with dry playa, some rocks and bushes in the front and mountai view in the backdrop.

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  1. I never been to a desert even here in Australia, coz I don’t know what to expect. But based on your Alvord’s description, this place seems a good one, even for camping. But definitely I need warmer clothes to protect myself for a sudden temperature drop. It is interesting to know the plants that grows there and survive!

  2. Whoa! It is most definitely in the middle of nowhere. Driest place in the state that was once a lake? Well, that’s intriguing. Thanks for the tip about carrying a paper map, getting the tank filled, indeed it wouldn’t be fun to get stuck here. Camping here would definitely be a fun idea! I can imagine the a night sky filled with stars… Thanks for the tip about camping in the edges of the desert. Dipping in hot springs early in the morning would be so relaxing.

  3. I love deserts, especially the sunsets there in Middle East. This looks like a totally different desert, the one with the hot springs. It was good to learn about Alvord Desert. It seems such a picturesque place for camping, adventure, photography, relaxation and de-stressing. Moreover it would be so much fun to drive on your own with a group of likeminded people. I am glad you suggested that its important to take good GPS and good map. Additional gas too.  Its sad that campfires are not allowed but then rules must be respected. 

  4. I never would have guessed that there is a desert in Oregon!  I indeed think of forests and great coast lines.  I can imagine that star gazing would be perfect from this spot.  I would definitely remember to take my paper map and layers.  But noted that I may not need my swimwear for the hot springs! 

  5. Whenever I have read and thought about Oregon, it has always been about the coast, the forests and the snow capped mountains. But the desert of Oregon is certainly a revelation. Alvord seems the ideal place for camping for few days. Love the feel and thank you for the tips while visiting.

  6. I had no idea that Oregon has a desert. It is indeed far from the tourist routes as I have never heard about it before. Thank you for sharing about the Alvord Desert and these detailed instructions. We would love to camp or go hiking there someday. 


  7. Deserts have been the most neglected region for me to visit so far. This really motivated me to go ahead and try it. Especially because un this particular one you can camp for free on the playa. As a hiking and camping lover that always gets me sold to check out a new place. I love how you even included a short packing list. 

  8. I love the desert region in Nevada. I can picturesque Alvord desert so beautifully explained by you. Thanks for sharing important tips. I would love to visit during fall when temp are just right to explore it. Loved your tip on carrying all the trash back and carrying a portable toilet in camping. Well many beautiful camping sites are exploited by people when they leave the trash before leaving. The pictures are so intriguing wanting me to go there when I am there next 

  9. Ouch, a place that had a lake once and now this is the state? Wow! Sounds interesting and the whole hiking and camping bit will make it even more amazing. Love your tips on how to prepare for it. It sure will showcase a different side of Oregon

  10. Never thought of Oregon as home to a beautiful desert, Alvord. Alvord sounds perfect to explore and will remember to bring along paper map, tank filled and absolutely on the warmer layers. 

  11. First, I think that’s so cool that this is a cool climate desert! Second, I’ve never heard about this and I’ve been to Oregon before – when I go back I want to check this out! 

  12. I have been to Burning Man twice so I am very familiar with camping in the desert 😉 The temperature drop at night is definitely significant! My favourite part is definitely seeing all of the stars in the sky at night, it’s magical! I had no idea there was a desert in Oregon, thanks for sharing.

  13. The Alvord Desert looks inviting. It reminded me of the Thar desert in India, which is like a barren landscape, but when the moon falls on it, it looks breathtakingly beautiful. I like the way you mentioned, taking care of the surroundings properly, and not leaving any of the waste behind.

  14. A very well directed blog for the people who like to camp. Feels like a perfect destination for someone who wants to escape from the city life and spend few days just looking at and hiking around these wonderful scenic views!!

  15. I have never heard of a desert in Oregon – definitely looks like a unique place to visit! I would be afraid of the rain though. 

  16. I would love to visit the Alvord Desert! I have yet to visit one, but would love the change of scenery from the cities or lush greenery I am used to. I would love to drive through and spot some wildlife. It sounds like a great adventure! 

  17. I absolutely loved the post! Not only it’s a detailed write-up on things to do, I liked the fact that you have included details like things to pack etc while visiting the desert. I think, Oregon’s landscape has been featured in movies in many times – your photos capture the beauty and diversity of  the place. Thanks for sharing!

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  19. One of the most magical nights of my life was sleeping on the playa! A spectacular sunset. A big moon. A warm wind. And the sunrise was like one of those religious paintings where all the rays are shooting out between the clouds. Jaw dropping!!! The best part is it’s just you, the earth, the horizon, and the sky. Nothing else to mar the view. If you like BREATHING SPACE, this is the most! I love all the green of nature & the aqua ocean of Hawaii so I was amazed that I would even care about such a “stark, bleak” place….i was stunned. If I had to sum up my experience of this place in one word it would be GOBSMACKED!

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