After being stir crazy for a couple of months I figured it was safe to do an exploratory road trip with proper precautions. A friend had given me a Falcon Guide covering hot springs in the Pacific Northwest and I wanted to see how accurate it was. After doing a bunch of research (turns out it still wasn’t enough though) I decided to head to southeast Oregon. The book showed quite a few hot springs in the area, plus I read about wild horses and a desert playa all in the same region. I packed a cooler, grabbed some car camping gear, and hit the road.
About eight hours from my house is Burns, Oregon, which is the best option for filling up with gas, stopping at a grocery store, etc. The rest of the area east and south of Burns has very limited services and supplies. Burns is just northwest of both the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the Steens Mountains Wilderness; both are areas worth exploring in their own right.
The first hot spring I attempted to locate was South Harney Lake Hot Springs. Following the book’s directions I was able to easily locate the springs, located down a long and dusty cattle rancher’s road. The spring is located on private property, but is usable by the public. I pulled up to the spring and immediately noticed massive amounts of trash everywhere. Someone had a clearly partied out there and not cleaned up after themselves. There were several destroyed plastic wading pools, ripped up tarps, empty bottles of alcohol, etc. I found a small pool next to the main soaking pool that didn’t have much trash in it and decided to step in. It was hot, but not too hot. However, my foot immediately slipped deep into sludge at the bottom of the pool. I was lucky I was able to pull my foot (and flip flop) back out. With my foot came a massive cloud of black silt, not optimal for soaking in. There was so much trash around that I felt too overwhelmed to even begin cleaning it up. Plus I had just started my journey and didn’t want to haul around stinky trash for two more days. So it was on to the next spring.
I headed further south toward the historic town of Frenchglen to locate a warm spring right next to town. Driving through the area was amazing. I watched cattle ranchers on horseback herding cows with their dogs, saw hawks flying overhead, and was totally amazed at how different this area looked from the parts of Oregon I usually visit. Once I arrived in Frenchglen it was easy to follow the book’s directions to the parking location on the south end of town. From there it’s less than a mile of walking along a level gated off dirt road. Finding the spring was a bit trickier. It is located down off the left side of the road and isn’t very visible. But there are some large rocks and a couple of tall juniper trees right next to it. Also, just past the warm spring is an old homestead site, so if you make it there you’ve passed it.
I was the only one at the spring so I got naked and stepped in. If the day was much cooler I would not have enjoyed the spring since it’s only warm, and not hot. The bottom is lined with rocks so there is no sludge or silt to slip into. There are also hundreds of minnows in the pool that will come nibble on you as you soak. It tickled a bit but didn’t bother me. The pool was made by people stacking rocks around to create a space for soaking. I’ve seen pictures showing the pool as a smaller size than what I found, so thank you to whoever put some work in to make more space for soaking. After about an hour I decided it was time to head off to the next location.
Next on my list was Willow Creek Hot Springs, with a stop in the “blink and you’ll miss it” town of Fields. In Fields I stopped at Fields Station to fill up with gas and get one of their famous milkshakes. The shake was awesome! I was grateful to be able to fill up, even if the gas is expensive, and get something cold in me on a warm, sunny day. While filling up I chatted with some women in an RV doing the same thing I was (exploring and hopping from spring to spring). They had just come from Willow Creek and said they left when it became overrun by a group of bikers. Hearing that I decided to skip the spring and start looking for a place to camp for the night. After so much driving and exploring I was feeling tired and it was about dinner time.
I headed north, toward the Alvord Desert. From what I’ve read, this desert playa was a giant lake 10,000 years ago, covering parts of southeast Oregon and extending into Nevada. Now it is a giant playa surrounded by snow covered mountains. Once you find the access roads leading from the gravel “highway” down to the playa, you can drive wherever you’d like on it and set up camp anywhere. Alvord Hot Springs is on the west side, but was closed when I was there. It is a private, rustic hot spring, and they also have a campground nearby. I would love to check it out once it’s open again.
I drove down the very rough access road onto the playa and stopped on the north end of the lake bed. From there I could see some water, almost like a very shallow lake, so I parked a ways from it and set up camping chairs to relax and enjoy the sunset while eating dinner. After dinner I decided I’d walk over to the water and check it out. To my surprise it was no longer hundreds of feet away, but maybe 75 feet. I went to check it out and saw water quickly seeping up through the cracked desert floor. I grabbed my stuff, threw it in the back of my rig and drove further away, to where the desert floor appeared to change to something dustier (indicating to me that the water didn’t reach that far). I threw my air mattress down on the ground and laid out watching shooting stars and satellites until the full moon rose and was bright enough to make it hard to see any stars. The next morning I woke up to find that the water had receded. I have yet to figure out what causes the water to come and go like a tide.
I stopped at another warm spring called Borax Lake but decided against getting in. It wasn’t warm enough and it smelled absolutely awful. But it was neat to examine the old borax mining operation that had been there a hundred or so years before. Then I attempted to find Mickey Hot Springs, which isn’t much of a soaker, but is supposed to have some neat geothermal activity. I’m guessing the directions in the book weren’t very accurate, or I misread them, but I wound up in the middle of nowhere, driving down some old roads over hills and through valleys until I felt like it was time to turn around. I did see an antelope bounding across a valley, and then came across what I’m guessing is an antelope skeleton that had been picked clean long ago.
After two unsuccessful hot spring attempts I decided my time should be spent searching for the mysterious Kiger Mustangs. I found very limited information on them, and even the signs in the area talking about them have very little info and even worse directions for finding them. Supposedly there is a viewpoint in the herd management area, but after driving all over God’s green earth I found nothing but deer and some abandoned trailers that appeared straight out of Breaking Bad. I was getting low on gas and decided it was best to head back to Burns before I ran out.
After filling up I headed toward Bend (one of my favorite places on the planet) and then headed home. I have done more research since this trip and plan to go back to explore more hot springs and find those wild horses.