Tuesday, July 26, 2011

July 2011 Road Trp III: Alvord Desert to Crystal Crane Hot Springs

I woke suddenly – crap, it was already light! I had trouble falling asleep last night; some one turned the moon on. Bugger, I’d wanted to commute a couple miles back south to Alvord Hot Springs to enjoy a syn-dawn soak. I’d passed the Springs yesterday; a shack enclosing a couple 10’ by 10’ basins, fed by a conglomeration of jammed together pipe from the geothermal vents, which were just below the road. Homemade, unattended, free, and with a killer view of the Alvord Desert.
Well, I got there quickly, still plenty of magic dawn light time. Then time for a solitary soak. OK, two pools, what was the difference? Whoa, the outdoor one is a good 120 degrees! Better start in the sheltered pool. 

Properly boiled, I headed back south, continuing to contemplate the Alvord Desert. It didn’t look right. I had enjoyed watching it turn into a mirage-like expanse of water yesterday evening, but this morning, the mirage was still there. Moreover, the far mountains were reflected in it. Hmm, it’s news to me that mirages do this. I kept glancing out the window. Ripples on the desert surface. And all that health green vegetation. I suddenly realized with some embarrassment that I’d assumed Alvord was dry because that’s how it was described, but really, this July, it was still a bloody lake! I confirmed this by finding the turn-off for putatively driving onto the playa. It vanished in a series of tiny waves, lapping on the shoreline. A single wading bird confirmed my realization.
South, back to paved road, and a sharp right north on Rt. 202 towards Steens Mountain. Steens has intrigued me for years. I almost made it here in 2005, but was distracted by the John Day Fossil Beds. I hoped to get close to its summit; from the looks of the east side, there was still plenty of snow up there above 9,000 feet. 

The east side of Steens Mountain, where I’d been on the Alvord Desert, is the Basin and Range fault bounded side. It’s thus steep and dramatic. The west side is the hinge zone if you wll; no major fault per se. Instead the strata tilt up to the east, forming a gradual slope. I drove north along the base of this inflection. To the west, the Basin and Range continued. The basins were quite flat. Along their margins, the alluvium was eroded into a series of benches; ancient shorelines, from the time of the last glacial epoch, when this was all one big lake. 

Trixy eventually took me to Frenchglen, a small historic community on the west side of Steens, and the access point for the BLM scenic loop up and down the mountain. Oh boy, more gravel. Well, I was getting used to navigating in a Trixy-preserving way on this surface, as well as living in and breathing a constant layer of dust. I commenced a gradual assent. Hmm, not a lot of rock exposed, but the gradually changing biotic zones – five according to my information – more than kept me observant. I tried not to swerve too much as I tried to note places for flower photography later in the day. 

The road ascended consistently, winding between a pair of large streams draining the east side of Steens Mountain. Progressive turns, higher and higher. I watched the road carefully, twitchy for anything hazardous, but it continued in good nick. I began to wander how far I could drive. The signage had indicated that the road was open up to Gate 2, which was somewhere near the first campground on the Mountain. I figured I could walk from the gate to the first good overlook, if necessary. I passed a six-pack pickup truck parked by the side of the road. A pair of arms holding a camera projected on the scenic side. Oops, I went by fast, hope I didn’t dust them! 

I continued past small clusters of ponderosa pine (out of place), stands of aspen, and several enticing patches of wildflowers. Snow appeared above me; exciting – I’d seen it from the Alvord the day before, now it looked like I would reach that high. A turn, and a muddy road cut – through five feet of snow. Yeah. More switches, more snow, often tinged red by algae. The first campground and gate came and went. The road continued: no gates, more snow, a persistent subalpine plant community amid the chocolate-gray rubbly basaltic outcrops. I stopped to look at a potential afternoon light photo spot. The six-pack came past. We waved at each other. Back in Trixy, who was sounding a bit weasy at 9,000 feet. No fear. The turn off to the Kiger Gorge Scenic Viewpoint appeared. Alright, this was further than I expected to get on four wheels. I turned left, drove in, and parked.

Kiger Gorge is a glacial valley, carved into the side of Steens Mountain during the last glacial epoch. It shows the truly classic U-shaped cross-section that alpine glaciers create. Quite distinctive from the effects of running, liquid water. I stood on a snow bank and contemplated. The Gorge walls were cut into lava flows; a distinctive subhorizontal banding, layered with green banks of vegetation. Quite fetching. A notch cut into the east Gorge wall indicated where a subglacier must have flowed, cutting a channel. Geez, the ice cap on Steens must have been quite thick: maybe thousands of feet. 

I joined the crew from the six-pack; apparently an extended family on holiday, at least three generations by my estimate. They all had pocket sized digital cameras. We chatted; they were from the Bend area. The woman I’d labeled as “Mom” refused to go close to the Gorge rim, and wouldn’t let anyone else near it either. Except me; I did make her promise to close her eyes when I went up to the edge for a super-wide angle photo. 

The road continued upward. Not much further to reach the summit ridge. Blitzen Gorge, another U-shaped valley, dropped off to the southwest. Finally, a “Road Closed” sign, with the cloud of a road grader at work in the distance. But this at junction: a left turn into the East Rim Scenic Viewpoint. Awesome; the second highest point on the Mountain. Parking, I felt satisfied that I’d driven my little car up here. I’d only seen trucks and SUVs on the road. Until the parking lot, where a pair of Prius hybrids were parked. Deflate, haw. 

The edge of Steens Mountain. A hazy but still impressive late morning view to the east over the Basin and Range. A respectable 25 miles, based on my maps. And a downward look onto the Alvord Desert; my campsite and Alvord Hot Springs were almost visible. I stood at about 9,500’. I have not been this high in quite a while, and had forgotten the clarity of the air: the colors a bit sharper, the sky above slightly darker. As I wandered south along the rim, another reminder occurred. I was quickly out of breath and lightheaded. Too high, too fast for my physiology. If I’d been really hard core, I suppose I could have tried a run, but then my shoes would have been dusty.

The fault-bounded east side of Steens Mountain featured badly fractured craggy outcrops descending the steep drop to the Alvord. The lavas here had been further sculpted by erosion, no doubt including the effects of ice, wind, rain, and small persistent plants. Yes, the ground was covered with small spreading alpine vegetation. I didn’t want to step on any of them. They looked simultaneously fragile and hardy. I thus hopped from rock to rock, trying to keep my balance as I got dizzy.

I came to a narrow scalloped cove in the rim. The massive parts of several lava beds lined its sides. They were delineated by recessive bands; I assume that these were the flow margins, which erosive forces had attacked more successfully. A remnant patch of snow lined the bottom of the cove. I could hear the drip, drip of water as it melted in the now-high sun. Hard to photograph: either the lava textures were visible and the snow overexposed, or vice versa. 

Descent, more dust, with frequent wildflower stops. The Frenchglen Hotel provided a chocolate chip cookie; my gluten indulgence for the day. Crunchy but a good afternoon boost for the next phase: north and east to the Diamond Volcanic Field.

The Diamond Field is designated as an “Outstanding Natural Area” by the BLM. Since it was geology and on my way, I had to take a poke at it. Diamond is a small complex of basaltic volcanoes – a mixture of petite shield volcanoes (broad piles of lava flows) and maars – explosion craters formed when underground magma flashes groundwater into steam (boom). Well. It was late afternoon, hot, and my head hurt. I dutifully followed the BLM guide, but I was too tired to stare productively at grass-covered volcanoes, however outstanding. I pushed on. 

Diamond would be a good place to bring a class. The variety of volcanoes, as well as eruptive products – lava, bombs of various types, and ash would teach a lot in a small area. Maybe I was paying attention after all.

My guidebook had recommended a camp at Crystal Crane Hot Springs, north of the Diamond Volcanic Field, and to the east of Burns, Oregon. I drove up Rt. 78, letting the hot air blow through Trixy, hoping to remove some of the Steens Mountain dust, hoping to clear my painful sinuses. I turned west onto a flat agricultural plain – another Basin. A sign at a rise in the road: Crystal Crane Hot Springs. A large pod of RVs in the foreground, little cover anywhere, a moderate westerly wind. Bugger, could I camp at such an open place? Sure, I was tired. It was a hot spring. I turned in. The owner was welcoming and delighted to direct me to the empty dry camping area at the rear of the property, which I had all to myself, other than the bull in a paddock on other side of the north fence. He seemed more interested in the nearby cows.  

Camp, dinner, and a long soak. Not as close to boiling as Alvord Hot Springs, more than sufficient.
During post-soak ablutions, I looked at myself in a mirror for the first time since Winnemucca. I was startled to see that the left side of my face peppered in little red spots. They did not itch, weren’t sensitive. I then remembered my camp on the east side of Steens Mountain. Curled up in my bivy sack, drifting off to dreamtime, I had suddenly heard the tinny sound of numerous mosquito wings. I zipped up right away, but I guess a bunch had bitten me first. Well, aspirations to beauty are not a goal of this trip, tidak apa apa.

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