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Hot springs, fishing and Steens Mountain getaway

Several years ago my wife and I did a hot springs tour of Central and Eastern Oregon, visiting seven different natural springs in five days. However, we missed the opportunity to visit Steens Mountain because the road was still closed in June due to snow.

This year I was able to go back to Steens Mountain with my son, Lucas, who was visiting from New York. While there still were patches of snow on top, the 52-mile loop gravel road was clear and accessible to passenger cars in mid-July.

We started our trip with a lunch break at the Mitchell Memorial outside of Bly. The memorial commemorates five children and a pregnant mother who died in an explosion of a Japanese balloon bomb that landed and was inadvertently set off by one of the kids in May of 1945. These were the only U.S. civilians to die in the continental U.S. during WWII. Peaceful setting, tragic story.

We camped the first night at Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge. Arriving during a deluge, we sought shelter in the 10-by-10-foot visitors center, reading pamphlets, studying maps and inspecting skulls and rocks. After waiting out the storm, we soaked in the hot springs near the campground. The high desert was showing beautiful shades of green due to recent rains, and we enjoyed a starry nite and bugless camping among quaking aspens alongside a stream.

After a morning soak (and being buzzed by a drone while in the tub!), we broke camp and headed east down a 50-mile gravel road toward Frenchglen, the entrance to Steens Mountain. We saw about 20 antelope on the trip out of the refuge and one vehicle. The high desert provided lots of gorgeous vistas.

Steens Mountain has a deceptive appearance from the west side, and it didn’t seem like we were doing much climbing to get to our campsite at Fish Lake. After setting up camp we continued the drive up the mountain, where we discovered how high we really were and the incredible beauty of the many glacier-carved gorges on Steens.

We waited out another deluge in the car and then hiked a short way to the Kiger Gorge overlook, from which you can see the Alvord Desert a mile below. The white alkaline desert presents quite a contrast to the lush greens at the top of treeless Steens, in addition to the many striking rock formations.

The next morning, Fish Lake lived up to its name, and we caught a half-dozen rainbow trout for dinner in a short time from the bank. While there was a fair number of campers, we were the only ones fishing that morning. I gotta admit, the Brooklyn kid outfished the former Alaska longliner 5 to 1.

After cleaning the fish, we headed back up to the top of the 9,400-foot mountain and hiked 1,000 feet down to Wildhorse Lake. Again, we were the only ones in the valley until we met some fishermen headed down while we were hiking out. The wildflowers were in their glory, and Lucas and our lab Lucy enjoyed skinny dipping in the snow-melt waters. Been there, done that, I made lunch instead.

Once again, we got nailed by a storm before we were able to reach our car but this one was more spectacular. Hail and wind and rainbows and 48 degrees. All we could do was laugh once we were in the car and realizing what a fantastic experience we were having. Lucas finished off the day by taking a paddle in our inflatable around Fish Lake and then biking around the campground while I grilled the fish over our fire, listening to the numerous species of birds singing around our camp.

We hit the road early on our last day and headed down the mountain, toward the Alvord Desert in search of the Borax Lake Hot Springs. After driving several miles down sketchy roads through the desert and various gates and breaking our bike rack and almost getting stuck, we found the only swimmable pools after passing many interesting hot pools that reminded me of Yellowstone. Fortunately the air temp was in the 70s and the soak felt refreshing.

After the obligatory world’s best milkshakes at Fields Station at the south end of the desert, we took a picturesque 6-hour drive back home, through the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge in northern Nevada. Four days, 750 miles, and lots of memories. A great bonding experience for Lucas and I.

Jack Opgenorth lives in Ashland.

Lucas and Lucy pose for a photo at Wildhorse Lake on Steens Mountain. Photo by Jack Opgenorth