Harney County is only three hundred square miles smaller than my home state of Massachusetts, but has one tenth of one percent of the people — less than one per square mile. (If all of the cattle were people, the population would be 2% of Massachusetts’.) There are only a few small towns, a lot of open sagebrush country, and not much to do other than drive around, walk around, and otherwise ogle the landscape. Though I’m sure many people could not imagine a less attractive place to spend even a portion of their hard-earned vacation time, I spent a week there and didn’t begin to see it all. I can’t wait to go back.
I’ll write more about some particular aspects of the trip, but I wanted to write up an overview of my travels and a taste of what Harney County has to offer. If you’re in the Northwest, I encourage you to visit soon. I covered a lot of ground on the trip. You can refer to this map to get the gist of where I was.
I left work early on Friday and made the six hour drive in one shot. I arrived at Crystal Crane Hot Springs, a developed Hot Springs campground/RV Park/Cabin place in time for a lovely starlit soak before bed. The next day I set out to explore. The northern part is the southern edge of the Blue Mountains in the Malheur National Forest, but Harney County is largely high desert – the lowest, flattest parts are at about 4500 feet elevation. (This means that the old joke about small towns where the elevation exceeds the population is especially relevant here. Burns, the county seat and biggest local town, has a population that is just over half the elevation.) Much of the rest of the county is open sagebrush country, which also contains the 9,000 foot-plus Steens Mountain, and one of the largest freshwater marshes in North America.
Those two geographical attractions account for most of the tourist traffic to Harney County. The freshwater marsh is nice in itself, but it is also a stop on the Pacific Flyway (just like San Leandro Bay, which I visited earlier this year!) and thousands of migratory birds pass through there each year on their way to other places. I was generally aware of this when I rolled up to the visitor’s center on the South side of Malheur Lake on my first morning, with the intention of picking up a map or a brochure of some good birdwatching spots. I thought there might also be an informational display.
Within five minutes of getting out of the car, I saw a flock of pelicans, a trio of ibises, and watched a great horned owl in a tree through a spotting scope. There were also dozens of other little birds flying about that generated a lot of excitement among other people there, but that I didn’t begin to recognize.
The Refuge is T-shaped. At the top, there are the big lakes, and then it continues South along the Blizen River Valley on the West side of Steens Mountain for about 60 miles, ending at the town of Frenchglen. There’s a gravel road down the middle of it that parallels highway 205. There aren’t even many trails more than a half mile long – the main attraction is watching the birds from wherever you’re at. I saw a lot of things that I couldn’t identify, even with the help of a bird book, but the coolest was probably a pair of Sandhill Cranes.
There’s a bunch of cool ranching history spread around the county, which I visited throughout the trip. There’s a round barn, built by an (in)famous cattle baron for training horses in the harsh winters. There are a few other designated historic barns, and then there are some un-signed crumbling buildings that probably aren’t much newer than any of the “historic” ones. My favorite was the Riddle Brothers Ranch up on the slopes of Steens Mountain. It has a BLM caretaker, and the house, shop, and barn are still furnished with the Riddle Brothers’ furniture and gadgets. It’s also in a beautiful spot, nestled on the Little Blitzen River.
All that is funny to a native New Englander, of course, since the most historic of those structures was still a newer building than some of the houses in my neighborhood growing up. But in New England, those nineteenth century homes just blend into the present-day fabric of a place. These decrepit (sort of) old barns stick out like sore thumbs of history, often in places where there isn’t much present-day activity at all.
I did some delightful hiking up in the lower elevations of the Steens, which I’ll cover in more detail in a later post, and then headed further south, with the idea that I would drive back along the East side of Steens Mountain, gazing at the Alvord Desert on the way. That will have to wait for my next trip, though, because I got tips on two more hot springs to visit (If there weren’t so much else to say, I might do more research and develop a good explanation for the high concentration of hot springs in this area. But for now, I’ll just say it has something to do with the faulting that comes with the Basin and Range geology of the area.)
Borax Hot Springs was too hot for soaking (nearly boiling, according William Sullivan’s 100 Hikes in Eastern Oregon) but very neat to look at. It seemed like if you had the right heat-proof suit and could hold your breath long enough, you could swim to the center of the earth down one of these holes. The other, Willow Creek Hotsprings, was a 25 mile, 90 minute drive from the highway to a lightly developed BLM campground and a perfect temperature for soaking under the one-day-shy of full moon.
The whole week, the weather was generally good, the moon was bright, and the sunrises were wonderful. Except for one night in the Steens when it snowed a bit, I didn’t even sleep in a tent or use a flashlight. A week after I left, though, I found myself wanting to finally sleep past sunrise, so I knew it was time to go home. I got a pleasant little motel room in Burns and a good night’s sleep before driving home.
Stay tuned for more.