Having never been to the far reaches of Eastern Oregon, we felt like this was a good time to get that knocked off our bucket list. Some of the highlights of the area are Steens Mountain, Alvord Desert, Leslie Gulch, and Jordan Craters. This would be our one last road trip before departing on our round-the-world trip. With it being such a remote part of Oregon, good preparation was critical as anything could happen. Fortunately we had an incredible trip, but it wasn’t quite what we expected.
The Drive to Burns
Starting in Portland, we had a grueling 6-hour drive to our first campsite which was about an hour south of Burns. We first drove east over beautiful Mount Hood, and then watched the climate drastically change from rain forest to desert. After we arrived at Madras, the rest of the scenery was mostly barren desert, with an ever-shrinking Mt. Hood in the rear-view mirror. We just pumped up some tunes and got through the drive as quickly as possible. Burns was our last main city before we started the real adventure, and this is also where things started to slide a bit in the wrong direction.
Upon arriving in Burns, gas was the first priority. Unfortunately having never been to Burns, it was difficult to know what to expect. The first gas station was a Sinclair. My car runs on the premium stuff and all they had was 87 octane. I knew my car would run rough on the low octane gas, but I hadn’t yet seen another option. So I went for it, and then things got ugly. The car started running horribly, and had trouble starting. After this, my goal was to get some better gas and hope that it would help the situation. We made it down to the first campsite to meet our other friends and then it was decision time. Do we turn back or keep going?
Turn Back or Proceed
Our first stay was at Page Springs Campground, where we explained to our friends that the car was having trouble. With that said, we could either turn back to Burns and try to get it fixed, or keep pushing forward with the trip. I really didn’t want to sacrifice the trip as we had limited time, so I took the chance and pushed forward. Once I got enough premium gas through the tank things did improve quite a bit. The gas mileage looked good, the power improved, but the engine light was now on. The next place with repair shops wouldn’t be until we got near Idaho in the Jordan Valley. It seemed worth it to just keep going since the symptoms improved. Now that we had friends with us, a second car was around in case the car broke down.
When this trip was first planned, Alvord was what I was looking forward to most. It is a 12 by 7 mile former lake bed, and is one of the driest places in Oregon, with only 7 inches of rain per year. When you look it it it seems kind of like cracked porcelain, but changes to different colors depending on where you are. The ground is very level and makes for some awesome driving. Imagine driving in any direction you want without any limits. All you can see behind you is a smoke-screen of dirt and a huge open space ahead of you. I just wanted to drive around in circles or long-haul it across the entire lake bed. It was like I was a kid on Christmas getting all of my favorite toys all at once. In the end, my car was so dusty and so were we.
After a little playing on la playa, we discussed where we would be camping for the night. Knowing there was plenty of wind, we tried to camp somewhere more protected. Once we decided on the southwest end of the desert, we went to Alvord Hot Springs to get cleaned up and soak for a bit.
Upon getting back to camp, heavy winds started up while we played Rummikub with our friends. We later called the game “windy cube” as our pieces were being blown around. After playing a few games, we turned in.
Our campsite wasn’t as protected as we thought, as we literally got sand-blasted in the middle of the night. The winds blew sand through the mesh windows of our tent into our eyes and nose – even with a fly that stretched to the ground. Needless to say, we didn’t sleep much. We woke up to a beautiful sunrise that somehow made the suffering worth it.
Arriving at Leslie Gulch, we were immediately impressed with the awesome rock formations which appeared to be violently pushed up from underground. The colors were a deep reddish-brown mixed in with some green vegetation. Hiking there was surreal, with something more magnificent around every corner.
We made camp near the Owyhee River after driving down a fifteen-mile dirt road. We were relieved that the car was running better and feeling confident that the bad fuel was the problem.
We let our guard down. But then something else happened.
As I was setting up the tent, I accidentally broke one of the critical poles right at the connection point. I asked around to see if anyone had some tape I could use to patch it up. Thankfully this kind old man had some, and I was able to get the tent set up. We were very grateful for the kindness of the fishermen who helped us out.. even more grateful that the tent didn’t collapse on us that night..
We originally went to Leslie Gulch first because the car was acting up. With the car seeming to be getting better, we double-backed to Jordan Craters, and we are glad we did. This area reminded me a lot of Hawaii, as it is a lava field with some big craters that you can look down in or even hike to the lava bed. Since I love volcanoes, this was a real treat. I hiked down a couple of times to take pictures and even managed to get my drone up. The views from the top were amazing and felt out of this world.
One of our group members came prepared to repel down into one of the craters for photos, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort to climb out of it. We ended up hiking around for a couple hours before proceeding onward to the Jordan Valley.
A Night in Pendleton
We stayed in Pendleton to break up the drive home and also see the Woolen Mill for a tour. The tour was better than I thought it would be. We could see the different patterns used in blankets and clothing going through the machines. This was also a nice place to feel reconnected to city life and its amenities with a hotel stay. We ate dinner at Prodigal Sun Brewery – a favorite haunt of our friend’s – and enjoyed a good burger and drinks. It was much better than eating the freeze-dried meals we had been eating while camping the previous few days.
Final Drive Home
The rest of the drive was uneventful, although the car was making some new sounds that were a bit concerning. We stopped off in Hood River for lunch and then immediately drove the rest of the way back. We made the entire trip without the car failing us completely, although it was always on our minds. We didn’t want to repeat Idaho, and thankfully we didn’t get stranded.
Unfortunately that was the last time it ever ran. The very next time I tried starting it, the engine wouldn’t turn over. I had it towed to a shop, and they diagnosed it as having a bent engine valve. The cost to fix it was more than the car was worth so I made the tough decision to sell it for parts. The car was totaled. A big ouch, but at least it gave us our last road trip before leaving Oregon to travel the world. It was nice enough to wait until we were safely home before breaking down completely.
We had a choice to turn back in Burns and spend a week trying to get the car fixed without enjoying a moment of the trip. In the end, the mechanic assured me the failure was inevitable, so I’m glad we didn’t let it ruin our plans. We took the risk, things worked out, and now the car is gone. It was a nice last hurrah.
Have you had a road trip that didn’t quite go the way you expected?
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