Reflecting on our Alvord Desert trip

June 9, 2023 – We’ve been back in the Portland area for less than a day and are setting back into our routines after a great trip with Jim and friends Matt, Wendy and Jay.

I’m so thankful for the inspiration, guidance, and welcoming friendship Matt provided that resulted in us taking what may be our last tent camping trip – not our last camping trip though.

The whole experience had us talking in the car all the way back about how we can adjust our approach (and gear) to comfortably camp at our age. Perhaps buying a van is in the future. Or renting one.

I was so busy packing and seeing to the details of camp setup and survival that I didn’t take a lot of pictures the first few days. But it was stunning.

Our campsites at Willow Creek Campgrounds near Alvord Desert.
Our campsites at Willow Creek Campgrounds near Alvord Desert. (left) Matt’s Highlander and 2-room tent. (right) Our dome tent. (not pictured) Opposite the tents was Jay and Wendy’s trailer.

Wendy, Jay and I caravanned from northwestern Oregon to southeast Oregon by way of Madras, Bend, Burns, and Basque, then turned west and drove 23 miles on a gravel road to get to BLM’s Willow Creek Campground, where you can use the Willow Creek Hot Springs.

Map of route from Burns, Oregon, to Willow Creek Hot Springs.

We left around 9:30 am and arrived around 10 pm. Matt joined us maybe an hour later. It was so late that we couldn’t find a spot to camp, so we bedded down on the floor of Wendy and Jay’s RV trailer.

I’ve camped many times with my parents and some as an adult, but I am not outfitted or experienced for tent camping. We had a big old tent that did rather well for us, even through some high winds and rain. The Coleman full-size air mattress couldn’t hold its air through the night. Jim’s solar-rechargeable battery ran his CPAP the first night and half of the second (the clouds slowed down charging the second day). We wished we had brought the sleeping bag pads instead of the inflatable air mattress, or cots. We were back in Jay and Wendy’s camper for the third night.

Kitchen setup at Willow Creek Campground.
Kitchen setup at Willow Creek Campground.

I was feeling pretty tired and discouraged on Tuesday night. Limited equipment and inexperience presented ongoing problems. It was hard to find everything I needed for each use. Setting up staging areas for specific purposes would probably help, as would careful organization and labeling. I would have brought a meat thermometer and a large cast-iron pan with lid instead of the lightweight skillet that didn’t cook my chicken evenly. After a few tries, we all gave up on the chicken and I ended up burying it. In general, I spent way too much time gathering and packing gear, setting up the camp, and getting things up and running each morning.

The single burner stove was the hero of my camping experience! It was so easy to use. Jay and Wendy’s RV couldn’t connect to its propane tanks, so they couldn’t cook except with their outdoor grill. Matt’s grill on the back of his Highlander held up well for the meal he cooked – chicken with pasta and pine nuts. I liked this little nozzle built for coke bottles that I was able to use as a rinsing aid.

The refrigerator was unable to reach its propane power source as well, so we relied on four coolers and a couple of ice runs. Things got soggy and disgusting after two days.

The RV’s awning was wonderful for shade, until the wind destroyed it on the day it rained. Jay and Matt spent at least an hour trying to retract it and finally cutting it from the vehicle. Later that day, as we holed up in the RV, we watched spectacular rainstorms all around us and then finally it reached us. The desert smells amazing with its sagebrush and mineral soil.

We enjoyed having an indoor table to play games on, and Wendy again taught us Mahjongg. I think I am getting the hang of it! You have to keep the book open constantly because you can’t ever settle on one hand and stay with it. You need to be able to shift between strategies as new tiles emerge. We also played a couple of games Matt brought – “We Didn’t Play-Test This At All” and a ball-toss game.

The RV’s water pumps developed a problem by Wednesday – we didn’t know if it was the pump or just an empty water tank.

On Wednesday, Jim and I packed up camp, and all of us took the three cars and drove east along mostly gravel roads to Fields, had lunch, and then continued north to the Alvord Desert Playa, a flat, buff-colored expanse of cracked, dry earth surrounded by multicolored mountains.

Alvord Desert Playa
Alvord Desert Playa, a quiet place that feels like it has no limit.

The playa was a short visit, but we drove on it, then got out and played with the dogs. We said our good-byes, and Jim and I continued north and then west toward Burns. Jay, Wendy and Matt took their two vehicles to the west and south, back to Willow Creek.

Wendy, Matt and Jim at Alvord Desert
Wendy, Matt and Jim at Alvord Desert
Jim and Sylvie at the Alvord Desert Playa.
Jim and Sylvie at the Alvord Desert Playa.
Jay, Finnegan and Holly playing at the Playa in Alvord Desert
Jay, Finnegan and Holly playing at the Playa in Alvord Desert.
Holly chasing down a kong at Alvord Desert Playa.
Holly chasing down a kong at Alvord Desert Playa.

Much of our drive north from the playa was gravel until we got on 78.

Multi-colored hill on 78, north of Alvord Desert.
Multi-colored hill on 78, north of Alvord Desert. I saw it from a long ways off and was captivated by the way its many colors changed in the light as we approached it.

Around that time, a huge thunderstorm caught us. It was raining so hard we began hydroplaning a bit on the puddles in the gravel road, and we sometimes couldn’t see in front of us. Pea-sized hail accumulated so fast that we were driving through 2 inches of slush in weather that had dropped from 78 to 46 in about 10 minutes. Jim kept his cool and I tried not to stress him more with my own worries. We saw a motorcyclist waiting out the storm in the overhang of an abandoned store.

We stayed at the Rory & Ryan Best Western in Burns, which felt like a dreamy oasis. Hot showers, soft beds, temperature control, and free breakfast in the morning fixed a lot of what was ailing us.

Chipmunks at a rest stop on 78 west.
Chipmunks at a rest stop on 78 west.

Coming out of Burns around 9:30 am, we continued on 78 west, then connected to 20 and went through Bend. We had lunch in Sisters at Three Creeks, which was fabulous. Then we went home via Salem and got in about 6:15.

We would definitely go back there, and the company was wonderful. Jay and Wendy and their dogs are a delight, and Matt was friendly and easy to spend time with. A great guide to the area and camping in general.

Next time, we’d bring a few different things:

  • A van, not a tent, equipped with mattress or foam pads (no inflatable)
  • Bigger / more powerful solar panels or another way to power the CPAP for several days
  • Fully stocked camp kitchen
  • At least two folding tables
  • More than one collapsible washtub – one for kitchen, one for personal cleaning
  • Meat thermometer
  • Larger camp stove
  • Large cast-iron skillet with lid
  • Larger saucepan with lid
  • 5-gallon water container
  • Simpler meal plans and food
  • Camp stool

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