The Big Empty
by Rachel Ritchie
The landscape of southeastern Oregon lifts you up and swallows you whole. Some call it the Big Empty, but this dry, sprawling, mountain-studded swath of earth is brimming with beguiling geologic gems, extraordinary wildlife, and the mythic history of Oregon’s earliest days. And whatever you do, don’t miss the state’s best milkshake.
Alvord Hot Springs
Mesmerized by the sound of tires on gravel and riveted by the sight of the majestic Steens Mountain, you might easily overlook this small corrugated-steel shack just off E Steens Road. But you’d be wise to seek out the bubbling hot springs here. While soaking your road-weary body in a pool of 112-degree mineral water, a surreal theater will unfold on the stark white playa—from shimmering mirages to languid sunsets and unraveling cloud banks.
Access: Just east of E Steens Road, 65 miles south of Route 78
The perfect antidote to a day spent baking in the Alvord Desert lies in the lonely town of Fields (population: about 12), where you’ll be greeted by the welcome oasis of Fields Station—a combination café, gas station, general store, post office, motel, and RV park. Saddle up on one of the counter’s eight seats and prepare to be soothed by what have to be the most divinely down-home cheeseburgers, fries, and milkshakes anywhere.
22276 Fields Dr, Fields; 541-495-2275
In the Diamond Valley, where lava fields and rambling ranches abut the verdant marshlands of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (a mecca for bird lovers), you’ll find the stately Hotel Diamond. Eight modestly appointed rooms in this 111-year-old bed-and-breakfast set you up for exploring the diverse valley. The decadent home-cooked meals (fresh-baked bread, meatballs, and buttermilk pie) served nightly will etch this place into your gustatory memory for years to come.
10 Main St, Diamond; 541-493-1898; central-oregon.com/hoteldiamond
Peter French Round Barn
The legend of Peter French, Oregon’s first cattle king, looms large in this part of the state, and a lasting monument to the surly rancher’s empire sits just 20 miles north of Diamond. A simple marvel of construction, this circular barn, supported by 12 unmilled juniper posts, is where French trained horses each winter. Stop by the Round Barn Visitor Center for an informative tour, or wander at your own pace, admiring the lava-rock corral and the sunbeams that sift through countless holes in the shingled roof.
Steens Mountain Loop Tour Route
Every stretch of road in southeastern Oregon seems to unveil another jaw-dropping vista. But the dramatic beauty of these arid climes culminates on this scenic loop—reaching 9,733 feet, it’s the highest road in Oregon—that darts east from Frenchglen to lead you through sagebrush steppe, juniper woodlands, and aspen groves to the vertiginous rim of Steens Mountain. Keep an eye out for pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and golden eagles as you twist and turn along a sequence of sublime viewpoints.
Access: Steens Mountain N Loop Road, east of Frenchglen
Scientists gush over this 17,000-acre patch of earth, which, geologically speaking, is unlike any other place in North America. Step out of the car at the 12 stops along this 40-mile dirt road, and you’ll be surrounded by every feature of basaltic volcanism conceivable. As you scramble over the rocks, moving backward in geologic time, you might imagine the landscape as it appeared 17,000 years ago—lava slides oozing, boulders (or “volcanic bombs”) launching skyward, and cinder cones spewing ash and dust.
Access: Junction of Lava Bed and Happy Valley Road —Alexandra Berke