On the rim of Kiger Gorge, which cuts into Steens Mountain

As the wings of the 1954 Cessna clear the peaks, Jake Ruhl, a private pilot from Bend, eases the engine back to a quiet murmur. Not far below, the drowsy slopes of Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon have suddenly given way to a jigsaw expanse of gnarled ravines and ridges that crumble toward the east. There on the horizon, an otherworldly sea of brilliant white sand stretches for miles in every direction: the Alvord Desert, a perfect place to land. The altimeter dial spins languidly—9,000 feet, 8,500, 8,000—as we drift toward the flats on a warm cushion of air.

After the wheels tap the ground, Ruhl guns the engine, and we rocket across the midriff of a 66-square-mile alkali lakebed, the landing gear skipping across the cracked sand like stones over water. In minutes we’re within eyeshot of remote hot springs that burble nearly a vertical mile below the rugged peaks. Ruhl kills the engine, and we step out of the plane. Except for a small group of campers in the distance, we are alone.

There are of course more conventional ways to reach Steens Mountain and the Alvord Desert in Harney County. You could drive seven hours or so from Portland or four from Bend, but the result is always the same: a rollicking adventure in a landscape of surreal emptiness and supreme beauty unlike anything offered in the boot-packed Cascades.

Just 7,600 people live in the 10,000-square-mile county.

Steens Mountain, named after 1860s explorer Enoch Steens, is one giant slab of basalt cocked up like a 30-mile-long ramp. It reaches 9,733 feet into the sky and stretches some 50 miles along its crest, making it the largest “fault block” mountain in the Great Basin. The western slope is gentle, with aspen coppices, wild Kiger mustangs, and glacial valleys carved into giant U’s that beg for hiking and horseback riding. The eastern flank drops precipitously toward the Alvord in a jumble of eroded rock that dissolves into the desert’s dusty nothingness below. In between, volcanic forces fire a handful of hot springs and antelope bounce through thigh-high grass, while above eagles hunt on the updrafts. This also happens to be the sole home of the Borax Lake chub, a federally endangered desert minnow whose entire habitat comprises a single shallow lake.

Best of all, no one is here—locals included. Ten-thousand-square-mile Harney County, Oregon’s largest, claims just 7,600 people, a population so sparse that state officials consider this remote region “frontier.” Indeed, bovines outnumber bipeds nearly seven to one, and many of the folks who live off these gravel roads still work as ranch-hand buckaroos. It’s the kind of place where the Wild West endures in place-names like Whorehouse Meadows and Corral Creek, and in the history of at least one gunfight—a settler named Ed Oliver shot ranch owner Pete French right off his horse in 1897 after the two had argued over land and water.

Today things are much more sedate. A few anglers fish the crisp rivers and streams such as Little Blitzen. Trails weave past century-old cabins and bear few footprints. Places to camp under skies unsullied by lights abound—yet there is no need to subsist on cowboy-style rations of pork and beans. The Hotel Diamond, a time-worn inn in the Diamond Valley on the Steens’s northern tip, has excellent beef Wellington, plenty of wine and rooms creaky enough to cause hallucinations of ghosts.