Because water is scarce here in the high desert, it becomes a magnet for wildlife wherever it appears. Three marshy lakes -- Malheur, Harney, and Mud -- south of Burns cover such a vast area and provide such an ideal habitat for birdlife that they have been designated the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The shallow lakes, surrounded by thousands of acres of marshlands, annually attract more than 300 species of birds, including waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds, and raptors. Some of the more noteworthy birds that are either resident or migratory at Malheur are trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, white pelicans, great blue herons, and great horned owls. Of the more than 58 mammals that live in the refuge, the most visible are mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and coyotes, but I once saw a bobcat near the visitor center.
The refuge headquarters is 32 miles south of Burns on Ore. 205, but the refuge stretches for another 30 miles south to the crossroads of Frenchglen. The refuge is open daily from dawn to dusk. The visitor center, where you can find out about recent sightings and current birding hot spots, is open weekdays and most weekends during the spring and summer, while a museum housing a collection of nearly 200 stuffed-and-mounted birds is open daily. About 6 miles north of the visitor center, you can visit Historic Sod House Ranch, which at one time was the northern headquarters for the huge ranch created by 19th-century rancher Peter French (for whom the nearby community of Frenchglen is named). The ranch preserves several historic buildings, including a 116-foot-long barn. The ranch, which is part of the wildlife refuge, is open August 15 to October 15 daily from 8am to 4pm, and there are guided interpretive tours when volunteers are available. Camping is available at the Bureau of Land Management's Page Springs Campground near Frenchglen (tel. 541/573-4400; www.blm.gov/or/districts/burns/index.php). For more information on the refuge, contact Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, 36391 Sodhouse Lane, Princeton, OR 97721 (tel. 541/493-2612; www.fws.gov/malheur). Bird-watchers may also want to make their way west from Malheur to Summer Lake, which is roughly midway between Lakeview and Bend on Ore. 31. The birding here can be as good as at Malheur.
East of the wildlife refuge, you can drive through the scenic Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area. Along a 40-mile route, partially on gravel roads, you can explore a bizarre landscape of lava domes, volcanic craters, and lava flows. The route begins at Diamond Junction on Ore. 205 north of Frenchglen and winds its way toward New Princeton on Ore. 78. For more information, contact the Bureau of Land Management Burns Office, 28910 U.S. 20 W., Hines, OR 97738 (tel. 541/573-4400; www.blm.gov/or/districts/burns).
Steens Mountain, at 9,733 feet high, is a different sort of desert oasis. This mountain rises so high that it creates its own weather, and on the upper slopes the sagebrush of the high desert gives way to juniper and aspen forests. From Frenchglen, there's a 66-mile loop road that leads to the summit and back down by a different route. Due to early snows and lingering snow in the spring, this road is usually open only between July and October. Even then the road is not recommended for cars with low clearance, but if you have the appropriate vehicle, it's well worth a visit.
Steens Mountain is a fault-block mountain that was formed when the land on the west side of a geological fault line rose in relationship to the land on the east side of the fault. This geologic upheaval caused the east slope of Steens Mountain to form a precipitous escarpment that falls away to the Alvord Desert a mile below. From the summit of Steens Mountain, the panorama across southeastern Oregon is spectacular. The road leads almost to the summit, but then you'll have to walk 5 or 10 minutes to the very top of the peak. Stretched out below you when you stand on the summit, or at the nearby East Rim Overlook, are four glacier-carved gorges--Kiger, Little Blitzen, Big Indian, and Wildhorse. From near the summit, a steep and strenuous trail leads down into Wildhorse Gorge to Wildhorse Lake. Although the round-trip hike is only 2.6 miles in length, it involves descending and then ascending 1,100 feet to and from the floor of the gorge. And there are wild horses in the area, known as Kiger mustangs.
For more information on Steens Mountain or the Alvord Desert, which is only accessible via a 64-mile gravel road, contact the Bureau of Land Management Burns Office, 28910 U.S. 20 W., Hines, OR 97738 (tel. 541/573-4400; www.blm.gov/or/districts/burns/index.php).
More wildlife-viewing opportunities are available at the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, which is a refuge for both pronghorns, the fastest land mammal in North America, and California bighorn sheep. The most accessible location for viewing pronghorns is the refuge headquarters, 49 miles southwest of Frenchglen on gravel roads. Bighorn sheep are harder to spot and tend to keep to the steep cliffs west of the refuge headquarters. Primitive camping is available near the headquarters at Hot Springs Campground, where there is a hot spring. For more information, contact the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, P.O. Box 21, Plush, OR 97637 (tel. 541/947-2731; www.fws.gov/sheldonhartmtn/Hart/index.html).
If you'd like to learn more about the history of this region, I recommend stopping by the Round Barn Visitor Center, 91555 Lava Bed Rd., Diamond (tel. 888/493-2420; www.roundbarn.net), which also operates Jenkins Tours. The tour company offers several different tours, including trips to Steens Mountain and heritage tours. Call for rates.
Up to Your Neck in Hot Water
It takes hours to get anywhere in this neck of the woods, and at the end of a long drive, nothing feels better than getting up to your neck in hot water. Out here in the wilds of the Oregon outback, there are a couple of developed, though rustic, hot springs where you can have a soak and rent a cabin, park an RV, or pitch a tent. Summer Lake Hot Springs, 41777 Ore. 31, Paisley, OR 97636 (tel. 541/943-3931; www.summerlakehotsprings.com), 125 miles southeast of Bend on Ore. 31, has rock-lined, open-air soaking pools and a hot swimming pool inside an old barn. There are also two houses ($125-$150 per night) and two adorable cabins done in a sort of architectural salvage/shabby-chic styling ($75 per night). This place is something of a counterculture resort and is particularly busy during summer music festivals and before and after the Burning Man festival in Nevada.
Crystal Crane Hot Springs, 59315 Ore. 78, Burns, OR 97720 (tel. 541/493-2312; www.cranehotsprings.com), 25 miles east of Burns on Ore. 78, is a bit less off the beaten path if you happen to be out this way birding at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Here you'll find a hot-springs-fed pond for swimming ($3.50 day-use fee) and several indoor private soaking tubs that can be rented by the hour ($7.50 per person per hour; reservations recommended). Crystal Crane rents out five tiny cabins, one of which has a half bathroom (the others share bathroom facilities). Cabin rates are $45 to $65 for a double.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.