Alvord Desert, OR.

By admin on September 15, 2010

Our planned trip to the Alvord Desert, a dry lake bed in the middle of Eastern Oregon, got off to a bad start due to fog in the morning. It wasn’t until 10:30am that it had cleared sufficiently for us to take-off and head eastwards to the Willamette Valley and over the Cascade Mountains beyond.

The temperatures had been down on those of a few weeks before so we were confident that winds over the Cascades wouldn’t be a problem for us. As we climbed out over the Coast Range we were confronted by cloud cover right into the Cascade foothills, this would be yet another occassion of flying VFR over the top. We planned on stopping at the resort town of Sunriver which is situated just over the highest terrain in the eastern foothills. Here we would gas up for the trip out into the remoteness of the high desert area and over the Steens Mountains to the Alvord.

VFR Over The Top across the Coast Range and Willamette Valley to the Cascade foothills. The high terrain in the background is Prairie Peak, Grass Mountain and Marys Peak.

We routed direct to Sunriver, which would take us just to the south of the Sisters Mountains and Mount Bachelor, and climbed to our crossing altitude of 9,500ft. This would give us a smoother flight and some better views of the scenery. At 9,000ft the temperature dropped noticeably and we gained another 15 knots ground speed thanks to a tailwind. Below us was thick forest and numerous small, isolated lakes, some of which looked like mosquito factories.

Sisters Mountains.

Mount Bachelor.

Lakes in amongst the thick forest.

The mountains, as always, looked fantastic with only a few small puffs of clouds which were actually the beginnings of some severe thunderstorms later on in the day! Just to the east of the Cascades was a more ominous sight, a line of developing CBs that looked extremely volatile, we would have to keep our eyes out during our flight. As we passed by Mount Bachelor we started our descent down the eastern slopes to Sunriver. Sunriver is a great stopping place and a popular vacation town, unfortunately we could only stay a short while to fill up with AVGAS and have a drink.

Sunriver Airport.

It was not until after midday that we were once again airborne and heading to the southeast and around the high terrain surrounding Paulina Peak. After Paulina the terrain turns from forested hills to flat prairie and some pretty rugged cliffs, gorges and hillsides. We flew over the Fort Rock Natural Area, an ancient volanic crater that stands proud of the ground and creates a stiking feature in an otherwise flat area. Slightly to the west of Fort Rock is another ancient crater which is imaginatively called Hole In The Ground.

Hole In The Ground Crater

Fort Rock Natural Area.

Once past Fort Rock the landscape becomes more and more rugged and remote. We passed to the south of the town of Christmas Valley, the last serious habitation we would see until we left the Alvord Desert and had reached the town of Burns, some 70 miles to the north of the area. The scenery was now made up of rugged prairie, barren desert and the occassional track and road. Deep canyons and rocky hills were the only features to add interest to the views. Above us were building cumulous clouds and these were adding to the turbulant air caused by a 15 knot southwesterly wind, it wasn’t too rough at all but there were a few uncomfortable moments.

Some of the more interesting scenery to the east of Christmas Valley.

We had some concerns in the preceding days before our departure as to the dryness of the desert, there had been days of rain and showers and, understandably, information on the conditions in the area are hard to come by.

Dried up lakes and ponds.

We were reasurred when we started flying over dried up lakes and ponds which had been dug to provide water for livestock. The plan was to let Richard, who was following us with Carol in their Aeronca Champ, know whether the conditions were favourable for landing and if they were not we would all divert direct to Burns. This plan was not required as when the desert floor came into sight it looked almost bone dry with only a small patch of water in the center. We crossed the Steens at a low point to the south of the desert and descended through the air flow that was spilling over the ridge with us. Once we were 1,000ft below the ridgeline the airflow disappeared and the air was smooth, we descended to the desert floor looking for a place to land.

The Alvord Lake which is to the south of the desert.

Crossing the Steens Mountains, with the Alvord Desert becoming visible in the background.

The Alvord Desert. We landed to the south of this stream, close to the hot spring.

Having so much area to land in it was confusing where to set down. Obviously the wet patch was to be avoided and so where the darker areas that we assumed were wet patches of mud. I decided to touchdown on some of the lighter brown ground and not the bright white area, I hoped that some car tracks which were more visible in these would help me with depth perception on final. Using the GPS I worked out which direction the wind was coming from (comparing ground speed on GPS to the indicated airspeed, the wind was actually from the north) and had a fun approach flying low over the desert surface. Our touchdown and roll out were really smooth, the ground was surpisingly level with only a few small stones scattered here and there.

Tango Charlie parked up on the Alvord Desert in front of the Steens Mountains.

The Alvord Desert is a vaste area.

A close-up of the desert floor. The light brown ground is hard but with a little bit of give, and is not as dusty as the lighter areas.

A picture of Tango Charlie taken from the arriving Aeronca.

After 20 minutes or so the Aeronca came into sight over one of the dips at the top of the Steens Mountains, the sound of its engine made us realise the quietness of the desert and after landing and shutdown the silence was the first thing we all talked about. By the time we were airborne once again and on our way to Burns we were all enamored by the place, it’s certainly a magical place to fly into.

The Aeronca descending to the desert…..

….and touchdown

Tango Charlie and the Aeronca parked up.

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