EXBRO6: Seven Days Overlanding In Eastern Oregon – Without Encountering Another Vehicle

Want to get away from it all? Drive in spectacular scenery on remote “roads” and barely-visible tracks for seven days without encountering a single other car? Just follow the route we took for EXBRO6 (Expedition Broverland #6), and odds are you’ll do just that, assuming you like solitude and wide-open spaces. Yes, we saw wild horses, antelopes, cattle, snakes, eagles and other other wildlife, and of course we had to put up with cars and people when we had to get on a highway to some remote hamlet for gas, ice and milk shakes, but none while we were off the beaten path.

Eastern Oregon was the destination this year, and it covered both familiar territory as well as new.

EXBRO6 wasn’t scheduled to start until Tuesday, June 21, but some of us got a head start. The plan was for the Niedermeyers to meet at Derrick Cave on Sunday night, as son Ted and my nephew Eric were driving down from Portland. I wanted to explore some new territory to get there and set a route using the Gaia GPS app. That took me through some beautiful Ponderosa pine forests east of Gilchrist and Hwy 97. One section it had me take was a very remote and rough little overgrown track, which baptized the Tracker with plenty of pinstripes.

The route took me by the State Champion Western Juniper tree; I had no idea that junipers could get so big.

Turns out that Dimitry (CC’s “dman”) had decided to drive straight through from the Bay Area in his Tacoma, and found his way to Derrick Cave on Sunday night too. We set up camp about a half mile away, at the edge of the Devil’s Garden, an area full of volcanic features like the one right behind us. Great place to explore.

That night was literally the last one of Oregon’s very protracted spring; it was chilly and cloudy, but that would all evaporate for the last time the next day, as summer had finally arrived. Eric (right), who is currently stationed on the East Coast with the Coast Guard, was thrilled to be back in area that I had taken him, Ted and some friends on an extended camping trip 22 years ago.

The next morning we hiked up to Derrick Cave, a lava tube cave created when hot lava continues to move inside the crust of cooled lava, leaving a tube not unlike a post-apocalyptic subway tunnel.

There’s two holes in the beginning part of the cave, which afford a view of the bright world above the dark and cool subterranean one.

Derrick Cave is about a quarter mile long, and once one gets around the bend, it quickly gets darker and darker. At the very end we always turn out our flashlights to experience true total blackness. It’s easy to forget what that’s really like.

Our destination was Green Mountain, and I decided it would be more interesting to find a new way there. There’s a number of “tracks” that show up on maps and GPS apps, but it’s hard to know which ones are really passable or not. We almost gave up on the route I improvised for us, and at one point, it led us right to a remote cattle holding pen. Good thing there was a gate.

Whatever it takes…

Due to an exceptionally long and wet spring, the high desert was lush and flowers were in bloom. I’ve never seen it this green out here.

At one point, Dimitry and Ted stopped to take pictures of the endless flowers. That turned out to a fateful stop.

About a mile up the road, we came to one of many fence gates that had to be opened and closed. As we started pulling out on the far side of the gate, Dimitry radioed: “I’ve got a problem; I can’t move”.  What?

Turns out that he had placed his key fob on the hood of his Tacoma back in that field when they got out to take pictures. His truck had started up (push button starter) but somewhere along the way, his fob obviously bounced off the hood, and now his truck wouldn’t start. Where did the fob bounce off?

Ted and Dimitry decided it must have happened right away, and Ted drove them back to the field to look. But some 15 minutes later, they radioed that they had not found it there. I told them Eric and I would head back that way and look along the way. Sure enough, Eric spotted it in the bushes on the side of the track about half way back. A happy ending to what could have been a serious problem had we not found it. Dimitry would have been enjoying the views of the flowers there for several days…

There were a few times the tracks seemed to peter out, especially because of the lush vegetation, but eventually we worked our way through splendid high desert to Crack In The Ground, a volcanic fissure that occurred approximately between 12,000 and 700,000 years ago, when a lava flowed over the edge of the upthrown side of a concealed fault zone.

It’s always cool down there, and it makes for quite a contrast from the sunny wide-open desert above.

The rock formations look like a set from Star Trek.

We headed up to Green Mountain, which has a very large new fire lookout thanks to its superlative 360 degree views over a very substantial expanse of this chunk of Eastern Oregon. We walked up from our campground to take in the liquid gold sunset, the first of many. It was right about 9PM when that occurred. The one challenging thing about these long days is that it starts getting light again at about 4:45 or so, and when one is sleeping in the car with glass windows all-round, it’s not easy to stay asleep.

The drive down from Green Mountain into Christmas Valley is a long winding gravel road, and I pulled away from the pack to have a bit of fun exploring the Tracker’s tail-wagging limits in the curves. Like all short wheelbase vehicles, it’s willing to rotate all-too readily, especially on loose gravel. Keeps one alert.

In Christmas Valley, we filled up on gas, ice and the diesel Chevette parked next door. My full write up on it is here. If you’re going to encounter other cars out here, let it be a diesel Chevette.

 

Freshly gassed, iced and Chevetteized, we headed west and then turned off the highway unto Burma Road. We stopped below a point on the rim where it was thought we might find the relics of a crashed military airplane up there. We got out and hiked up to the flat mesa beyond the rim.

The GPS coordinates for the crash site were faulty, or we were faulty, because it was not to be found. But the view across the valley and back towards Christmas Valley in the distance mostly made up for that.

To the south we could see where the valley narrowed and closed off, which is where Burma Road would then take a climb over the pass.

It was precisely because I was told that this stretch of road was going to be too slow and rocky for my xB that I decided to buy the Tracker. I documented it by holding my phone and taking some videos while driving.

The $2500 question is whether the xB would have made it here or not. The answer is…most likely yes, but it might have required a bit of clutch slipping and rock-clunking. It wasn’t quite as steep as I imagined it to be, but on the other hand, it did make it very easy by dropping the Tracker into 4Low and just bop along, not having to worry about the rocks or whatever came in its way. Not as challenging, but more relaxing. Take your pick.

The extra bit of ground clearance didn’t hurt either, as some of the rocks were a bit…intrusive. I would have had to dance around some of them to avoid hitting them with my very exposed radiator support bracket in the xB. So, no regrets, but I am tempted to come back with the xB and give it a try.

We then dropped into a vast high valley with a dry lake bed, which had a hillock on one end. I scooted up it, and the others joined me for a photo op.

I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity to pull a few donuts on the soft lake bed. It might have been smarter if I’d closed my windows, but then I had them open 100% of the time when we were off-highway. I like to feel one with nature, dust and all.

I rode in Dimitry’s Tacoma for a stretch, and it was like getting into a Cadillac; so plush, quiet and cool with the a/c on, and so soft riding. Quite the contrast. I prefer to be a bit more directly connected and engaged, even with the dust.

Eric then took Ted’s Tacoma out and showed us how it’s really done. I’m surprised there’s no video of it, because it was pretty dramatic, with the V6 howling in first gear, wide open.

Ted’s Tacoma has the six speed manual, and Dimitry’s has the 6-speed automatic. Dimitry drove Ted’s for a stretch, and was impressed at how seamless it was to find the right balance of throttle and rpm.

Having had our fun, we headed off into the wild yonder again, crested another ridge and looked down into yet another valley that also had a dry lake bed. But getting down to this one turned out to not be quite as easy.

There was a pretty substantial ravine in the middle of the road where all the rain had washed out a big chunk of it. This would turn out to be a bit more challenging than the uphill section. Here Eric takes Ted’s Tacoma through; good thing it has such ample ground clearance, as that rock he went directly over would have snagged my Tracker.

As is my way, I went through fairly briskly and avoided that big rock, thanks in part to the Tracker’s narrower track. It’s very easy to position, thanks to its low and downward-curving hood and high seating position which afford excellent visibility. That’s not the case in the Tacomas.

I couple of rocks jumped up to kiss my undersides, but that was nothing serious.

Dimitry took it slower. And he got lots of help positioning; a bit too much so, it would seem from the soundtrack.

We made camp somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

The Two True Broverlanders.

Ted found the hats at a shop recently, and made sure he had a couple of matching beers to complete the desired and carefully curated imagery. It belongs on Instagram more than on CC.

The camp kitchen kept us very well fed. Stephanie sent me off with her take on beef bourguignon to share, and Ted’s smoked pork went into a number of meals, including his trademark EXBRO sandwiches. Randy brought some venison he’d hunted last fall, and Dimitry kicked in some goodies to too.

I went for a hike, as I did most evenings as the others chewed the fat. Up on the ridge above camp, I found a cow skull, which I brought back and placed on the Tracker’s hood.

It was soon graced with Ted’s hat.

I suddenly found myself appreciating the artistic qualities of the cow patties scattered around. I picked one up and brought it to the campfire to pass around and share, but the others didn’t seem as quite as smitten as I was. It looked like a loaf of highly artisanal rye bread. I found some others that had surprisingly sculptural shapes amid the many flat splats which had obviously been too wet on the way down. Maybe I should collect the best of them and become a cow dung artist? Or tell folks I created it myself out of grass pulp?

My findings weren’t complete yet as I spotted this beautiful snake under Randy’s Sequoia. No rattles on it, so it was harmless.

Dimitry took this shot at 5:38 AM. He wasn’t the only one up then either.

Time to hit the long, lonely and dusty trail again.

The desert was exceptionally alive this time of year.

image from the web

We were headed for Hart Mountain, which looms over the great basin to the east of it. It’s the focal point of the Hart Mountain National Antelope Preserve, and there’s also hot springs at the top, along with a camp ground.

image from the web

It was noon, but that didn’t stop us dusty cowboys from hopping into the hot pool. It was blissful. Despite the noon sun, at that altitude it was cool enough to feel great. For that matter, we had perfect weather the whole time, with day time peak temps in the mid-upper 80s; of course the air is so dry it feels cooler than that.

There’s also a couple of natural hot spring pools nearby. Stephanie and I spent a superb couple of days up here a few years back in our van, which included a hike up towards Mt. Warner as well as a hike to Petroglyph Lake.

We had lunch after our soak, and then headed down the east side of Hart Mountain, into the vast Guano Valley. Our ultimate destination, Steens Mountain, can be seen in the distant horizon to the left in this shot. But we weren’t heading straight there.

“Bio-stops” were called for over the radio every once in a while, and this shot catches no less than three members of the party offloading bio fluids, although I didn’t notice that until I looked at it closely at home.

Having heeded nature’s call, we heeded nature once more. We all had radios, so in dusty higher-speed sections we spread out considerably, up to a quarter mile or more apart.

Our destination was Shirk Ranch. It was originally homesteaded in 1881, and bought by David Shirk in 1883, who operated it until 1914. Shirk used it mainly as a horse raising ranch, as he had a vast cattle ranch in Catlow Valley, some 50 miles west. Records from 1887 list it as having 887 acres, later expanded to 1080. After 1914, it was owned by several entities, including a bank, through foreclosure. The US government (BLM) acquired the property in 1942, and continued to lease it to cattle operators in the area.

Ranch hands lived in the main house, which was built in 1910, until the 1980s. There are magazines and catalogues still around from the 1950s through the 1970s. The bricks on this wall in the living room were behind a wood stove added in later years.

The innersprings of mattresses are still in the bedrooms.

The dining room table.

The kitchen sink.

Upstairs there are two more bedrooms and a large room, used as a bunkhouse in later years.

Thanks to its galvanized steel roof, it’s stayed fairly intact, although there have not yet been efforts yet to stabilize the various historic structures on the ranch. It’s been listed on the the National Register of Historic Places since 2009

The view from the barn. There was also a blacksmith shop with remnants of tools and pieces of equipment.

A cow died out back not that long ago, as there were still pieces of fur on it.

We set up camp behind the ranch complex, and got ready for another glorious evening.

I got the Tracker ready for bed, which involved pushing the passenger seat all the way forward, unfolding my plywood platform and putting the two pieces of foam into place. It worked out very well in there, as I had room for my cooler and other gear alongside the bed.

Another spectacular sunset.

There’s a creek and related marsh that runs nearby, which is maintained for migratory birds.

The next morning our route took us south, to the southern terminus of Guano Valley.

A herd of antelope heard or saw us coming, and off they ran, kicking up a cloud of dust.

Our route crossed vast valleys and at times over high ridges that afforded views, including distant Steens Mountain on the left.

We eventually picked up highway 140, which dips into Nevada for a while, through the little hamlet of Danio where we gassed up for $8/gallon. And then we headed north, which took us to Fields, Oregon (this is all of it), which has a take out restaurant known for its milkshakes as well as burgers and such. It does a brisk business in the summer.

The milkshake menu is comprehensive. We indulged ourselves; I had blackberry.

The gas here was even higher, at $9.10/gallon. Gas was just about our only expense, so not exactly a hardship. I remember a trip to Death Valley in 1976 and seeing my first gas there for over a dollar. Wow…

From Fields we headed north along the east side of Steens Mountain to the Alvord Desert, a vast (usually) dry lake bed. The plan had been to soak in the hot springs there, then drive across the playa (dry lake bed) to the northern tip, and look for a little track to take us northeast to Mickey Hot Springs.

As we approached the lake bed, I could see that there was a substantial actual lake on it, thanks to our exceptionally wet spring. It sat on the northern half of the bed, exactly where we planned to go. The caretaker at the hot springs told us that it might possibly be passable along the far east side, but did not recommend it. A tow truck had to pull out some kids a few days earlier in that area.

image from the web

So we paid our $15 each (up from $8 in 2018, and free back in the good old days, when it was unattended) and had a long soak, with a lengthy discussion with two other soakers about certain advantages of vintage lawn mowers and the business of house moving.

This meant that we weren’t going to be able to cross the playa at Alvord like we did the previous year, when this video was shot. I never did write up our final two day last year, so this has been waiting since then.

Randy had his drone take a video of us last year too, which gives a better sense of its size: 12 miles long and 7 miles wide.

So we had to detour around the lake, and headed for Mickey Hot Springs.

The pools at Mickey Hot Springs look so inviting, but they’re boiling hot. Despite the many signs, some people have lost their lives here or were severely burned.

There’s several smaller vents, where the water churns and bubbles at regular intervals, as well as others that emit steam and hot air.

Since Eric had missed out on the opportunity to drive on the playa, Ted, Eric and I decided to try to get to it from the north. We saw several dust devils working their way across the surface; one of them went up several thousand feet.

We kept a wary eye on them, although I assured Eric that we weren’t going to be picked up and be dropped in Oz if one did hit the Tracker. As it turned out, a smaller one did pass right over us, and for a change, I quickly closed the windows an instant before it hit us. Some good turbulence, but no lift-off.

We drove on for some distance, and finally approached the playa through the bushes. But as we turned a curve in the bushes, we were confronted with a canal instead of sand: the end of the road. There would no Tracker land speed records set this year.

We turned around and headed back to camp at Mickey Hot Springs. Ted, Eric and Randy did some target shooting over the ridge while I took my usual hike.

Back at camp we watched the sky turn golden once again.

It cools off so quickly in the bone-dry high desert air.

 

The next morning we headed northerly and then easterly, towards the Idaho border. We forded some deep mud pools, and Randy’s Sequoia front guard and license plate got bent back some. Last year that same guard took a hit too. A sacrificial element?

Dimitry’s Tacoma was now fully baptized with Eastern Oregon mud and dust.

The goal was to give Eric as much wheel time as possible, so he alternated between the Tracker and Ted’s Tacoma.

I had Ted drive the Tracker for the next stretch to this remote ranch outpost, and he loved it. It was deemed much more fun or drive than the Tacoma, with its great visibility and light, small and narrow body. Out on these roads, its four speed automatic wasn’t a liability. Steens Mt. is still visible in the background.

We checked out the “tiny house”. Presumably it had been used until not too long ago.

The view to the other direction; the outhouse was off to the left.

This lonely windmill once pumped water to cattle. Near the Idaho line, we decided to call it quits heading east and got on Hwy 95 heading south a bit, and then traversed Whitehorse Valley on the Whitehorse Valley Road. No  pictures taken, despite the scenery.

We hit the Denio-Fields road, headed south and then took Hwy. 140 heading west. There were a number of wild animal crossing signs.

Highway 140 traverses the southern reaches of Oregon, and crosses numerous ridges and rifts. Our destination was Lakeview, near Goose Lake, for a badly needed fuel stop. I was a bit worried, as this last two days had been improvised, and I had not put gas in the cans on my roof, as I assumed I wouldn’t need it. But the gauge was getting low, and the poor Tracker was really struggling at highway speed, given a prevailing westerly wind, the high altitude, the rooftop basket with gear, the larger tires which changed its gearing, and the rather weak-chested 130 hp 2.0 L four.

It couldn’t even manage most of the flat sections out here in fourth (OD) gear, having to wind along in third at 4,000 rpm. I could see my gas gauge dropping quickly. So I asked Randy on the radio if he minded if I drafted his big Sequoia. “Sure!”  It made a huge difference; the transmission now kept fourth gear, and my foot wasn’t pushing nearly as hard. And I made it to Lakeview with gas to spare.

The Tracker’s fuel mileage was not stellar, running around 22-23 mpg, barely better than the big V6 Tacomas. Last year in Nevada, the xB averaged a solid 32 mpg for the whole trip.

We had planned to take in another soak at Summer Lake Hot Springs, but the hot pool was closed to day use, and some big private event was on. So we found an alternative at Hunter’s Hot Springs in Lakeview.

Our last camping destination was Currier Horse Camp up on the top of Winter Rim, overlooking Summer Lake.

Up there at some 7,000 feet altitude, it wasn’t quite winter anymore; more like spring, with lush grass and gobs of wildflowers, and much cooler temperatures.

Ted’s new Rainer Beer-branded tent.

And his matching “napsack”, or whatever that garment is called.

In the early morning I took a walk through the wildflowers and found myself at the rim.

The view was epic.

After breakfast, we all went back to the rim, and savored the last views of the trip, looking east across the expanses that we had traversed in the past five days.

It was time to say our goodbyes, as Ted would be heading back to Portland solo, Dimitry had a long drive back to the Bay Area, and Eric and I were heading to Eugene.

But that wasn’t the end of the back roads driving for Eric and I, as I made up a route that took us  through forests for several hours until we hit 97 near Chemult, and then headed home via 58 and Willamette Pass. I was in no hurry to get back on the highway.

On Sunday, we went to the Malaise Car Show near Eugene, and then Eric flew home Monday morning.

And I cleaned up the Tracker.

Speaking of, I now need to consider its future. I vastly prefer driving the xB, and I’m still pondering putting in a limited slip differential into it, to make it more off-road compatible. I really like the idea of one efficient vehicle being able to meet my needs, other than the van or truck. But putting in an LSD and dealing with its intermittent clutch release bearing issue would mean it’ll be out of commission for a while. So I’ll probably keep the Tracker around for a while.

If it had a manual transmission, I might feel different. I really prefer telling the car what gear I want to be in, even if it means lugging along at full throttle up a hill at 2,000 rpm in a higher gear. You just can’t do that with an automatic.

 

All photos and videos by Eric, Ted and Paul Niedermeyer and Dimitry Struve.

Related reading:

Nevada Overland Trip (EXBRO5), Day 1: Alkali Flat Hot Springs To Pine Creek

Nevada Overland Trip (EXBRO5), Day 2: Pine Creek To Somewhere In The Toiyabe Range Near Austin – The xB Meets Its Match

Nevada Overland Trip (EXBRO5) Day 3 and 4: Toiyabe Range to Lamoille Canyon

Roadtrip: A Seven Day 1700 Mile Loop of the Mountains and Deserts of Eastern Oregon in Our Promaster Van