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

Mid October has been a magical time for us to be on the road. Often a high pressure builds over the whole Western US and extends into the Pacific Northwest, bringing sunshine, crisp dry air, endless visibility, along with fall colors and of course fewer folks to have to share it with. Many of our best trips in the Dodge Chinook were in October.

But about ten years ago, when we set out to explore Oregon’s eastern half in the Chinook, the weather turned bad and the trip was foreshortened. So when another high pressure appeared recently, we decided to hit the road in the Promaster van, even though it’s not completely finished. This time the weather held; in fact it was the mildest, clearest October weather in my memory. Time to head to Eastern Oregon.

A caveat: I wasn’t planning to document this trip in detail, and so I didn’t take a lot of pictures. I’ve never been a big nature photographer, and  big landscapes are not an iphone’s forte. I took some after the first day or so, but I’ll augment from the web in a few cases.

Google maps stupidly won’t allow more than 10 destinations, so I need to break it down into three maps. We didn’t leave Eugene until about 3PM on Friday, so our destination was the Ochoco Mountains, where camping would be readily available off any US Forest Road. After crossing the Cascades and stopping for dinner at Prineville, it was dark by the time we hit the Ochoco Natl. Forest. But a few miles down a gravel road I found a very suitable pull-off in the deep woods, in utter solitude.

from the web

As I stepped out the back door of the van, I was almost overcome by the moonless night sky. One just forgets what it can look like under the right conditions: high altitude and no light pollution combined with the clear dry air. This is why we come here.

This shot from the web of the area gives a good idea of the pine forests and clear rivers in the Ochocos in the daytime. Little Man was excited to get out and start chasing squirrels.

We entered the John Day River valley, with its green banks and layer-cake bluffs (from the web).

Our next stop was Sumpter, home of the Sumpter Valley Railroad and the Sumpter Dredge. The last time I was here was back in the spring of ’95, when my older son Ted and I made our first exploratory trip of Eastern Oregon. The timing of our arrival was perfect, as two of the railroad’s steam trains were in full steam and getting ready to depart on a fan excursion (the normal season ends in September).

This 3′ narrow gauge railroad was once part of an extensive line from Baker City to Prairie City, hauling mainly timber, but abandoned in the 1940s. In the early 1970s, fans started rebuilding a 5 mile stretch from Sumpter, and finding any remaining locomotives and rolling stock. This is their 40 ton Heisler, which once ran on the Sumpter and was built in 1915.

This is a geared engine, as was common on steep logging railroads. The two cylinders, are in a vee formation, and one can be seen clearly in this shot.

They are joined at a common crankcase in the center of the engine, and then driveshafts connect it to the two trucks, one in front and one in back. This gearing allows for maximum tractive force, but of course means speeds are modest, at best.

A bit further down the tracks one of the lines two “Mikado” 2-8-2 conventional locos was ready to roll too.

It had a couple of freight cars and a water tank, presumably for the engines.


I shot a short video of the Heisler as it clattered by.

And here I’m being shot while shooting. I do love me some old vintage steamers.

The Sumpter dredge is an interesting relic too. It’s a meadow-eating monster, literally. These gold-digger dredges were assembled from parts brought in by the railroad. This was the last of several, built in 1923 and operating until 1954.

Its bucket brigade on the front end was swung back and forth in the wide river valley’s meadows, sending the gravel under the meadow’s surface into the gold-separating machinery inside. The dredge created its own pond as it excavated the meadows, and thus stayed afloat, barely.

Here’s some of the machinery inside. It was operated by several electric motors, via cables. The dedicated hydro generating plant was 19 miles away upriver in Granite.

And the “bathroom”, which hung out over its sides.

The tailings were spit out the back at the end of this auger. The piles in the background are a tiny sample of what its many decades of work left behind: a five mile wide river valley of these rock piles. But it was operated profitably until 1954.

Granite, Oregon is another former boom town that became a ghost town and is now coming back to life, with a growing population, city escapees, undoubtedly.

From Granite we took the Elkhorn Scenic Byway, which first heads north than back to the east. I have a hard time remembering seeing one other car, but the views were superb, as this road goes over 7,000 feet high. Which led to our (and the van’s) first encounter with snow, the remnants of the first of the season that fell the previous week. On some shady uphill sections, the snow and ice still covered the whole road, and I was beginning to wonder if it would get worse and we might have some difficulty in making it up to the top. It was the first time—but not the last—where I began to wonder if not having 4WD was going to be missed in this van (it’s not available on the Promaster).

(from the web)

We could see the Wallowa Mountains in the distance, our next destination. The Wallowas are different from the volcanoes in the cascade range; they are a tight clump of rugged mountains and are totally in a wilderness zone. That makes access to their peaks and interior regions more difficult.

We spent the night off a forest road on the west slopes of the Wallowas.

That means backpacking is generally required to get deep into the Eagle’s Cap area, but we were hoping to make a few of the day hikes that would at least get us close. But that snow, which fell down to about 5-6 thousand feet, made that unrealistic.

I did find one hike in the guide book up to a meadow that topped out at about 5,700 feet that looked doable. We hit some snow near the top, in the shady areas.

But the huge meadow was snow-free and it was very mild up there. The larches were turning, adding to the fall color. Larch trees are essentially deciduous conifers, that shed their needles every year.

There’s lots of old cars, trucks and tractors out here, since the dry air keeps things from rusting away. I didn’t stop much, but these two pickups in Medicine Springs got my to take a quick one. I stop for Studebakers.

After our hike we headed north and then east to the little town of Enterprise, where Stephanie caught a sign for the Terminal Gravity Brewery (formerly East Fork Brewery), to get some dinner which came with some unexpectedly-good live music.

It was late by the time we pulled into the near-deserted campground at far end of Wallowa Lake, our only formal campground night of the trip. But the hot showers were welcome. I shot this as we were leaving, after a short hike up into the gorge above the lake.

It was hard to leave this pristine lake and surrounding mountains, but there were no long hikes open to us from this location. So we looked back up at what might have been. Next time.

We now headed east then south, on the eastern flanks of the Wallowas, the Hell’s Canyon Scenic Byway. From this overlook we could see deep into the gorge created by the Snake River. It was a long but highly scenic drive, and then after a brief stop in Halfway, OR. we headed back east, towards Prairie City, retracing our former route in part.


We were headed for Burns, but instead of staying on the highways I found back roads that cut around the south side of the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness. It too wore a snow cap (not as much as this shot from the web), making Strawberry Mt. look like it had been dipped in white chocolate.

In the back side, I found a sign to Malheur Ford, which was seven miles down a rough gravel road. I remembered reading about a hike along the Malheur River that starts here, but it turns out we took the rood to the other side of the ford. I took my shoes off to test the water; it was about halfway up my calves, and there was a nice flat bed of gravel. I was tempted to take the van across.


Then I thought the better of it. The gravel bottom was rather soft. Did I really want to risk getting the new van stuck here in the middle of nowhere, with no signs of humanity anywhere? With no cell coverage? No. Ten years earlier, I might well have gone for it, as the Dodge Chinook had dual rear tires and had excellent traction. But then I had paid all of $1200 for it, and had always been willing to leave it behind in my many off-roading escapades with it. And as this video of the same ford shows, even off-road capable bikes aren’t guaranteed a sure crossing.

(web photo)

I wasn’t quite ready to feel the same way with the new van. So we took our shoes off and forded the river on foot, and had a superb hike along this remote stretch of the Malheur River.

That was followed by the obligatory afternoon tea. And some vitamin D therapy.

Here’s the second map that will cover most of the rest of the trip starting with Burns, except the final drive back home.

We gassed up in Burns and headed south towards the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Along the way we encountered a not uncommon sight,, when the cows take over the highway. In this case, they were being herded. Little Man was pretty excited about this.

We weren’t actually headed for the Preserve, but a very remote hot springs that my son Ted and I had first found in ’96, and one we had been back to ten years ago. It’s in the middle of nowhere, south of Harney Lake, which is an ancient dry lake bed that only gets water during a very wet spell if Malheur lake spills over. Keep in mind that this area is the norther end of the Great Basin (mostly in Nevada), which has no outlet to the sea. So all the river and creeks run into dead-end valleys that result in giant dry lakes that have some water depending on conditions.


We arrived at the hot spring at sunset, later than hoped for, as I stupidly tried to reach it from a northern “overland” (semi-off road) approach instead of the more direct one from the south. The result was some 10-12 miles of the most primitive “road” (rutted tracks) of a very soft and spongy salt-sand mixture. That made the ride over the ruts and holes softer than one would expect, but it also made me nervous about losing traction.

But we made it, obviously, and shortly after this picture was taken, we were sitting in the little mud pool that has been dug out just past the reeds, where the 180 degree water first comes out of the ground. The pool is far enough away to cool down, but it was about as hot as we could take (106 or so), but it did result in a very soothing soak. The stars were intense despite the moon now making its presence felt more every night.

I hopped back in the morning, and it had cooled a bit overnight. The bottom of the pool is very soft and silty.

After the soak, the dog and I trotted up to the top of the little hill right next to the springs. There’s the van down there, and the springs where they emerge to the left of it. The soaking pool to the far end of that area.

I turned to the northeast, and shot this of the vast expanse of Harney Lake’s dry bed. it’s part of the Malheur Wildlife Preserve, so one can’t drive on it. It is rather soft and spongy in many parts, unlike some lake beds.

After a visit to the Wildlife Preserve Visitor’s center and Museum, we headed south to Steens Mountain, a long single range that reaches to almost 10,000′. It too had snow on the top, although not as much as in this web picture. We wondered if we would again not be able to drive to the summit on the Steens Mt. Loop as was the case when we were here ten years ago. The 50 mile gravel road that approaches from the gentler west side, and since it was so mild, the modest first snow had melted enough to have the gate open.

This was from a stop looking up one of the glacier-carved valleys. The white summit can be seen at top. As is the case with all outdoor scenery shots, the lens on the iphone makes everything seem further away.

On the way up, we stopped to hike into the Dillard Ranch, where three bachelor brother ranched and lived, the last one into the 1940s or so. They each had their own cabin. This is one of them.

The door is open, and it’s been preserved the way it was. The brothers used to have disagreements about their respective cooking, as they did have dinner together. I can just imagine that.

The views from Steen’s summit were as spectacular as they possibly could be, given the dry, clear air. The visibility extended perhaps some 100 miles in every direction.

This is the view down to the valley on the cliffs of the eastern side, some 6,000′ almost straight down. That round thing is an irrigated field. The white areas are dry lake beds. That’s Idaho not far off.

And a bit more to the southeast, the huge dry bed of Lake Alvord, generally called the Alvord Desert, is clearly visible. That was our next destination, to camp on the lake bed (“playa”)

To the northwest one can see where we came from, the Malheur-Harney basin. And I could barely make out the Wallowas in the very far distance, on the horizon. And of course, there’s the van, all alone in the parking lot.

What was most remarkable is that it was perfectly calm up there, almost 10,00 feet up, and the temperatures were well into the 50s. Downright balmy. Steens Mt. is known for its wind, but this late-season high pressure made it utterly serene. We had our tea and a nap up there, all alone on top of the world. Or at least Oregon.

Distances out here are invariably long; it’s a pretty good drive back down, and then all the way to Fields, OR., near the Nevada line, before one can turn north again to head up the eastern side of Steens. We stopped for another soak, at the Alvord Hot Springs. When we were last here, one just parked on the road and walked down a path to this little double pool, one open for the views, and one enclosed on its sides by some steel roofing material (for wind protection). But now it’s accessed via a path from a parking lot which includes a groundskeeper and involves paying $8. Even this corner of the world is not immune to development. This is not my shot, as I never bring out a camera in these clothing-optional hot springs, plus it was getting dark when we got there.

After a good soak, we drove the van out into the lake bed, which is very firm.  I didn’t see any other lights out on the playa, so I just drove straight out towards the middle and stopped. By the way, the Alvord Desert is Oregon’s dryest spot, with some 6″ of rain per year.

We had a late dinner and then read before turning in. Little Man was enjoying the last bit of time on my bed before he and his bed were consigned to the floor. But he got to keep his tartan blanket. We don’t run the furnace at night, and it does get a bit chilly. The night time temperatures were between 19 and 30 degrees. But the furnace gets turned on in the morning, as an inducement for Stephanie to crawl out from under her mound of blankets and quilts.

While the van warms up, I take the dog out for a morning walk and pee. But here he wouldn’t go! He walked around in several circles around the van, pulling me along, looking in vain for a bush to pee on. He must have thought the hard lake bed was an interior floor or such. As soon as we had breakfast, we headed back to the scrub desert at the edge, and let him out. He made a grateful beeline to the first sagebrush bush.

That’s the summit of Steens back there, from where we looked down on the Alvord Desert the previous afternoon. A couple drove down on the lakebed in their CUV, and proceeded to let loose and drive it very fast off into the distance, and then we saw them coming back, and then forth, and then back again, kicking up a little rooster tail of dust. I imagine some folks have never really experienced driving fast before. Ironically, I had no such impulse; the roads are more stimulating and challenging for me to drive fast on, in the right vehicle. I actually drive very relaxed in the ProMaster, you might be surprised to know. I only exceeded 65 once briefly, even on the endless stretches of remote roads and highways we took.

The scenery is always great, and the huge windshield and high thrones in the Promaster make for an endless movie. Who’s in a hurry anyway?

Our next destination was Hart Mountain National Antelope Preserve, the next big mountain range west of Steens. I’ve never been there, and long wanted to, and it exceeded our expectations. There is a rough back road from Steens to Hart Mt., and it would have taken us to the historic Shirk Ranch, but when I saw the beginning of it, it looked pretty rocky and I just didn’t have the stomach for that much risk. It’s some 30 miles of variable, slow going (this web picture is not of that road).

Yes, we saw lots of prong-horn antelopes, but this is not my picture. They are the fastest land animals in North America, with a top speed of 60mph. They evolved that capability because there were once cheetahs in this part of the world; now they have no predators that could even hope to catch them.

(web photo)

We drove the gravel road down the west side of Hart. Mt., and then pulls up steeply to enter the valley behind it in its east side. Tucked in back there is the (free) Hot Springs Campground, which is of course primitive and very spread out. The main attraction in addition to the superb scenery is the hot spring, which can be enjoyed in this walled in pool or a natural one nearby. It wasn’t terribly hot (about 102 F) but that made sitting in it for long periods of time and socializing with the one other visitor (and a group of back-road motorcyclists in the morning) pleasant and un-rushed.

We hiked part-way up the east side of Hart. Mt. to the Bernardini cabin, which is unfortunately in decline, since the roof is caving in. A few steel roofing panels would have staved that off.

As we were leaving in the morning we pulled off the main gravel road and took this reasonably decent back road to Petroglyph Lake. Central and Eastern Oregon’s population density is extremely, and paved roads/highways are limited. But there is avast network of old roads comparable to this one that crisscross the back country. They were built to access remote ranches, or were old military or stage line roads. Their condition varies considerably depending on the geology, weather and amount of use. As “overlanding” has become more popular, their condition is getting worse, as 4WD vehicles make ever-deeper ruts during the wet season. I’m not complaining, but it’s just a reality.

After hiking to the other side where there are some exposed basalt outcroppings, we took in the numerous ancient petroglyphs that were scratched into the rocks some thousands of years ago.

Alien visitors?

We drove home the rest of the way that day, through the towns of Plush and Paisley, among others. And we actually didn’t stop at the Summer Lake Hot Springs, as it was so warm during the day down in the valley. The scenery was great the whole time, but I’m going to spare you anymore of that.

The van performed as well as the weather did. Despite numerous steep mountains and plenty of slow bumpy back roads, it averaged an indicated 18.1 mpg for the 1717 miles we covered. As noted earlier, I drove in a relatively relaxed fashion, and didn’t push it hard up the long grades. It will hold a pretty decent speed up the steep ones at 45mph or so, with about 2000 rpm showing (5th gear). I could make it go faster in a lower gear and more throttle, but I was surprised at how much grunt (torque) the 3.6 Pentastar V6 makes at that engine speed. I haven’t yet weighed the van fully loaded, but to has to be somewhere around 6500 lbs or more, as it weighs just under 5000 lbs empty.

In regards to the oft-maligned Chrysler 6 speed automatic, I have only a few issues. The chief complaint seems to be its logic in choosing gears. I suspect that with the heavier weight of the Promaster and its lower gearing, that seems to be less of an issue. Also, I don’t drive it on the types of conditions most folks would spend driving a minivan. My main complaint is that on long downgrades, it’s a bit too aggressive in wanting to keep the speed from increasing, meaning it will shift down one or two gears to maintain the speed it had before cresting a hill. But thta’s not how I prefer to drive in hilly/mountainous roads. I prefer to let it slow down some on the upgrades, but then use gravity to go faster downhill. meaning, not like it would be if the cruise control was set, but more in terms of responding to the conditions. I’m used to an automatic quickly upshifting when I let up on the gas pedal; this one won’t. I have to actually give it more gas, to tell it that I want to go faster, before it will upshift.

And that is the case even if I use the “manual” shifter, which isn’t really all so manual, as it will keep the same gear too under these circumstances. All it really does is keep it from upshifting on flatter terrain, or provide more aggressive engine braking if I want that, although that’s now hardly ever needed. It’s a bit too “automatic” in this regard.

Every surface of the van’s interior had a coating of that very fine dust which works itself in through the smallest cracks. But it’s all cleaned up and ready for…the next good weather break.