FIELDS, Ore. -- Snow-capped mountains tower dramatically from the desert floor and take your breath away as you drive over each rise along the back roads of the Steens Mountain high desert.
Ramshackled rock buildings offer up memories of early settlers who tried to make a living in this remote part of southeast Oregon.
Pintails, snow geese and other waterfowl on their northern migrations stop over at desert potholes cradled in lichen-covered lava rock. Pronghorn and mule deer also use the watering holes.
The vast valleys, plateaus, canyons and playas, east of Steens Mountain between Burns Junction and Fields, offer many recreational opportunities.
Spring is one of the best times to visit the remote area at the northern edge of the Great Basin.
Visitors come for bird watching, camping, hiking, soaking in hot springs, photography, geology, ATV riding and land sailing.
"It all starts with the hot springers," says Sandy Downs, who owns The Fields Station in the two-block-long outpost of Fields, Ore., on the edge of the Alvord Desert. They arrive earliest in the year and keep coming year-round.
"The first thing in March and April, we get a lot of bird watchers," she said with the sound of burgers sizzling on the grill and lunch orders being yelled across the counter.
"If people see a rare bird, it's like a hotline," she said, "Soon people are flocking here."
As the season progresses and the Alvord Desert dries out, "then people play on the playa," she said, referring to salt flats extending 6 miles wide and 11 miles long, just northeast of town.
The Alvord Desert is the remnant of a 200-foot-deep lake that extended into Nevada tens of thousands of years ago.
Fields is also near the trailhead for Desert Trail that goes 22 miles over the Pueblo Mountains to Denio, Nev.
The Pueblo Mountains section of the Desert Trail was the first officially recognized portion of the National Desert Scenic Trail proposed from Mexico to Canada.
In a place where you can see up to 50 miles or more in one direction, the Fields Station is at the heart of it all.
It consists of the cafe, a store, a two-unit motel and the Old Hotel, which rents as one unit.
The outpost is remote, to say the least, being located at the southern base of Steens Mountain, about 280 miles from Boise, 242 miles from Bend, and 121 miles from Winnemucca, Nev.
Yet, Fields is where it's at out here. It's a hub for desert explorers and can get pretty busy when four vanloads of bird watchers show up for the cafe's famous half-pound burgers and huge milkshakes.
It's a place where you can stock up on microbrews, good wine, jerky, automotive oil, gas or diesel and propane.
It's definitely a stop on the map if you're passing through.
You'll get all the information you need on the high desert from Sandy Downs. Go to thefieldsstation.com.
OK, finish up that burger and shake and let's continue on the East Steens Road.
Take U.S. 95 from Marsing south through Jordan Valley to Burns Junction. This is where you will end up when you finish the loop.
Burns Junction to Whitehorse Ranch Road
You'll head south on U.S. 95 and have a long view of a straight highway. Look over on your right and you'll see the Sheepshead Mountains in the foreground and Steens Mountain in the background. This loop drive takes you along the base of the Steens.
As you drive, keep an eye out for pronghorns.
Keep heading south for roughly 22 miles to the Whitehorse Ranch Road turnoff on your right. It's easy to spot and well signed.
Whitehorse Ranch Road to Oregon 205
Turn southwest on the Whitehorse Ranch Road. You are leaving the pavement, but the road is a good all-weather gravel road for the next 50 miles or so. The photo ops start immediately, especially to the northwest where you get a good look at the Steens across the flats that include massive Coyote Lake, which may be dry.
There are lots of things to see along the road like isolated ranches, the Trout Creek Mountains and Oregon Canyon Mountains to the south, and miles of open country. There are wilderness study areas in the mountains to the south.
Whitehorse Ranch on your right is a working ranch and worth a photo from the main road.
Once you get past the ranch, start looking for Willow Creek Hot Springs. A road to the left is not marked so you will have to go exploring if you want a hot soak. It's a small U.S. Bureau of Land Management camping area. It has some grills and a vault restroom. It is the only developed recreation site in the immediate area. All other camping is in undeveloped areas.
Continuing southwest, you'll be following Trout Creek going through some agricultural land.
There are lots of side roads and canyons to explore, but make sure you have good maps and a GPS.
The road winds through Trout Creek Canyon, which is beautiful with the stream, meadows and rock walls.
Here you'll see the ruins of old buildings along the way and you can get pictures from the road. The buildings are on private property.
As you come to the end of the Whitehorse Ranch Road and over a rise, you'll be greeted by the Pueblo Mountains. The area is fascinating because the Pueblo Mountains straddle the border of Nevada and Oregon and are at the northern end of the Black Rock Desert. The elevation range is 4,200 to 8,632 feet.
The Desert Trail goes through the mountains, but that's another weekend of exploring.
Turn north on Oregon 205.
Within 20 minutes, you're in the small outpost of Fields.
As you leave Fields on the East Steens Road, you'll immediately start noticing the diverse landscape.
On the east are the salt flats of the Alvord Desert. The Alvord Desert playa is one of the largest in the state.
The colors of the playa change with the sunlight and shadows of the clouds. Pull over and just watch the changes.
On the west is the impressive Steens Mountain, which rises a mile from the desert floor to elevations at 10,000 feet.
You'll be stopping for photos all along the route.
A hot springs in the area is popular among travelers. It is on private land.
Further north is Mann Lake on the left, which is a trophy Lahontan cutthroat trout fishing hole. If you have an Oregon fishing license, it might be a good place to camp and fish.
Continue north and you'll come to Oregon 78.
Depending on your exploring or detours, you've come roughly 65 to 70 miles from Fields.
Oregon 78 to Burns Junction
From here it's a straight shot east to Burns Junction where you began the loop. Look to the north on the drive and you'll see some lava rock formations in the desert.
If you've got a week or so, you can do other scenic drives in the area.
Instead of heading back to Burns Junction on Oregon 78, you can turn northwest and go to Burns. You can also visit the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, or take a drive south on Oregon 205 back down to Fields west of Steens Mountain.
Once you start exploring the high desert of Steens Mountain, you'll keep coming back.
* Make sure your vehicle is in good running condition and the tires are in good shape.
* Get an Oregon highway map and also U.S. Bureau of Land Management maps for the area, such as the Steens High Desert Country map or the Owyhee Canyon Country map. Go to blm.gov/or/onlineservices/maps or call (503) 808-6008. You also can call the Vale BLM District office at (541) 473-3144.
* Tell relatives where you are going and give an estimated time of arrival at home. There is cell service in most of the area south and west of Burns Junction.
* Take at least three days to do the loop, even longer for side trips and exploring.
* If you are not going to camp, you might book a room in Fields. It's a good halfway point.
* Depending on what gas mileage your rig gets, and the range of your gas tank, you might want to top off your gas tank in Jordan Valley or plan for filling up at Fields. You can also make Jordan Valley a gas stop on the way home.