At the Head of The Alvord DesertThe driest location in Oregon is the Alvord Desert found in the rain-shadow of 9733 foot Steens Mountain. Often featured on OPB specials and well known amongst hunters, this is a region that receives few visitors thanks to the uninviting nature of a dry and hostile land. The Alvord is a desert basin ringed by large fault block mountain ranges, the Pueblos and Steens along the western edge; and in the southeast is the Trout Creek Range. Runoff from these high ranges has created several desert playas, dry lake-bottoms that rarely accumulate water. At the north end of the Alvord directly below the summit of Steens Mountain is the largest and best known of these. Referred to directly as the Alvord Desert on maps, this is the location of popular salt flat events such as windsurfing and drag racing. North of the Alvord Desert Playa the basin is split into two distinct valleys by a dark pointed ridge running south from the Sheepshead Mountain Range. The highpoint of this ridge is Mickey Butte at 6294 feet.
This highest point in a cluster of low peaks, Mickey Butte has a surprising 1964 feet of prominence, unexpected for a point so clearly in the shadow of Steens Mountain. Dark and sinister in appearance, Mickey Butte has a triangular western face carved by shallow gulleys, while its south and eastern faces are steep cliffs of stacked basalt. Mickey Butte does not appear to be a fault tilt like nearby Steens Mountain, but looks like an uplift forced upward as surrounding basins slide down alongside it (similar to what is happening to Hart Mountain in this picture). This high point offers an incredible viewpoint of the Alvord Desert, the Sheepshead Range to the north, scattered benchlands to the east, and most spectacularly the jagged eastern face of Steens Mountain.
The southern face of Mickey Butte is an intriguing mix of tiered sandy ridges, gullys hiding plants you wont find in the open, and weathered basalt cliff bands. The cliffs in particular are riddled with small shallow caverns, filled with the nests of birds, rodents and insects. Expect to see Jackrabbits and a wide variety of Raptors, if you're lucky Chukars and Sage Grouse roam the area. Vegetation is largely limited to bunchgrass and sagebrush although a lone juniper can be seen several miles to the south of the hot springs.
Hiking from the hot springs to summit of Mickey Butte is a cinch. Hike one mile directly north through the sagebrush from the parking area to the obvious gully. Pick your way up this gulley, gaining 1500 feet of elevation in little more than a mile, this will take you to a saddle between Mickey Butte and its slightly lower southern neighbor. Turn east at the saddle and ascend Mickey Butte in a quick quarter mile. Total distance hiked 2.3 miles with 2300 feet of elevation gain. In muddy snowy winter conditions this took nearly 4 hours, in drier conditions this could be done in a little more than two roundtrip.