How-to: Playa Like a Pro

Devin Dahlgren

Author: Renee Patrick  | Published: August 12, 2021  |  Category: How-to

The Alvord Desert Wilderness Study Area is an iconic attraction in Oregon’s high desert. The 50-mile long Steens Mountain creates a rain shadow for this 35+ square mile desert wonder, and increasingly people from all over Oregon (and the world) have discovered the joys of camping and recreating on the playa.

Unlike most Wilderness Study Areas which do not allow vehicle use off of designated roads, the Bureau of Land Management does allow vehicular traffic here, although driving on the flat is only advised during the dry season (July through November). Changing climate patterns have also impacted the “wet season” on the Alvord Desert, and as such, recreational use is occurring throughout the year.

Just what is a Wilderness Study Area (or WSA)? WSAs are lands identified by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in inventories it was directed by Congress to complete in the 1970s and 1980s. These areas meet the definition of a wilderness, but have not yet been designated as a Wilderness Area by Congress. WSAs also often have other special qualities such as ecological, geological, educational, historical, scientific and scenic values. With few exceptions, the BLM must manage WSAs “so as not to impair the suitability of such areas for preservation as wilderness” by Congress in the future.

Alvord Deset biker Steens Mountain

The Alvord Desert saw unprecedented use in 2020, largely due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and BLM staff recorded use 3 to 4 times over normal use in previous years. The trash accumulation and impacts on the surrounding wildlife habitat reached critical levels.

This summer, through a partnership with the BLM, ONDA volunteers who have signed up to be Independent Stewards are taking part in recreation impact monitoring and stewardship activities including dispersing fire rings, picking up trash, monitoring for negative wildlife interactions, and handing out wag bags and responsible recreation information.

Do you want to get involved with the Alvord Desert Monitoring project? Fill out our Independent Stewards interest form today, and put the Alvord Desert as your project preference. We will give you all the details you need to know to help steward this important landscape.


Jeremy Fox on Steens Landscape

Jeremy Fox on Steens Landscape


Craig Terry, ONDA member and stewardship volunteer

Craig Terry, ONDA member and stewardship volunteer

“The people I have had the privilege to share time with each season keep me volunteering again and again. Who else but those ONDA staff leaders would make fresh coffee at dawn each morning or pack a watermelon all day to serve as a reward under a juniper in a steep canyon?” Craig, who grew up in northwestern Nevada, says ONDA connects him with places he loves and a mission he believes in. “My grandfather and his father put up wire fences for their ranching needs. Taking out barbed wire sort of completes a circle for me.”


Oregon’s first desert wilderness

Oregon’s first desert wilderness

Steens Mountain: Oregon’s first desert wilderness

On October 30, 2000, Congress passed the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act, finishing the work that had taken ONDA and the other members of the Steens-Alvord Coalition decades  

Steens Mountain is a land of startling contrasts: dramatic u-shaped

Read More

Five tips for recreating responsibly on the Alvord Desert playa:

  1. Only drive on the desert playa, not through the dunes, and only drive on the playa when it’s dry. When water is present, the playa turns into a thick slippery mud which can swallow even the biggest tires and the surrounding sand dunes are the nesting grounds for many different bird species. Please also keep this in mind if you camp in the dunes.
  2. Remove rocks, debris, and wood you find on the playa. These pose a safety hazard to vehicles, airplanes, and land sailors.
  3. Use the vault toilet at the Frog Springs entrance, or use a WAG bag to contain your human waste until you can throw it away in the dumpster. Do not leave any human waste on the playa. (The normal strategy of digging a “cat hole” to bury your business doesn’t work on the Alvord because it is a lake bed.)
  4. Minimize the packaging you bring with you, pack out all of your trash, and pick up any trash you find. There is a large dumpster located at the Frog Springs public access where you can deposit trash that can’t be carried home easily.
  5. When establishing camp, secure your tents/awnings/camp furniture well to keep them from blowing away, as the area experiences strong winds.