Saturday, June 18, 2011


Caution - hot waterLike many of the high, mountainous parts of the west, Oregon received abundant snowfall this past winter, with some parts of central Oregon at 150% of normal winter snowpack.  Add to that the long-lasting, rainy spring and eastern Oregon is WET!  Though we have had sunny, mild weather (up until today – as I write this, we are in a downpour), there is a lot of standing water in areas that are frequently dry this time of year.

When we can tear ourselves away from the hot spring pool here are Crystal Crane Hot Springs (click here to read our review), we have been exploring the edges of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, a huge protected wetlands that is probably on every birders “must visit” list.  Our interest in the area is mostly the history and historic sites, but even we admired the many birds we saw as our route yesterday ran adjacent to the refuge in many spots (white pelicans, sand hill cranes, white faced ibis, red-shouldered and yellow-headed blackbirds, and lots of hawks, not to mention all the floaters we can’t name).

Our sightseeing began on Friday, and I had two particular sites in mind I wanted to visit.  Number one on my list was Peter French’s Round Barn.  In the late 1800’s, Peter French was the big man in these parts, a cattle baron with an empire of 45,000 head of cattle and 100,000 acres of land.  He designed and built a round barn that would allow him to break wild horses (wild mustangs still roam eastern Oregon, and you can adopt one!) during the winter (he was later murdered, shot in the head).  I’ve seen photos of the inside of the barn (now a historic site) and looked forward to examining it in person.

Here’s what we saw, a very waterlogged Round Barn.

Here’s what we hoped to see (photo courtesy of Oregon State Parks “Go Guide”)

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Well!  Although we could get near the barn, we couldn’t get IN the barn, which was standing in at least several inches of really yucky looking, mosquito breeding water!  If it wasn’t for the fact that the area was so pretty, I would have been sorely disappointed.  (Click here if you would like to read about Judy’s (Travels with Emma) visit to the Round Barn when she was volunteering at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge last fall – she got some great photos!)

The other site of interest to me was the Frenchglen Hotel.  Its name was derived from the last names of Peter French and his investor, Dr. Hugh Glen.  Now owned by Oregon State Parks, the historic building is still operated as a hotel, serving breakfast and lunch to the public (and dinner to guests).  That was where we headed from the Round Barn, to be our turn-around point after lunch.

I can’t adequately stress how unpopulated this part of Oregon is!  I don’t think we saw over a dozen cars during the entire drive. The scenery was spectacular, the weather excellent, and it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. We stopped at the Buena Vista Overlook into the Malheur Wildlife Refuge to take in the view, with snow-covered Steens Mountain in the distance – which will be providing snowmelt for the refuge for a long time this summer.  (We had hoped to drive the Steens Mountain Scenic Loop, but it is still closed by snow.)

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We stopped for a home-cooked lunch at the Frenchglen Hotel.

The view from Buena Vista Overlook with snowcapped Steens Mountain in the far distance.

We arrived in Frenchglen just after noon, right at lunch time. It was the only place in our 130 mile sightseeing trip where we saw any other people – there were 8 of us at lunch! Good home cooking, topped off with chocolate cake with ice cream for Odel… then we headed back home for an evening dip in the pool.

Today, our day to “do” the wildlife refuge, was a washout!   Sprinkles began to fall as we headed out, and we were in and out of rain as we drove to the Malheur Visitors Center.  It slacked off enough that I had the opportunity to be dazzled by the iris in bloom, by the white pelicans gorging themselves on carp in the ponds near the Visitors’ Center, and by the incredible display of lilacs!  I noticed the fabulously blooming lilac bushes in Frenchglen yesterday, and also in the tiny, historic hamlet (population: 5) of Diamond.  I wonder if the pioneers travelling the Oregon Trail brought lilacs with them?

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The fragrance was heavenly.

Malheur Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center

At the VC, the volunteer told us that the water in the marshes and lakes is WAY higher than usual – in fact, they forecast that the water level will match that of 1980, a record breaking year, as the deep snowpack melts off the mountains.  It was BIG NEWS at the Visitors’ Center, especially because many portions of the roads in the refuge are no longer open to auto traffic.

As we left the VC, the rain began in earnest.  It didn’t stop us from another dip in the pool when we got home!  After four nights here at Crystal Crane Hot Springs, we are moving on tomorrow – but (as usual) there is plenty left to see in this area.  Maybe in September next time?


  1. Sounds lovely, minus the rain of course.

    If you liked that lilac bush you saw, you should check out our Rochester Lilac Festival in May. Picture hundreds and hundreds of lilacs in one park, in bloom at the same time. Plus theirs the fair food from the craft show vendors. If you find yourself in this area in May sometime, I encourage you to check it out, it's free!

  2. What a shame that you couldn't explore the refuge in greater depth. Guess you'll just have to return again sometime. :)

  3. So glad you experienced the little Frenchglen restaurant. I can't believe how GREEN it is there in the desert! I have never seen it like that. Here in the Upper Klamath NWR we have the same amazing water year, and all our soil survey water data loggers are over the top for the first time since we installed them in 2005. Travel safe, can't wait to see where you go next.

  4. Sorry to hear about the things the rain got in the way of BUT the lunch sounds great and so do the Wildlife Refuge and the smell of lilacs.

    Snow melt is altering things here in Utah as well. The main hike I wanted to do in Zion National Park, the Narrows, was closed due to high water.

    September at the springs? Maybe we could make it. :-)


  5. Hi There, I've been on the road the past week. No reading blogs...If it's not too late, check out Hot Lake Resort. They are just a sjort drive from LaGrande. The sites were wide open and the pool was great a few years ago.