Alvord Playa, OR

November 8, 2010 | Category: Deserts, Driving, Oregon, Sunrises, Travel

Welcome to the Alvord Playa!

Welcome to the Alvord Playa!

Recently I had a fellow photographer fly in from New York to come travel and shoot with me for a week. When he arrived in Portland, we sat down together and started brainstorming where to go. You see, the day he arrived, a big thunderstorm started battering down on the west coast. As soon as that one was scheduled to pass through, yet another thunderstorm was forecasted to hit us immediately afterwards. So staying in the area to shoot wasn’t much of an option. Where should we go? We had the entire western half of the US as our playground for the next week to go drive, shoot, and explore. We could drive over to Glacier NP in northern Montana, but it was probably wintery to head that way in November. We could drive all the way down to southern Utah and shoot the Subway in Zion (perfect time of the year for that) and snowcapped hoodoos in Bryce, but that was gonna be one heck of a drive in both directions. We could head down to CA to shoot Death Valley and some of the amazing parks there, but I had recently been there and wanted to see a place I hadn’t yet been to. We could drive on up to Palouse in WA and shoot the beautiful fields there which both of us wanted to see, but the fields were pretty brown this time of the year. What to do? After exploring our options in depth, we decided to stick around in the beautiful state of Oregon and go east to avoid the weather before eventually heading back west to the coast once the storms had passed. Armed with a newly purchased copy of a Photographing Oregon, and eager to follow in Marc Adamus’ footsteps by shooting from some of the same locations he had, we started our drive eastward over the Cascade mountain range and started heading for our first destination, the Alvord Playa in the Alvord Desert.

The Portland airport is pretty sweet. You see, I’m from Atlanta which is home of Hartsfield, the busiest airport in the world. There’s no real waiting area at Hartsfield for when you’re waiting to pick someone up. You basically have one of two options: You can keep driving laps around the terminals over and over and over until people call you and tell you they’re ready to be picked up (cops won’t let you stop anywhere) or you can wait an exit away by some hotels and fast food restaurants which is what most people do.

At the Portland airport, on the other hand, not only do they have a cell phone waiting area, but they also have a huge collection of stores, restaurants, and coffee shops right next to the airport. A huge parking lot with an Ikea, Best Buy, Starbucks, Sports Authority, lots of different restaurants, a frozen yogurt shop, and tons and tons of things to do while you wait. This makes it so much more enjoyable to wait for someone you’re picking up from the airport. It also started raining that day, after being enjoyably clear immediately before this, and so I had a chance to enjoy walking around in my rain gear. Instead of sitting around in one location, I donned my raingear and happily walked around outdoors in pouring down rain, splashing through puddles, enjoying the feeling of raindrops pelting my clothing while staying perfectly dry within it, and just quietly strolling through the shops.

After picking up my new friend Matteo, we grabbed room to crash for the night and brainstorm locations to visit. (We were initially planning on hitting the road immediately after his landing and arriving at our destination for sunrise, but the weather changed our plans.) After deciding to head to the high desert of eastern Oregon, we got up the next morning and started driving.

Driving into the (double) rainbow

Driving into the (double) rainbow

The rainy weather was already making for some beautiful scenery. What an awesome preview of what is yet to come… 🙂

So this first day we drove all day long across the state. Finally well after sunset when it was dark we arrived at the playa. Marc had a couple shots that I was hoping to recreate or at least create something similar to.

Here’s one at the playa after a rain, some nice startrails.

Lost in the Dream by Marc Adamus

Lost in the Dream by Marc Adamus

It was far too cloudy for us to get anything similar this evening, and given that we only had a sliver of a moon, just past a new moon, we couldn’t get a backlit shot like this.

Another shot we were hoping to get is this one with some unbelievably sweet light, plus a spectacular lenticular cloud…

The Fireball by Marc Adamus

The Fireball by Marc Adamus

Pretty wild, no? I gotta figure out what weather patterns and landscape conditions create lenticular clouds. I’d LOVE to get some shots with these. 🙂

We arrived in this area at night and couldn’t see anything in either direction. There was a gravel road we drove (similar to Racetrack Playa in Death Valley, CA) to get to the playa. After a bit of driving in the dark and wondering where the heck this place was, we realized that we weren’t driving TO the playa. We were driving right alongside it the whole time!

Donning a headlamp, I did a little exploring to find a suitable campsite to spend the night and to be based out of to shoot sunrise the following morning. Not only did we find a campsite, but we also found the hotsprings, a man-made lounge area where they collect the piping hot water from the area and turned it into a resort-like area. It was a cool little place.

Anyways, we eventually found a suitable area to throw up a tent for the night and crashed after a long day of driving.

The following morning, again with headlamps a’blazing, we head out to the playa. It was a bit wet and so I was wondering whether or not we were even allowed on the thing. In Racetrack Playa in DV, you are absolutely not allowed in the area if it’s wet because otherwise you’ll leave unsightly footprints on the lakebed which really damage the surface and take forever to go away. After some really careful testing on the lakebed to be absolutely sure that neither my shoes nor my tripod would leave any tracks, I saw that I wasn’t leaving any and ventured on out to go shoot.

Again, it was really dark there. It was only when the sun started to come up and illuminate the sky that we were even able to see where the heck we were!

Looking across the playa at sunrise

Looking across the playa at sunrise

As the sun progressively started to rise, both Matteo (the other photographer there) and I were looking around for nice compositions to shoot. One thing I like about shooting with another photographer is that we can get cool shots of each other at work in the field. 🙂

Matteo shooting at sunrise

Matteo shooting at sunrise

The wet earth made for some nice reflections of the skylight up above.

It was kinda hard to find a nice foreground element to add to this location. Perhaps a stone like at Racetrack Playa, but the most we had here were little tiny pebbles.

One thing that I could find were car tracks. It’s popular to drive and windsurf in this location, but if you do it when the ground is wet, you wind up leaving some gnarly tire tracks.

Tire marks tearing up the lakebed

Tire marks tearing up the lakebed

If you look at the shot above, on the right side of the image near the horizon you’ll see a little dot. That’s Matteo. I decided to start venturing farther out as well and one thing I noticed when walking is that this place is HUGE!

Ariel enjoying the Alvord Playa

Ariel enjoying the Alvord Playa

This place is 12 miles by 7 miles and it’s bigger than it looks, like some sort of optical illusion. Because it’s so flat, you can see the mountains just right over in the distance, but it turns out they’re much farther than they appear. You can walk and walk and walk and cover some serious ground, but it doesn’t even look like you’re getting any closer to the mountains in the distance. It’s the weirdest thing.

The sun peeks out from behind the clouds

The sun peeks out from behind the clouds

After I caught up with Matteo, I wondered whether or not it was a good idea to keep walking on this surface. I was *really* trying to avoid leaving any footprints as I really don’t want to deface any natural beauty. Standing next to him on a different area of the playa, I noticed that although he was physically quite a bit larger than me, he wasn’t leaving any tracks. Actually, I was. It turns out that he was wearing old tennis shoes with worn flat soles while I was wearing my rugged hiking boots with strong treads. It didn’t even cross my mind, but I found that the more pronounced treads would actually leave some slight marks from time to time, depending on the type of surface I was walking on. Ever so gingerly, I started making my way off the playa, making sure I walked on the parts that wouldn’t leave any marks. It was actually quite heartbreaking since I’m so conscious of “leave no trace” ethics. It was nothing major, but still… I wonder how Marc managed to avoid leaving any tracks with his shot of actually standing on the playa when it was literally a big puddle.

In any event, once I got off the surface, I had a chance to get a better look at the playa, now that the sun was up.

Playa in the desert

Playa in the desert

You can see the flat flatness with mountains all around, as well as the reflective wetness in the center.

The playa in the distance

The playa in the distance

Unlike Racetrack Playa, the Alvord Playa here actually has dirt roads that lead directly out to the playa. You can see tire tracks from cars that have driven on the surface when it wasn’t completely dry. I wonder if those people even noticed the tracks they were leaving…

Speaking of driving, now that we had driven clear across the state, it was time to start heading west again and slowly start making our way back as the storms continued to roll in. The plan was to slowly wait them out while shooting some other beautiful scenery along the way. 🙂

and so with that, let’s continue the journey!

One Comments

  1. Bhary
    on July 16th, 2011
    1

    WOw Aerial. These are fantastic photos. Your photos make me appreciate our world even more.

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