The Alvord “Desert”

Back to my days of studying geology.

Wickersham's Conscience

Alvord Desert, looking northwest at the summit of Steens Mountain

It’s not a desert, although the area only gets about seven inches of precipitation a year, on average. It’s a playa, the dry bed of a former lake, and it’s about 8 miles wide and 70 miles long. The surface of the dry lake bottom is absolutely, unnervingly flat, and bare of any visible trace of life. WC was there last just week.

The playa surface is at an elevation of about 4,060 feet. It’s high desert. The block fault face of Steens Mountain towers over the playa, rising more than a mile overhead. Steens Mountain was intermittently glaciated in the late Pleistocene and Pliocene, from 3.5 million years to 15,000 years ago. No ordinary lake can survive for 3.5 million years; they fill up with sediment. But the Alvord Playa is part of a graben, a fault-bounded block of…

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