Borax Hot Springs

Borax Hot Springs

  • Easy
  • 3 miles round trip
  • 60 feet elevation gain
  • Open all year
  • Use: hikers

At Borax Lake, fish thrive in warm alkaline water. Steam rises from boiling turquoise pools. Curlews with curling bills swoop through the sagebrush, screaming. In the distance, the snowy crest of Steens Mountain shimmers above the desert like a mirage.

The strange desert hot springs at Borax Lake are fired by the same active fault system that hoisted Steens Mountain more than a vertical mile above the surrounding plains. Here, groundwater seeps into the planet’s crustal cracks and boils back to the surface through deep, trumpet-shaped pools.

During the wetter climate of the Ice Age, a gigantic lake filled this valley hundreds of feet deep, spilling north to the Snake River. As the rains lessened, the lake evaporated, leaving an alkali playa at the Alvord Desert. Incredibly, not all of the fish perished. At Borax Lake, one minnow-like species evolved to suit the increasingly warm, alkaline water. Today the Borax Lake chub lives in 600-foot-wide Borax Lake, and nowhere else on earth. Arsenic levels in the lake are 25 times higher than the limit considered fatal for humans, but the diehard chubs don’t seem to mind.

Borax Lake fell into private hands in the late 1800s, when entrepreneurs hired Chinese laborers to collect sodium borate crusts and dissolve them in huge vats to produce borax. Mule-drawn wagon caravans hauled the chalky borax more than a hundred miles to the railroad in Winnemucca. To preserve the area’s fragile ecosystem, the non-profit Nature Conservancy bought the lake in the 1990s. Today hikers pass the rusted remains of the old vats beside the lake.

To visit this unusual hot springs, first drive …

Heeding those cautions, hike onward …

… The Nature Conservancy prohibits visitors from attempting to swim in any of the area’s pools, not only because of the obvious danger, but also to protect the fragile ecology of this eerie place.

This chapter taken from the book 100 Hikes/Travel Guide: Eastern Oregon.