After Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, we continued toward Bend, Oregon, for our annual repair visit to Beaver Coach Sales and Service there. On the way, our leisurely travels through northern Arizona, the southwest corner of Utah, and north through Nevada eventually brought us to Crystal Crane Hot Springs near the tiny town of Crane in Harney County, Oregon. This park has eight RV sites, an open-air pond and enclosed private hot tubs all supplied from natural mineral water hot springs, and a few little cabins. We were in an RV site up on a hill above the rest of the park. We stopped in this area primarily to visit Malheur National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Crane, but we discovered that there are many other sites of historic and scenic interest in Harney County.
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was established and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908. The headquarters compound near the community of The Narrows includes the visitor center/bookstore, a museum with mounts of over 200 bird species, and the requisite Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) fire tower on a hill overlooking Malheur and Mud lakes. Harney Lake, farther west, is also part of the refuge property. A 42-mile self-guided auto tour follows the Blitzen River Valley from the refuge headquarters south to P Ranch near the town of Frenchglen. As we traveled the auto tour we saw very few birds; apparently we arrived a bit early for the spring migration north. But the informative guide booklet told us about the many species that can be found on the refuge through the course of the changing seasons. We also learned about the history of the Northern Paiute people who first occupied the valley as early as 9,600 years ago and the homesteaders and ranchers who settled in the valley in the 19th Century. The Brothers Fault Zone and Basin-and-Range geology of the region were other interesting features of the tour.
Two stops of particular note were the Buena Vista Overlook about mid-way through the auto tour and the P Ranch at the southern end. We hiked the short trail to the Buena Vista Overlook where we saw several canvasbacks and a pair of cinnamon teal in the Buena Vista Ponds below us. The views out over the Blitzen River Valley toward Steens Mountain (mostly shrouded in clouds) were very lovely. P Ranch was one of the headquarters of the 140,000-acre ranch (185,000 acres by some accounts) established in the 1870s and managed by cattle baron Peter French for California industrialist Hugh Glenn. When French acquired this homestead from a Mr. Porter, he retained the “P” brand, so it became known as the P Ranch. The only building that remains from the original ranch is the “long barn.”
Peter French is a notable character in Harney County history. Various information we read said French was quite ruthless – some would say unscrupulous – in his single-minded pursuit of acquiring land for the ranch financed by Glenn and running it however he could to make a profit. Ultimately, the French/Glenn dynasty controlled the entire Blitzen River Valley. French eventually was killed (in self-defense, the court said) by a disgruntled neighbor who disliked his business tactics.
Some 15 miles east of Malheur NWR, we visited the Peter French Round Barn. This barn was built by Peter French in the 1880s for training ranch horses during the winter months. The architecture of the barn is fascinating. It is 100 feet in diameter with a central umbrella-style juniper pole-and-truss structure to support the roof, a 20-foot wide enclosed paddock, and a nine-foot tall stone circular inner wall 60 feet in diameter, all designed to exercise and train horses. This is the last remaining of three barns of this style that French built on his huge ranch. The barn and the two acres around it were donated by the Jenkins family to the state of Oregon for a park. The family has built the Round Barn Visitor Center and Jenkins Family Museum nearby.
Another must-see site in Harney County is Diamond Craters, an Outstanding Natural Area. This 17,000-acre BLM property “has some of the most diverse basaltic volcanic features in the nation clustered within a small, accessible area” and “displays an entire range of eruptions possible in basaltic volcanism,” according to one brochure. Following the 13-point auto tour, we learned about craters, vents, cinder cones, spatter cones, lava tubes, driblet spires, grabens, maars, and more.
On a Saturday evening, we had dinner at the Frenchglen Hotel. This historic hotel, originally constructed in 1916 and extensively remodeled by the CCC in the 1930s, is an Oregon State Heritage Site in the tiny town of Frenchglen, named for Peter French and Hugh Glenn. Before dinner, we walked the full length of the town and back in about ten minutes. The dinner, served family style at 6:30 by reservation only, consisted of pork roast, potato casserole, perfectly steamed broccoli, green salad with house dressing, and chocolate bundt cake with ice cream. It was delicious, and we shared the pleasant meal with two couples who were staying at the hotel.
And, yes, on our final day at Crystal Crane Hot Springs, although we had free access to the hot springs pond, we decided to pay the $15 to rent a hot tub room for an hour. It was an excellent decision because very shortly after we climbed into the tub, we heard hail pounding on the roof and the people who had been in the open-air pond screaming and scrambling for cover. The hour in the tub was a real delight, sensually and mentally.