The Steens. You hear about it in hushed tones. You feel like on the map the area is marked with “Here be Dragons”. It is legendary.
Steens Mountain is a fault block mountain which runs about 50 miles north to south. From the west, through French Glen you really have no idea there is a mountain. You simply see a series of gentle rolling hills. It is miles into the drive up the mountain that you begin to realize the scale of Steens Mountain. Approached from the east Steens reveals an entirely different attitude. 5000 foot basalt cliffs rise with brutality off the floor of the Alvord desert. From the east Steens is a giant.
We started our drive around the Steens Mountain Loop from French Glen. A postcard perfect little hamlet with a mercantile (one self service gas pump) and a hotel. You head out of town and up the Steens Loop road. You drive through the south edge of Malhure Wildlife refuge, open rangeland, and vast rolling hills. Gnarled and knotty little juniper trees give you a hint about the elevation and the weather in the winter. From the juniper forrest you move into a zone of aspen trees. We drove the loop in mid September and with the high elevation the aspens were putting on one of the most staggering shows of color we have ever seen. Given the vastness of the area and the tilt of the topgraphy the trees were dwarfed, yet the color stood up on its own and accentuated the scale. The bright sun lit up the leaves, at times you thought there was a fire with the oranges, yellows and reds, the breeze causing the colors to flicker and blend together. The bright blue sky setting off the colors with the ultimate in contrast - cold blue and the warm tones of the leaves. It was stunning.
You move up through the aspens and into a barren flat plain, the summits come into view and you can see forever. To your south a gorge of indescribable proportions fills your window, you keep climbing and eventually you come to a left turn for Kieger Gorge. Somehow the scale of Keiger gorge and the perfect U shape dwarfs anything I have seen. Yes, the Grand Canyon is much larger, Hells Canyon deeper, but something about the shape, size and location of the gorge is truly awe inspiring.
The rest of the drive is surreal, the approach is barren, grassy and rolling, but as you continue you can see the edge. The Juxtaposition of this rolling terrain with the knowledge that the edge to your left is a 5000 foot drop makes for a strange feeling. The North summit is the more dramatic of the two. It offers and uninterrupted view of the Alvord and everything else. Again, the contrast between the flat of the Alvord playa and the cliffs you are standing atop is striking. The south summit is polluted with radio/cell/weather towers but is worth the jaunt because of the view of Wildhorse Lake. If we were doing this again I’d plan to hike to the lake. The hike is 1.25 miles each way. You drop 1200 feet in that 1.25 miles so it is a difficult hike. There are two primitive campsites in the basin and you must sign into the sites from the trailhead - so be sure to check before hiking in if you’re planning on camping. Also, there are no fires allowed in the basin so a camp stove is a must.
We drove the south side of the loop down the mountain. This side starts off rocky and very “moonscape” and quickly gets steep and more technical. I’m not a timid driver, but the consequences on this road are extreme. That being said the road is in great shape and isn’t overly technical, you just need to keep your eyes on the road. If you’re going to look around you need to stop!
We camped at the South Steens Campground. The campground has a well and pump house to get water. This is also the trailhead for Big Indian Gorge which is another hike we’d love to do. Near the campground down a rough road is the Riddle Homestead, this gives a glimpse into what it was like to ranch these lands in the 1800s. The Homestead is right on the river so it can be a good stop to picnic and cool off in the stream. The other developed camping option is on the North Loop road at Fish Lake. This sits on a lake in a grove of Aspen trees. In retrospect we should have camped at Fish Lake - Next time. The next morning we finished off the loop and headed north back through Frenchglen and started the long trek back to Portland.
It is a world away and that is a huge part of what makes it such a special place.
Steens Mountain is located in the far south east of Oregon. It is a solid 8 hour drive from Portland. Burns is the closest town and the place you will want to stock up on snacks, water and fuel. Crane, Fields and French Glen all have fuel, but given the remoteness you will pay a premium at all 3, best to fill up in Burns and top up in Fields or French Glen - this is not a spot you want to take any chances on fuel.