The Steens Mountain in the southeastern part of Oregon stretches along Harney County, with its 9,733 foot summit towering above the Alvord Desert. The length of the Steens Mountain is impressive, and running 50 miles, it is often confused as a series of mountains. Yet, the majestic Steens is a single mountain and is the largest-fault block mountain in the northern Great Basin. For an expansive view, there is no finer place in Oregon to view Steens Mountain than from the Alvord Desert. From the east rim overlook, it drops over a vertical mile to the floor of the desert playa. With its famous notch in the east ridge of Kiger Gorge, the basalt craggy peaks tower above the Alvord Desert with impressive prominence and grandeur. However, the Steens Mountain is not just to be seen from afar, as for a brief period in mid-summer, when the snow melt has receded, the summit can amazingly be reached by car. Beginning in the tiny and historic town of Frenchglen, the Steens Mountain Loop Road climbs in a 52-mile loop to the 9,700 summit, making it the highest road and most spectacular drive in Oregon.
Steens Mountain was created when intense pressure under the Earth’s surface thrust the fault block upward approximately 20 million years ago, resulting in the mountain having a steep eastern face with a more gentle slope on the western side of the mountain. As the Alvord Desert sits on the eastern side, it offers the most dramatic view of the mountain. The east face of Steens Mountain is made up almost entirely of basalts stacked one upon another. Staggering amounts of lava, with several flows hundreds of feet thick, reshaped the region between 14 and 17 million years ago. During the Ice Age, glaciers carved several deep gorges into the peak and created depressions where Lily, Fish, and Wildhorse lakes now stand.
The United States Congress designated the Steens Mountain Wilderness in 2000 and it now has over 170,200 protected acres. All of this wilderness is located within the Oregon boundary and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Recreational opportunities on Steens Mountain are endless. Popular activities include camping, sightseeing, hunting wild game, fishing, photography, and exploring the open country on foot and horseback. Winter activities, despite limited access, include cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Many animals make their homes on the unique habitat of Steens Mountain and the surrounding valley. Bighorn sheep can be spotted on the rocky escarpments, along with pronghorn antelope, elk, mule deer, mountain lions, and golden eagles. The end of the tour loop winds through genuine wild horse country. The South Steens Wild Horse Herd descended from mustangs that escaped from early explorers, Native Americans, settlers, and ranchers. The herd of around 300 animals is managed by the Bureau of Land Management to preserve their wild, free-roaming nature.
The Steens Mountain Loop Road usually opens around July 4th but can be later due to heavier snowfall winters and it closes when the first snow arrives in October. For this brief period each year, the loop tour offers outstanding views of the four notable gorges of Steens Mountain: Big Indian, Little Blitzen, Wildhorse and Kiger. Over the years, improvements have been made to the road, and while it is rough in spots, it is fine for passenger cars and the major viewpoints are well signed. While the road takes you nearly to the top, a half mile walk will take you up to the Steens Summit. On a clear day, you can see for hundreds of miles in any direction.
There are also great hiking opportunities too. Three short hikes lead to viewpoints of Kiger Gorge, the East Rim, and Steens Summit. There is a longer hike that starts at the mountain top parking area to Wildhorse Lake. The trail descends 1,100 feet in a 1.2 mile (2.4 round trip) zigzag down the precariously jagged rock face and levels out and follows a small creek into a basin with wildflowers and an incredible picturesque view. Continuing on, you reach Wildhorse Lake with a small sandy beach perched in the middle of a wide-open basin. This is a popular spot to backpack and camp in the backcountry outside of the designated campgrounds. There are no campfires allowed, so be sure to bring a stove. It is true alpine backcountry with no trees, sparse vegetation, and is exposed to the potentially brutal weather found at the Steens.
There are four BLM campgrounds at Steens Mountain: Page Springs (36 sites), South Steens (36 sites), Fish Lake (23 sites), and Jackman Park (6 sites). Page Springs Campground is located at the base of Steens Mountain, just 3 miles from the town of Frenchglen at 4,200-foot elevation. The best campgrounds for recreation are Fish Lake and South Steens. Fish Lake at 4,700 feet is nestled among willow and aspen trees and is a gorgeous blue lake stocked with trout. Suitable for canoeing and swimming, the campground is very scenic with small trails in the area to explore the surrounding mountain views. South Steens Campground at 5,300 feet is 30 miles from Frenchglen and on the far side of the Steens Mountain Loop. South Steens is a great place for equestrians and is used by hikers as trailhead access into the spectacular Big Indian and Little Blitzen Gorges. The Big Indian Gorge Trail begins at the back of South Steens Campground. The Big Indian Gorge Trail hike is 8 miles to the headwall of the gorge and passes through numerous meadows and cottonwood and aspen groves. The Little Blitzen Trail begins just up the road from South Steens Campground and reaches excellent views in just 1.5 miles.
For the best fall color viewing at Steens Mountain, visit Jackman Park Campground at 7,800 feet which is surrounded by aspen trees 3 miles from Fish Lake. This campground is also close to the Kiger Gorge Overlook and makes for an excellent base-camp location due to its central location at Steens Mountain. Jackman Park is well-known for its spectacular fall color display, as the area is home to a striking mature grove of aspen trees that light up the landscape with shimmering yellow and gold during late summer and early fall months. The Fish Creek Drainage near Jackman Park provides an incredible view of a large aspen tree grove painting brilliant swaths of yellow, orange, and crimson over the hillsides and down the slopes of the broad valley. Many landscape photographers make this trek to capture the fall colors when they are in their prime. The fall color season runs the last half of September, with the peak generally occurring in the last week of the month. Barring storms or high wind, the season can extend into early October.
Steens Mountain is some of the wildest and most remote land remaining in Oregon. The landscape is unrivaled in its majestic beauty from a snow cap summit to amber grassland valley. For those seeking solitude, the Steens are a throwback to our pioneer ranching lifestyle of having small means but an abundance of views for as far as the eye can see. The weather can be a challenge and turn on a dime, but that is also part of adventure of visiting such an isolated and inhospitable landscape. The grandeur of Oregon’s treasure will continue to bring visitors –Steens Mountain is truly a top destination in Oregon for hiking and photography.
For more pictures of Steens Mountain and the Alvord Desert, visit www.photographyoregon.com.
To Get There:
As this area is very remote, typical travel starts at Burns with a 60 mile drive to Frenchglen. From just beyond the Frenchglen Hotel, fork left onto the gravel Steens Mountain Loop Road and follow signs to Steens Summit.
Burns is the unofficial gateway to Steens Mountain with the only town of size with sufficient grocery stores, hotels, and gas stations. Although the tiny towns of Frenchglen and Fields do have gas stations, their hours are unpredictable and many miles apart; so be sure to fill up at Burns.
Oregon Photo Guide™ features the landscape photography of Michael Skourtes, Portland Oregon photographer and avid outdoorsman. I venture throughout the state searching for the top destinations for Oregon hiking, backpacking, camping, and photography. I share my experiences and photography of Oregon on my guide. I encourage you to explore Oregon and make your own outdoor adventure.
For picture galleries featuring Oregon photography, or to contact me, visit www.photographyoregon.com.