Steens Mountain A unique desert experience
Steens Mountain is one of the most isolated places in the lower 48 states
Standing on the 9,773-foot high summit of Steens Mountain, I look out at the virtually endless view of eastern Oregon including the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to the northwest and the Alvord Desert to the east. The 30-mile long fault block mountain rises almost a vertical mile above the surrounding desert floor. I glass for bighorn sheep, which are often seen on the steep eastern slope of the mountain, but dont spot any this day.
Steens Mountain is one of the most isolated places in the lower 48 states. The population density of Harney County is only one person per square mile, and looking around from the summit, I dont spot too many people this day either.
The mountain itself is a unique geological feature, being one of the largest fault block mountains in North America. The fault on the east side of the mountain is rising faster than the fault on the west side, resulting in a block that is steeper on the east side and gentler on the west side.
The 60-mile loop road is now open as are all of the campgrounds. The road is mostly loose gravel with lots of wash-boarded and rocky sections and an occasional mud puddle. There are also some steep, narrow parts with no guardrails. Cars with low clearance, motorhomes and trailers are not recommended. The suggested maximum speed is only 35 mph. The southern part of the loop is rougher than the northern section, which begins in Frenchglen.
The towns name is derived from Pete French, his boss Hugh Glenn, and their French-Glen Livestock Company. On one of my trips there, my wife and I stayed at the Frenchglen Hotel (541-493-2825). The historic hotel is a favorite stop-off for birders at the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and visitors to Steens Mountain. Built in 1916, the eight-room hotel has no telephones or televisions but you will find great food and a comfortable screened-in porch. Another great place to stay in Frenchglen is the Drovers Inn (541-493-2204).
The land rises so imperceptibly when first driving up the Steens Mountain Loop Road that you dont even see a mountain until youre almost at the top of it. A landscape of rolling hills of grass and sagebrush turns to groves of aspens, mountain mahogany and hidden lakes. Another unique feature of Steens Mountain is its timberline. Instead of the usual conifer timberline at most places in North America, aspens are the last trees to be found before reaching the summit.
During the last Ice Age, glaciers gouged out four large U-shaped gorges Kiger, Little Blitzen, Big Indian and Wildhorse. Be sure to take the short side-trip to the Kiger Gorge overlook. Its like someone took a giant ice cream scoop and ran it down the mountain, carving out a glacial valley with rounded sides. From the overlook theres a drop of about 1,200 feet to valley floor below. Look for a small notch in the eastern wall of Kiger Gorge that formed when a small glacier eroded through during the more recent Little Ice Age.
Glaciation is responsible for just about all of the lakes on Steens Mountain. Glaciers, snow and ice fields scoured or made depressions in the ground that later filled with water and became lakes. Today fish can found in many of the lakes. Wildlife also depend on the lakes for water. Many of these lakes, such as Lily Lake, are transforming into alpine meadows, slowly filling with sediment and plants.
There are a few choices in terms of viewpoints once reaching the summit. From one parking lot, its just a short walk to the very summit (0.4 mile) along a jeep trail but hikers can also opt for the 1.2-mile hike to Wildhorse Lake. Once at the lake, you can follow a more primitive trail up to the summit and back to the parking lot for a 3-mile hike.
Another option for more experienced hikers and backpackers is Big Indian Gorge on the western flank of the mountain. The gorge is about 11 or 12 miles long and its possible to hike to the summit from there.
Situated in a glacial cirque at about 8,400 feet, Wildhorse Lake is one of Oregons highest and most remote lakes. The smaller Little Wildhorse Lake is even higher at around 8,900 feet. From the summit, there are great views east to the Alvord Desert, a 12-mile long ancient lake bed. You can also see four lakes of the Alvord Basin Mann, Tudor, Juniper and Ten Cent.
Even though the desert floor can be scorching hot in the summer, be prepared for rapid weather changes on the mountain such as lightning storms, snow, rain and high winds. The mountain is high enough to form its own rain shadow sort of like a miniature Cascade Range. The upper west slopes receive about 25 inches of precipitation a year while the Alvord Desert receives less than 6 inches per year.
Much of the mountain is now part of the new 170,000-acre Steens Mountain Wilderness Area. Wildlife that can be seen includes bighorn sheep, deer, elk and antelope. Wild horses are also present. Although considered wild, these horses are descendants of domesticated animals left behind by early explorers, settlers and ranchers. There are about 300 horses in several different herds, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Many raptors including eagles, hawks and falcons take advantage of the thermal updrafts created by the mountain and can be seen using these currents to search for food along the mountains rim. Bring along a pair of binoculars and a bird book for the ride through the wildlife refuge. And dont forget hiking shoes and a camera for the visit to Steens Mountain.
From Burns, take Highway 205 south about 50 miles to Frenchglen. From there take a left on the gravel loop road to Steens Mountain.