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Steens Mountain, Oregon’s Natural Wonder

Discover Oregon’s Steens Mountain

Steens Mountain is a natural wonder in this seldom-traveled desert wilderness.

Humans have been social distancing on the isolated Steens Mountain since the last ice age, when hunter-gatherers roamed the remote corner of what is now southeastern Oregon. But as glaciers retreated, carving the U-shaped gorges for which Steens is known, generations of Native Americans, ranchers and Basque sheepherders gradually settled throughout the area.

Today, the 40-mile-long fault block mountain, along with the 84-square-mile dry lakebed at the base of its eastern flank, draws a new class of solitude-seeking devotees for whom “getting away from it all” means hearing the chirps and calls of migrating songbirds, wandering through the ranch-hand relics of a bygone era and camping under the stars on the Alvord Desert.

All that geology and recreation played a role in Congress officially designating the Steens Mountain Wilderness in the fall of 2000. The “wilderness” designation is apt: Not a single paved road traverses the 170,200-acre area, and the nearest coffee shop is at least an hour away. So with the 21st anniversary fast approaching, here’s a look at spending a late-summer or early-fall weekend on and around Steens Mountain.

Wildhorse Lake at Steens Mountain
Wildhorse Lake and the Alvord Desert from the Summit. Photo by Greg Vaughn/Alamy.

Before You Go

Given its remote and rugged nature, Steens Mountain demands some advance planning.

If you’re coming from Central Oregon as most visitors do, gas up in Burns, an hour north of the mountain. A handful of gas pumps dot the communities around Steens Mountain, but those stations don’t always keep late or regular hours. Be sure to top off wherever you can, even if you don’t think you’ll need it.

With high elevations and precious little shade, midsummer temperatures can top triple digits before lunchtime at the base of the mountain, making mid-September and early October an ideal time to visit. That said, it can snow all year long near the summit, so bring layers if you’re planning to explore the highest reaches of the mountain.

When the leaves turn in September, you may come across a variety of wildlife, including rattlesnakes. If you hear the distinctive rattle, stop in your tracks, look for the source of the noise and slowly back away. Be careful not to make sudden or threatening movements.

Steens Mountain Loop Road
Steens Mountain Loop Road. Photo by Donnie Kolb/Flicker.

Steens Mountain Loop Road

Steens Mountain Loop Road — the highest road in Oregon, ascending to 9,733 feet just below the summit — is a loop in name only. The 52-mile gravel road resembles a backward “C” as it traverses the mountain, with two entry and exit points: one in the community of Frenchglen, and one at an intersection that is 10 miles south, along state Route 205.

If you do nothing else on Steens Mountain, you should spend a day driving the loop road. The springboard to recreation offers easy access to lakes, wide-open viewpoints, the occasional hiking trail, campgrounds, wildlife and a lot more.

The road to the summit opens every June, and its gates remain unlocked until October — or whenever snowfall makes passage unsafe. The road is all gravel but is well maintained as long as it’s open. High-clearance vehicles are recommended, but passenger vehicles with two-wheel drive shouldn’t have any issues, so long as you take it slow through occasional stretches of washboard gravel. Tip: Check your spare tire before hitting the road.

Keep an eye out for herds of wild Kiger mustangs along the first 7 miles of the road. DNA tests have shown that these horses can be traced to Spanish horses brought to North America in the 1600s. Tara Thissell, public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Land Management, estimates that about 500 wild horses graze on the mountain’s lower flanks, which is a reminder of the region’s ranching past.

“People are surprised that you can see them when driving,” Thissell says. “There aren’t a lot of places in our state where you can have that experience.”

Further up, vibrant stands of aspen — with leaves of green, red, orange and gold — dot the mountain’s hillsides and gorges as early as mid-September. Thissell says your best bet for enjoying the whole spectrum of color comes right around the beginning of fall, although the yellow and gold leaves linger well into October. Aspen grows along the middle third of the loop road, so it’s easy to spot — but Thissell cites the Fish Creek Canyon (just west of Fish Lake) as one of her favorite areas for enjoying the colorful displays.

Closer to the summit, the Kiger Gorge Overlook affords wide-open views of the gorge below, carved by glaciers thousands of years ago. Similar processes played out elsewhere on the mountain, but this overlook promises one of the clearest, most dramatic looks at the geological sculpting. Watch for Steens Mountain paintbrush, a purplish, yellowish wildflower that grows on the mountain’s highest elevations and nowhere else on Earth.

Nearby, a sign for the Steens Mountain summit leads to a 2-mile spur road that ends just shy of the summit itself. From the parking area, visitors can peer down the mountain’s steep eastern flank and into the Alvord Desert below. At the western edge, a trail leads toward Wildhorse Lake (losing about 1,000 feet in just over a mile) in the heart of a glacially carved cirque; at the southern edge, visitors can take a quick jaunt on an old roadbed to the summit of Steens Mountain. Three other states — California, Nevada and Idaho — are visible from here, affording panoramic views in nearly every direction.

Steens wild horses
Wild horses at Steens Mountain. Photo by BLM/Tara Thissell.

Ranching History

The first cattle ranchers arrived on Steens Mountain in the 1870s, with Basque sheepherders following in the early 20th century. In fact, Basques once carved notes — usually about their herds and to log visits — into aspen trees high on the mountain; some of these “arborglyphs” can still be seen on trees today, especially near Fish Lake. No official signs note their presence, so keep an eye out.

Visitors interested in the 150-year history of ranching on Steens Mountain have plenty of opportunities to learn more.

To the north, the Pete French Round Barn State Heritage Site dates back more than a century and is the lone remaining round barn of a livestock empire that once spanned 150,000 acres in the Blitzen Valley. Today, the corral, used in its heyday to train wild horses, is open to visitors and includes a few interpretive panels with regional history.

Near the southern stretch of Steens Mountain Loop Road, visitors can walk through Riddle Brothers Ranch, a remarkably well-preserved complex of buildings that once belonged to a trio of bachelor brothers.

In the early 1900s, the Riddle brothers arrived on Steens Mountain to raise livestock. One of the brothers, Fred Riddle, reportedly kept as many as 40 cats and served them 3 gallons of milk each day. The brothers sold the ranch in the 1950s. Visitors today can walk through some of the buildings and see the tools and everyday items they used to maintain their operation.

Saga Grouse at Steens
A male sage grouse. Photo by Danita Delimont/Alamy.

Haven for Wildlife and Birds

Just north of Steens Mountain, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge offers some of the region’s best birding. To date, more than 340 species have been spotted at the refuge, and thousands of birders visit for annual migrations.

The vaunted refuge sits along the Pacific Flyway, a migratory bird route that stretches from Alaska to Argentina. Sitting at the northwestern edge of the Great Basin, it offers birds the rare chance for rest and water in the midst of inhospitable high desert and sagebrush steppes. In other words: “It’s literally an oasis of water, trees, insects and other foods to forage on,” says Janelle Wicks, executive director of Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Wicks and her spouse, Teresa Wicks, have tracked avian life in the area since 2018.

As Janelle Wicks explains, the 188,000-acre refuge hosts, or is surrounded by, a variety of waterways, grass and shrub meadows, aspen woodlands, rocky outcrops and sagebrush steppe — and all are ideal habitats and breeding grounds for various bird species.

Teresa Wicks, Ph.D., Eastern Oregon field coordinator for the Audubon Society of Portland, recommends visitors look for the bobolink at Malheur, the species’ westernmost breeding ground. Male bobolinks are relatively easy to spot: They look like they’re wearing a backwards tuxedo — and their song sounds a bit like R2-D2 of “Star Wars” fame.

“It’s this fun thing that happens when you can see a whole bunch of these mechanical-sounding birds singing around you,” she says.

You don’t even have to leave your car to see nature at work: A 42-mile auto tour route cuts through those disparate habitats, showing off the sandpipers, sandhill cranes, warblers, sparrows, herons and other species in all seasons. Steens Mountain itself — designated an Oregon Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society of Portland — is another favorite outpost for avid birders. The mountain’s western flanks are some of the best habitat for the greater sage grouse in Oregon — and is the only known breeding site for black rosy-finch in the state.

Alvord Desert
Alvord Desert. Photo by Dennis Frates/Alamy.

Alvord Desert

At the foot of the eastern face of the mountain lies the 12-mile long Alvord Desert, a dry lakebed that’s become a magnet for thrill seekers and weekend warriors alike.

First, a word of caution: Passenger vehicles can drive safely onto the playa, but even a brief rain shower can render the clay-like lakebed a muddy mess, trapping cars for hours or days. If it has recently rained or if rain is in the forecast, enjoy the views from afar. Whatever you pack onto the playa, be sure to pack out with you.

Corinne Handelman, outreach coordinator for the Oregon Natural Desert Association, says the desert boasts some of the darkest night skies in the contiguous United States, which offers views of the entire Milky Way. With little light pollution, she recommends camping on the playa without a tent.

“You do that thing where you wake up in the middle of the night, and you’re like, ‘Why is it so bright out?’” Handelman says. “And that’s because of the stars.”

Adventurers also gravitate to the Alvord Desert for more fast-paced forms of recreation. Kitty Hambleton, for instance, set the women’s land speed record on the playa in 1976 after reaching speeds of more than 512 mph.

Groups like the Willamette Valley Soaring Club frequent the playa to take advantage of its distinct weather patterns. Every July, the nonprofit plans its annual Alvord Safari to celebrate the sport of soaring, where pilots fly small gliders that use only the wind to remain airborne. The group has been coming to the Alvord for five decades, using the region’s topography and wind patterns to enjoy flights that may last between two and six hours, covering as many as 400 miles per flight.

“It’s a wonderful chess game,” says Steve Rander, maintenance officer and Willamette Valley Soaring Club board member.

Rander coordinates the annual outing and says the warm temperatures, along with sheer ridges on the eastern face of Steens Mountain, create the conditions that make long flights possible. “You’re always looking for a source of lift. You’re always looking for things that will cause the air to go up.”

–Written by Matt Wastradowski, last updated in October 2022.

–Top photo is of Steens Mountain. Photo by Dennis Frates/Alamy

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