Dinner was over and the campfire was beginning. It was an old school evening. No propane or smartphone apps. Crackling flames, against a dark backdrop of Ponderosa soldiers, kept us warm on the outside. A peaty scotch whiskey would take care of the inside. Topo maps were spread out on a weathered burl table. Flakes of ash temporarily interrupted the contour lines. The topic was “Honey Holes,” camping locations that checked all the boxes. A theme Grayson and I often gravitated towards during similar evenings. Without a prelude, Grayson simply said “Steens Mountain” and handed me a book of the same name.
We had lived in Sisters Oregon for seven years. Although we explored and camped at many locations up and down the Oregon Cascade Mountain range, and gems further east like the Fremont Mountains, we had never been to the Steens. It is located just shy of 200 miles east from Bend, Oregon or a 1-hour drive south of Burns in southeastern Oregon.
Steens Mountain extends about 50 miles in a north-south direction and rises to 9,700 feet. Contrary to initial impressions, Steens is not a mountain range, but rather a very large single fault-block mountain known as an escarpment. As a result of glacial cuts during the Ice Age, Steens now encompasses four large gorges that emanate in multiple directions from the summit. The Kiger, Little Blitzen, Wildhorse and Big Indian Gorges offer immense, must see views. Near the top, Wildhorse Lake can be seen over one edge while the Alvord desert is a mile deep drop over the other. In the middle of nowhere, a single mountain emerging from the desert is certainly somewhere!
During the past several years, we have been to the Steens a half dozen times. It is our “go-to” location for several days or as a waypoint into Idaho or Nevada. We always find solace there. Just last month, we visited the Steens again and were treated with warm weather, lush meadows, fast flowing rivers and an abundance of wildlife.
Most trips to Steens Mountain begins with a stop at the Frenchglen Mercantile Store—for no other reason than to take a step back in time. The owners proudly display a sign at the entrance that reads “Social Distancing since 1892.” You can find a little bit of everything there. Just 2 miles east of the Frenchglen store and historic hotel is Page Springs Campground where this brief tour begins.
Page Springs is an excellent camp for exploring the Steens. It sits at the northwest base of the mountain where the Donner-Blitzen River, its tributaries, wetlands and meadows are fed from melting snowpack that flows down the steep gorges. This environment is a natural haven for a hundred species of birds. It is not uncommon to see elk and mule deer wander through the campground. A wildlife refuge, which can be explored on dirt roads, is just north and adjacent to the campground.
Page Springs and South Steens State Parks have campsites that will accept everything from tents to trailers with plenty of elbow room in-between. However, if you have an interest in staying at some of the smaller, primitive, campgrounds or boondocking on BLM land, then a truck camper or van conversion is a plus.
Many of these sites are nestled in aspen groves with low hanging branches that tend to flourish near meadows, streams or lakes. They can be a challenge to get into with larger vehicles but the shade they provide on a hot summer day or the sound of fluttering leaves in an evening breeze is well worth it. In addition, several of the side roads are nothing more than Jeep tracks or fire roads with plenty of overgrowth. But don’t shy away from a little off road pin-stripping. Many lead to spectacular views or old homesteads. This is where our Four Wheel Flatbed Hawk camper shines. We really enjoy getting into pristine places that most travelers cannot.
Moving is a clockwise direction, the full, 70 mile Steens Loop Road begins just outside Page Springs. It is the highest elevation road in Oregon! The primary loop is gravel, but features countless spur roads into honey holes, creeks, viewpoints and old homesteads. Some of the roads require a high clearance vehicle and/or 4WD. The final 10 miles back to Frenchglen is on pavement. The following is a general mileage chart with points of interests. It is by no means comprehensive, but rather an appetizer for more.
Although it is hard to choose, of the points of interest noted above, our favorites are Fish Lake, the Nye Brothers Cabins and Wild Horse Lake Overlook. Spending additional time at these locations yields scenic and quiet camping on a pristine high mountain lake and a 4WD route or hike into an early and well preserved homestead. (If you opt to camp there, the forest service converted one of the buildings into a bunk house—perfect for a gathering if the weather turns inclement. Water from a nearby spring is available). Of course the highlight is Wild Horse Lake Overlook. The 1 mile deep drop–off from the precipice is spectacular. We like taking the short hike to the top of Steens Mountain or down to Wild Horse Lake as a side trip. Both can be done in an afternoon. Pace yourself as the elevation is approximately 10,000 feet.
The sun rose early as it does during the end of June. Bright yellow and orange, underlined by flashes of red, capped the mountain ridge. The dew on the lush meadow grass was already reflecting the light in sparkles. Towards the front of our camper, I heard the slap of a trout taking advantage of the morning hatch on a mirror flat lake. A chorus of approval came from the distinctive sound of red-wing black birds. They are easy to spot out the camper window, dancing from one cattail perch to another. The day would unfold like it started—filled with little surprises. We planned some off-road exploring near Big Indian Gorge. The smell of fresh-brewed coffee side-tracked my thoughts and senses. It was time to open the door and once again, welcome the Steens.
The tough winters and belts of thin soil yield only to sporadic grasses and sagebrush whereas juniper and aspen thrive around the meadows and numerous canyons. Springtime is especially colorful with hundreds of wildflower varieties including the unique Steens Mountain Paintbrush. Besides the ever present mule deer, Steens is home to big horn sheep, mountain lion and wild horses.
Southeast of Steens Mountain is the vast Alvord Desert and hot springs. There are endless off-road miles to explore where travelers can find century old Shepard and mining cabins. It is also a gateway into northern Nevada. On the west side, about 6 miles south of Frenchglen is the entrance to Hart Mountain – another expansive area that is home to the National Antelope Refuge. There are plenty of scenic locations for dispersed camping and several natural hot springs. And to the north, abutting the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and a network of wetlands is the Pete French Round Barn—a rare structure into today’s world of sharp corners.
Steens Mountain deserves more description than is offered here, but that will wait for another time. Meanwhile, visit the Steens and enjoy one of the rare gems that Oregon has to offer. Then, maybe, around your next campfire you may repeat the words of my friend Grayson—Honey Hole.