Our starting point for exploring the Steens is the very small, historic town of Frenchglen. The reported population is twelve, but it does have a school, store, sometimes beer bar, usually fuel is available, and the historically registered Frenchglen Hotel. The town is partially named after Peter French who came to the area in 1872 along with a herd of horses, Mexican vaqueros, and a Chinese cook. He was in search of new cattle grazing land and bankrolled by his boss, Hugh Glen – hence the name Frenchglen. Peter ended up with a reported 160,000 acres of land and built a ranching empire. Other settlers were often disturbed by his long reach which mostly centered on water rights. While Frenchglen sits on the north edge of a vast wetlands, now known as the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the surrounding areas are predominately high desert. The local Native Americans, Paiutes, were none too pleased with the white mans’ intrusions. This led to a series of battles in 1878. Peter finally met his fate when a pissed off neighbor shot him in 1897.
The Malheur Refuge is an internationally known birders haunt. It encompasses 187.757 acres stretching from Frenchglen north to Burns. As a prime stop for migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway, it attracts a large number of waterfowl plus resident birds along with the usual four footed creators. In the late 1800’s, when colorful feathering became popular in women’s hats, ‘plume hunters’ devastated the area. This led to Theodor Roosevelt to declare it a protected area. It is administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2016 the refuge headquarters were taken over by armed protesters defying what they saw as government overreach. I was told some years ago that the refuge is very popular with Birders from Japan. I remember at one point there was a small kiosk in Frenchglen that advertised ‘Benito Boxes’. The refuge proper is assessable from Frenchglen heading east towards the Steens and then left, about a mile, off the gravel road.
Steens Mountain is what geologists call a ‘fault block’ formation. It’s basically created by a fracture in the earth’s crust that is thrust upward, in this case along a north to south course. The east side of the Steens drops dramatically into the Alvord desert, rising almost directly up some five thousand feet. The west side, looking from Frenchglen, slopes gently up. This is an illusion which you’ll discover as you ascend the ‘loop’ road. If you’re looking for a place to stay or eat try the Frenchglen Hotel. We particularly like the family style dinners. The other option for accommodations is the Steens Mountain Resort which has lodging, RV hookups, and campsites. They are located about two miles from Frenchglen on the Steens loop road. Heading south from Frenchglen take a left turn on the gravel road. You can’t miss it. The resort also has showers which is very welcome if you’re dry camping as we do.
Just after the ‘resort’ , you will cross the Blitzen river with Page Springs campground to the immediate right. Sitting at the base of Steens Mountain, it offers 36 campsites along the river. This is a good spot to settle in and explore the mountain. Most sites are located under old cottonwood trees and will accommodate RV’s. There’s drinking water, tables, fire pits, and vault toilets. At times, particularly early in the season, the fishing for Redland trout can be good. The best bet is to walk upstream to the less visited areas. Limit is two fish and a note of caution – watch out for rattlesnakes. The fee for overnight camping is generally eight bucks per vehicle.
The road up and around the Steens Mountain is usually well maintained gravel and fairly straight at a gradual slope until you reached the top of the mountain. The first ten miles or so is very mundane except for the occasional spotting of the wild mustangs, known as Kiger horses. These stout but small feral horses were thought to be the common wild mustangs until 1977 when, during a round-up, it was observed that they were of a distinct coloration and conformation. DNA testing established that they were descendants of a family of Spanish horses left by Mexican explorers in the 1500’s. It was previously thought that no pure breed mustangs existed due to inbreeding. They are now managed as a protected herd and the occasional adoption offerings sell for very high prices.
Continuing on there is a marked turn off to the right that leads to a large meadow area near the north rim of Big Indian Gorge. In the late 1800’s this area came to be known as ‘Whorehouse Meadows’ due to the hookers that came from Vale, Oregon to entertain the cattlemen and Basque sheepherders during the summer season. The Bureau of Land Management decided, in the 1960’s, to change the name to ‘Naughty Girl Meadows’ – go figure. That name didn’t stick, but the story is a landmark in the annuals of American morality. The Steens had been, for years, a summer grazing area for the cattle ranchers. That situation has now been substantially modified with the creation of the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protective Area agreement -a good, inclusive arrangement.
Further up the road you’ll come to the Fish Lake Campground, as marked on the right. The campground has some twenty plus sites, the best being at the north end of the lake in a grassy meadow with quaking aspens. Like the other Steens camp areas, the facilities are basic – vault toilets, water, table, and fire pit for about $8 per night. The lake is full of brook trout and easy to fish. Using a boat or float tube is best. There’s a pier and launch area that’s marked. One of the best offerings are the wild flowers that seem to bloom continuously from below Fish Lake to the summit. Some of the plants are unique to this area and are mostly of the alpine variety. You’re at 7200’ and the nights can get cold.
Across from and around the Fish Lake area are a number of small lakes and ponds that have no fish but are good for camping, easily accessible, and offer more solitude than the typical organized campground. A good choice for a small campground is Jackman further up the road at about 7800’. It’s very small, has a small stream and very nice quaking aspen groves. It’s not for bigger RV’s.
Traveling on towards the crest, the road gets steeper and somewhat more curved. Even during mid-summer you can expect to start seeing patches of snow with small creeks carrying the run-off downhill. Near the top, on the left, will be a short road leading to the rim of Kiger Gorge. Of all the stunning geological features the Steens has to offer, the gorges are by far the most spectacular. There are three of this glacier carved gorges that for pure size and depth rival the Grand Canyon. The Kiger is my favorite but not something that you would want to descend. It’s a particularly good place to view through binoculars checking for wildlife.
Back on the Loop road, just ahead is a trailhead leading to the actual summit of the mountain, about 9700 feet. Don’t be fooled by the varying peeks, the Steens is actually a single mountain some fifty miles long. It’s a must to pull over and walk the short distance to the rim and look out over the Alvord desert. From here you can see south to Nevada, east to Idaho, and north to the remainder of Oregon. As you explore the rim area, look closely at the numerous alpine plants and lichen which offer a fascinating palate of coloration. We like to take lunch in this area with the clouds moving over and the ever changing visual effects. A good place to celebrate your arrival at such a special place.
Continuing on with Little Blitzen gorge to your right, you will notice Wildhorse Lake sitting below about a mile down a somewhat steep and difficult trail – too much for me. The Loop Road skirts the gorge along the south rim cutting over to the Big Indian gorge. The going gets a little narrow and the steep drop off to the downhill side can tend to turn a nervous stomach. The views are worth any discomfort. As you drop down the mountain, near the base, you’ll find the South Steens campground. There are 36 sites typical of the others offer at Page Springs and Fish Lake. The primary attraction is the Blitzen River which borders the campground. The stream is of decent size here and very fishable, though somewhat steep and overgrown. I’ve never walked it, but suspect that things open up and become friendlier downstream. This area is also the trailheads to hikes into the Big Indian and Little Blitzen gorges.
Just down the from the campground is a road to your right leading to the Riddle Bros. Ranch, an old historic site that has been purchased by the BLM and put on the National Historic Structures listings. There’s a gate that is usually open in the summer season with a rudimentary road that leads some mile and half to the ranch. There’s no camping allowed here and the site is watched over by a guest host most the time. The Little Blitzen River runs through the grounds and can be a lot of fun to fish. This is a good choice to picnic and get a feel for the early pioneer life where everything was built from the land you’re living on.
The last of our trip is the ride back to Frenchglen. Traveling over a mostly flat area you’ll come to State Highway 205 with a right and you’re back where you started, hopefully somewhat dazzled by the experience.