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Steens Mountain Scenic Byway, OR

Wednesday, September 11, 2019 - 8:15pm by Lolo
130 miles and 4 hours from our last stop - 1 night stay

Travelogue

Along the Steens Mountain Scenic BywayAlong the Steens Mountain Scenic BywayLast night, we slept on a playa at the foot of Steens Mountain. Today we would drive up and over it along the Steens Mountain Scenic Byway, a 66-mile gravel road from the Carlow Valley up to the top and back down to the tiny town of Frenchglen.

The Mountain is actually a 30-mile long fault block that rises straight up from the Alvord Desert to a series of glacial peaks at 9,734 feet. During our drive, we would go through five vegetation zones along the way, ranging from tall sage to alpine tundra. It is considered one of the best scenic drives in Oregon, as well as its highest.

Most descriptions of the Scenic Byway have you starting in Frenchglen and going clockwise along the drive. However, since we were coming from the south, we started at the theoretical end and went counterclockwise.

Wild horse taking a dirt bath while his buds look onWild horse taking a dirt bath while his buds look onWe hadn’t been driving on the Byway very long before we encountered several groups of wild horses alongside the road. We tried to take their picture from the car, but we soon came across an ideal setting - a small pond, with a group of about 6 or 7 horses reflected in it. One of them even put on a show, by rolling around on this back, legs up in the air, thrashing and kicking up dust, while his buddies just looked on as if he was crazy.

Continuing our climb we stopped at Indian Gorge Lookout and took the short walk out to some pretty awesome views of the gorge.

Indian Gorge Lookout along the Steens Mountain Scenic BywayIndian Gorge Lookout along the Steens Mountain Scenic BywayAt the top of the loop road, we took a short spur road to the Wildhorse Lake lookout. From the parking lot, we walked a ½-mile up a steep dirt road to the true summit of Steens Mountain, where we were treated to an incredible panoramic view, including the Alvord Desert where we had camped last night. There are some ugly radio towers on the summit, but it wasn’t too difficult to keep them out of our pictures.

From the same parking area, we walked 0.2-miles to a stunning view of Wildhorse Lake 1,300 feet below. There is a 1 mile trail down to it, and we probably would have taken it if the namesake wild horses were playing delightfully by it, but they weren’t and it was cold, so we continued on.

On our descent, we passed another classic U-shaped glacial valley called Kiger Gorge. Wild horses are also known to inhabit this area, but not today.

Indian Gorge Lookout along the Steens Mountain Scenic BywayIndian Gorge Lookout along the Steens Mountain Scenic BywayNext we came to Jackman Park, one of the BLM campgrounds along the drive, but we continued on. This was Day 4 in the truck, and a place with showers was imperative.

Too bad we were too early for the fall color change, because there were so many aspens that would have looked lovely dressed in golden yellow.

At about 20 miles before the end of the drive, we came across Fish Lake, another BLM campground, which is supposed to be lovely in late September when the golden aspens are reflected in the lake. The aspens were still green and there was no shower so we drove on.

Finding a shower was starting to totally consume my thoughts now. I called the historic Frenchglen Hotel to see if they had a room for the night, but they were totally booked. Then I called the Steens Mountain Wilderness Resort, which I verified had showers, and booked a tent site for the night. Ironically, just to shower there if you were not a guest is $9 ($18 for two), but a tent site is $15, and included access to the shower. I had beat the system.

Wildhorse Lake lookoutWildhorse Lake lookoutBefore getting to the Steens Mountain Wilderness Campground, we came to another BLM campground called Page Springs. It was lovely, with spacious campsites set along the Donner and Blitzen River. We weren’t sure how much we were going to like the commercial campground, so we splurged $4 (half price for seniors) and reserved a really nice site in Page Springs. We now had two places to camp for the night - one to bathe in and one to sleep in. What city slickers!

I was desperate to not face another turkey sandwich or backpacking meal, so I convinced Herb that we should have lunch at the Historic Frenchglen Hotel, built in 1914 as a stage stopover. It was already 2:00 and their website said they served lunch until 2:30 so we hurried on over.

Historic Frenchglen HotelHistoric Frenchglen HotelI think they were pretty much getting ready to close shop when we got there, and the grill had already been turned off. However, the young girl waiting tables said we could have BLTs. Then BLTs it was, and coffee. The sandwiches were actually quite good.

The next order of business before settling down for the night in one of our campsites was getting gas, and thankfully Frenchglen (population 12 to as many as 15) did have one, and it was completely based on the honor system. After pumping our gas, I had to go into the Mercantile Store and tell the old woman behind the counter how much we had pumped. Being a city slicker, I had taken a picture of the pump with my cell phone, but she never asked for any verification.

Along the Donner and Blitzen RiverAlong the Donner and Blitzen RiverThe store was like being transported back in time. It reminded me of when our kids used to play the Oregon Trail computer game and had to decide for the pioneers what they should buy with their limited money - a burlap bag of flour, an elixir for whatever ailed them, or one of those many tin cans up on the shelves with God knows what in them. I felt like I had left both the 21st and the 20th century back up on Steens Mountain.

We headed over to the Steens Mountain Wilderness Resort to shower. When checking in, the woman behind the counter greeted a young girl, who came in the backway. It was her daughter and the same girl that had waited tables at the Frenchglen Hotel. Okay, so now between the old woman in the Mercantile store, the woman checking us in, and her daughter (waitress), we already had met 25% of the town’s residents.

After pulling our 4Runner into Site 15, I happily showered for like an hour, wondrous of the magic of water coming from above to rinse 4 days of dirt and sand from John Day Fossil Beds and the Alvord Desert off of me.

The campsite wasn’t nearly as nice as our one at Page Springs, or as private, so we left. I don’t know why I felt so guilty.

Before leaving the next morning, we took a short 1.3 mile hike from our campsite up a side canyon, along the rim overlooking Frenchglen and the Donner and Blitzen river, and then back down to our campground.

Description

Wildhorse Lake lookoutWildhorse Lake lookoutSteens Mountain is a 30-mile fault block that rises straight up from the Alvord Desert to a series of glacial peaks at 9,734 feet.

The Steens Mountain Scenic Byway is a 66-mile gravel road that takes you from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to the top of Steens Mountain and then back down to the Carlow Valley, passing through five vegetation zones along the way, ranging from tall sage to alpine tundra. It is considered one of the best scenic drives in Oregon, as well as its highest.

Starting in the small town of Frenchglen, the road travels through the Malheur Wildlife Refuge and up to the foothills of Steens Mountain. At four miles in you arrive at the Page Springs campground along the banks of the Donner and Blitzen River, a good place to either start or end our journey.

From here, the road begins to climb in earnest, ascending from arid sagebrush to small lakes and quaking aspen.

The first attraction is Fish Lake, a beautiful little trout pond with a nice stand of aspen trees, great in mid to late September for golden aspens reflected in the water. There is a BLM campground here.

Wild horses of Steens MountainWild horses of Steens MountainThere are a lot more aspen further up the mountain at Jackman Park BLM Campground. The views from the roadside pullouts are generally better in the afternoon when the trees are back or side-lit.

Just shy of the rim is Kiger Gorge, a classic U-shape glacial valley that is home to a herd of wild mustangs. Glaciers once scoured down this mountain, scrubbing away softer sediments and creating distinct notches in the bedrock.

At the top of the loop road, a short spur road leads to the Wildhorse Lake lookout. From the parking lot a ½-mile walk up a road will take you to the true summit of Steens Mountain, where the precipitous drop affords an incredible panoramic view, including the Alvord Desert.

From the same parking area, a 0.2-mile walk brings you to a stunning view of Wildhorse Lake. If ambitious, you can hike 1 mile and 1,300 vertical feet down the slopes of Wildhorse Canyon to Wildhorse Lake.

A short spur road ends at the parking area where you can hike 0.5 miles to the true Summit, or walk 0.2 miles to a view of Wildhorse Lake, best photographed early to mid-morning.
From the summit, the gravel road eases down the mountain’s western slope, with views of Big Indian Gorge and the Little Blitzen Gorge. There is plenty of wildlife to see along this stretch, especially wild horses.

Steens Mountain Scenic Byway location map in "high definition"

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