Driving the spectacular Steens Mountain

Zach Urness / Statesman Journal /


FRENCHGLEN — It has been called the most spectacular drive in Oregon.

The Steens Mountain Loop Road departs the tiny, historic town of Frenchglen and climbs up Oregon’s eighth-tallest mountain on a tour of massive gorges, vast panoramas and one of the most spectacular lakes in the Pacific Northwest.

The 52-mile loop is the state’s highest road and is found in its southeastern corner, rising above the High Desert like an alpine island.

Last year at about this time, I wrote a story about backpacking and hiking into the gorges of Steens Mountain.

This year, I’m focusing on the family-friendly highlights that can be enjoyed right along the road (parts of the road were closed for construction earlier this year but have been completed.)

Time is running out on summer. Steens Mountain offers one last road trip.

Half the battle (and fun) of a Steens Mountain road trip is the drive.

One curiosity along the way is the windblown, blink-and-you-miss-it town of Brothers, composed of a few buildings on the side of the road.

“The scenery ramps up as you head south on Highway 205 toward Frenchglen — about one hour from Burns — at the base of Steens Mountain.

This is where the Steens Mountain Loop Road begins, but make sure to check out one very cool attraction first.

Frenchglen Hotel State Heritage Site

Hearty meals are served family-style, television is nonexistent and the feeling of being transported backward in time highlights this former stagecoach stop.

In a valley below the mountain, the town of Frenchglen spreads out in historic splendor, a small grassy oasis between craggy desert mountains.

Frenchglen Hotel is the centerpiece (although there’s also a small shop in town and a few houses). Call ahead for one of the hotel’s meals or make reservations to spend the night, 541-493-2825. The hotel makes a great base camp for adventures on Steens or a place to relax on a screened-in porch drinking in the warm desert air.

The road

There aren’t enough column inches in this newspaper to hit every highlight on Steens Mountain Loop Road.

Luckily, the best viewpoints (make sure to stop for Keiger Gorge), hikes and historic points are well marked along the wide gravel road. The road is bumpy in places, but passenger cars shouldn’t have any trouble.

High-altitude glory

Everything about Wildhorse Lake and the Steens Mountain summit is spectacular, from the 9,734-foot peak to a lake that shimmers in a multi- colored basin a vertical mile above the desert.

To find it, follow the Steens Mountain Loop Road 22 miles from Frenchglen to a junction with a sign for “Steens Summit/Wildhorse Lake.” Go left, and follow a rough and bumpy road two miles to a mountain-top parking area.

The trail to Wildhorse Lake begins at the parking area, heading downhill to an overlook of unbelievable beauty. The lake shimmers in a multi-colored hanging valley with massive, jagged cliffs dropping thousands of feet into the desert floor.

The hike is short but steep, zigzagging 1,100 feet down a jagged rockface into the basin. There are two sets of very steep switchbacks where older folks and children need to be careful.

The trail levels out and follows a small creek into a basin blooming with wildflowers in colors of orange, yellow, purple and blue circling the lakeshore.

If you have energy remaining, return to the parking lot and hike to the summit. After all, it’s not every day you can ascend a 9,733-foot peak with a simple, half-mile hike. Follow the gated road uphill to a summit that showcases the long, hazy expanse of the Alvord Desert.

The peak isn’t quite sublime, however, because cellphone and radio towers, along with propane tanks, are present.

Even if the hikes aren’t overly difficult, remember that the altitude can make things harder. Bring plenty of water and food, and avoid heading up the road if there’s foul weather.

Campgrounds

Two of the best campgrounds on Steens Mountain are Fish Lake and South Steens. Each brings its own charm.

Fish Lake is a blue pool stocked with trout, sitting among aspen and willow trees particularly gorgeous during autumn. Home to 23 campsites ($8 per night), people swim and canoe at Fish Lake while hiking nearby trails.

South Steens is on the far side of the loop, 30 miles from Frenchglen. It’s nice enough with 36 campsites for $6 per night but is best known for providing trailhead access into the massive, spectacular Big Indian and Little Blitzen gorges.

Big Indian Trail (which begins at the back of South Steens CG) is the more scenic of the two but requires four miles of hiking and three stream crossings to reach worthwhile views.

Little Blitzen Trail, which begins just up the road from South Steens, reaches excellent views in just 1.5 miles.

Riddle Brothers Ranch

The smell of juniper forest and the sound of Little Blizten River surround the old, historic buildings of a ranch built by three bachelor brothers who raised livestock and lived at the site in the early 1900s.

The national historic site, open from mid-June to October, is reached on a rough road near South Steens campground.

Fishing, hiking, horseback riding or lying along the Little Blitzen River make for a pleasant afternoon at the site. Part of the charm is imagining the lives of Walter, Frederick and Benjamin Riddle on this site, which hasn’t changed a great deal since their time.

East-side road

Steens Mountain Loop Road is spectacular, no doubt, with enough views and highlights to fill more than a week’s time.

If you’ve extra time, however, consider exploring the East Steens Road (also known as “Folly Farm” road). This gravel road runs below the mountain’s sheer eastern flank on the edge of the Alvord Desert, passing moonscapelike views, canyons and hot springs along the way.

From Frenchglen, drive Highway 205 south for 50 miles. Turn left onto gravel Fields-Follyfarm/Fields-Denio Road and continue onto the road. Call the Burns Ranger District or talk to the folks at Frenchglen Hotel for information.