Monday, July 27, 2020

Steens Mountain, Oregon - July 2020

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Where Glaciers Once Lived

Field's Station was busy, many more vehicles than we've seen here in the past.

"We sold 209 milkshakes yesterday on the Fourth," the new owner told us as we chatted outside. Calling him the new owner doesn't quite fit as he's the son of the folks who owned it for 14 years. He and his wife bought the place two years ago from his parents.

"I got to see the world during my time in the Marines. My wife's a chef and from Nebraska," he continued.

"So have you added new fancy items to your menu?" the Lady asked.

"No, we cook what people want on the menu out here but we do it right." He turned to the man and woman under the awning, "How's your burger?"

The man with his mouth full, eagerly nodded and grinned.

Although the owner believes the Covid-19 pandemic is an urban problem, " cities where people are stacked right on top of each other," this outpost is doing well with its precautions. Everyone's required to wear a face mask. The sign on the door only allows one member of each group to enter. You are greeted immediately and asked what you need. Everything is brought to you outside. Patrons are all keeping good distance apart. The old central portipotties have been replaced with concrete CXT toilets. The place is looking good.

"How's your Nebraska wife like it out here?" the Lady asked.

"Once you've spent time here, you can't help but love it. That's why I came back. We're happy."

As I said, we were surprised with the numbers stopping and traveling through the area. It looked like all their motel rooms were full. A line of expedition vehicles (or overland vehicles - what ever's the current term they like to use) pulled in. These folks sure like to travel in packs. They all piled out and milled together without distancing and face masks. It was amazing careless behavior to witness and we kept an extra wide distance.

The milkshake we shared was great.

We headed north to Steens Mountain. The Steens Mountain Loop Road had opened two days before. We enjoyed the drive but, again, were surprised with the number of people about. This was the busiest we'd ever seen it at Steens.

The wind was bitter cold and strong at the top just under 10,000 feet. We walked down the trail to look at Wildhorse Lake.

The Lady loves to check out trail registers and easily found our last entry.

There are four long and spectacular glacial valleys carved into Steens Mountain - Wildhorse Canyon, Kiger Gorge, Little Blitzen Gorge, and Big Indian Gorge. Big Indian Gorge was directly below us to the west.

The descent on the loop road down to South Steens Campground is one of our favorite drives. We pulled into the campground and found it about 2/3's full on this Sunday afternoon. It's a general purpose, kinda fits the bill kind of place but the campsites are fairly well separated so we decided to stay. The Lady wanted a hike. The bottom entrances to both Little Blitzen and Big Indian gorges can be reached from this campground. We wandered the mile and a half over to Little Blitzen to get away from the campground, although we were pleased everyone was quiet and kept to themselves.

We enjoyed a quiet night.

The boundary of the Steens Mountain Wilderness is right outside the campground.

The entrance to Big Indian Gorge is a mile and half climb over open terrain.

There are three creek crossings in quick succession after entering the canyon. We kept our wading sandals on through this section. The canyon here was narrow and shaded with cottonwoods, mountain mahogany, alders, juniper, pines, and aspen. The water was refreshing and cold.

The wildflowers were delightful and we stopped often.

There is a long dogleg curve at the bottom of the gorge. The canyon then turns straight east and reveals itself as a long glacial canyon.

The flowers and high walls kept our eyes wandering, trying to take everything in.

We met a couple, backpackers, who had spent the night at "Cottonwood Camp." We found their trail in the tall grasses and found the pleasant spot along the creek.

Although the USGS topo indicates the trail ends here, it continues. At this higher elevation we now hiked mostly in large groves of aspen.

The walls were more spectacular as we neared the end - the headwall - of Big Indian Gorge. Waterfalls tumbled from melting snowfields above.

We climbed a high bench to enter the headwall cirque. A nice waterfall tumbled down off the bench.

There is a route out of the cirque that climbs the steep drainage in the photo below.

We continued into the headwall cirque through a thicket of stunted aspen, mountain mahogany and juniper.

This was awe inspiring terrain, raw and rugged after the retreat and disappearance of the glacier that carved these walls.

We backtracked to the waterfall for a long break, dipping our bare feet into the cold water.

We began our long trek back. We had hiked over nine miles from our camp. This would be an eighteen mile hike.

As the afternoon light was improving, we took a long look back into the headwall.

The light continued to improve. We kept looking back up the gorge. It was hard to leave this place.

We took another nice break among the cottonwoods.

We arrived back at camp around 5 pm. There had been a little turnover with fellow campers. The place was still pleasantly quiet but we still wandered back over to the Little Blitzen for more solitude as night came.

We packed up early and drove into the tiny town of Frenchglen. It is a shaded peaceful place. We filled the truck up with gas at the small store so we could continue our travels.

After a few miles of pavement, we turned back onto dirt. Where were we headed now?


  1. Thanks for the report.I always love your reports, they get me sleuthing for new areas to explore. I’ve been interested in this area. How is the road? Need 4x4? Is camping allowed other than in established campgrounds?Thanks.

    1. Thanks for you comment. The main Steens Mountain Loop Road is wide graded dirt. A few secondary roads may require 4x4. The are very few dispersed camping sites available and there are sections of private property.

    2. Thank you. Might go next week. Gotta check the wildfire/smoke situation. Cheers to you and thanks for sharing.

  2. How late in the year is the road open generally? This might be a great destination on our way home from Phoenix, Oregon in late October/early November where we pick up our new Ocelot shell.

    1. It varies year to year based on the first significant snowfall of the season to close the road up top. Lower sections of the road may still be open. The gate on the southern end is just past South Steens Campground. Congrats on your new All Terrain Camper!