Steens Loop Tour Route
This 59-mile loop departs from Frenchglen and climbs to the very top of Steens Mountain, which rests in the clouds at nearly 10,000 feet. Along the way, you’ll have ample opportunities to view wildlife and take in the grandeur of a national treasure.
Steens Mountain is an example of a fault-block mountain, formed when massive internal pressure forced the east edge upward along a fault line. From the valley floor of the Alvord Desert to the east rim of the fault-block, Steens Mountain rises 5,500 feet in less than 3 miles! From the east rim overlook, the Steens Mountain drops over a vertical mile to the Alvord Desert floor. Four distinct notches in the Mountain—including oft-photographed Kiger Gorge—were formed when glaciers punched through the ridgetops. From the mountaintop, you can see hundreds of miles. There are five major glaciated canyons on the Steens. The Kiger Gorge overlook offers the visitor a breathtaking opportunity to stand at the headwall of a classic textbook example of a massive “U” shaped canyon.
The Dry and the Moist
Steens Mountain acts as a great moisture collector, creating vastly different ecosystems from the valley floor to the mountaintop. While the upper west slope of the mountain may receive as much as 25 inches of precipitation, the Alvord Desert in its shadow receives less than six inches per year. Making your way to the summit, take note of changing plant life. Sagebrush dominates in the lower, drier environs, giving way to dense stands of juniper, then quaking aspen and mountain mahogany as the moisture levels increase. Cattlemen, as well as Irish and Basque sheepherders, were once drawn to the upper mountain in the summer to graze their stock on the lush meadows that thrive there.
Many animals are drawn to Steens’ unique “skyisland” habitats. Bighorn sheep can sometimes be spotted negotiating rocky escarpments; pronghorn antelope, mule deer and elk also call the mountain home. Raptors, including golden eagles, the largest raptor on Steens Mountain, can often be seen riding the updrafts in search of prey. The end of the tour loop winds through wild horse country. The South Steens Wild Horse Herd descended from mustangs that escaped from early explorers, Indians, settlers, miners, and ranchers. The herd of nearly 300 animals is managed by the Bureau of Land Management to preserve their wild, free-roaming nature. Spotting one of these wild mustangs is an exclamation point on a remarkable drive.
Nearby Scenic Byways
Looking for more Scenic Byways nearby? Here are some suggestions…
This 143-mile tour skirts along the eastern escarpment of Steens Mountain and the vast expanses of the Alvord Desert, providing a scenic study in dramatic contrasts.
A short spur off the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway, this route showcases a glorious stretch of coastline that includes six state parks, two National Wildlife Refuges, and America’s first National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Majestic mountains (such as Hood and Rainier) soar over lush green fields except in the forest areas; these areas are filled with Douglas Firs that sunlight can’t quite part. Silver Falls State Park is intimate in spite of the thunder of its…
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Keep in mind many of the routes listed here travel through remote areas where gas stations are few and far between. And since road and weather conditions can be hazardous, even into summer, we urge you to call 800-977-6368 or check Trip Check before starting out.