It seems like most people don’t know about Steens Mountain — and fewer have been. Other mountains get all the attention in Oregon: Mt. Hood, the Three Sisters, Mt. Jefferson and other snow-capped Cascade peaks are the first summits that spring to mind when people think of the state’s high places. The Coast Range, the Siskiyous and even the Wallowas are more familiar. Steens exists in a land beyond most, and that makes all the difference. After a year of longing for a chance to explore, me and my partner, Kathryn, decided it was finally time to experience the magic of Steens on a three-day road trip. Here we go.
From Ashland to Klamath Falls to Lakeview, we made our way east, leaving the verdant forests of Douglas fir, Ponderosa pine and cedar behind. We were bound for high desert, sagebrush and grasslands — arid landscapes that occupy the spaces beyond the Cascades. At Fields Station, we stopped for milkshakes (always a wise decision), then drove north into Oregon’s last rain shadow and the Alvord Desert.
This is Oregon’s driest spot. A mere 6 inches of rain falls here annually. Once a lake, the Alvord Desert today is a flat expanse of cracked earth, its white sediment baking day after day, deprived of precipitation by the imposing fault block mountain that towers above it to the west. It’s a surreal playground, and we relished our time in it. Though it was the middle of the afternoon, the hottest point of a relatively warm day, the surface was cool and soft, perfect for a barefoot stroll in the desert.
From the desert, we drove south and then west to the Catlow Valley, for the roads that climb Steens do so from the gentler western slopes. At Fish Lake, we made camp and dined at sunset. As night fell, we took the gravel road to the East Rim Overlook and turned our eyes skyward to see the Milky Way arch over southeastern Oregon.
Day broke, and we watched it do so back on the East Rim.
The dark landscape we saw the night before was now illuminated, and Oregon’s southeast corner was in view. Bighorn sheep roamed the ridges near the summit of Steens, and the Alvord Desert lay far below us, seeming somehow smaller and larger from this vantage.
A scramble to an outcrop behind the rim gave the best view of all: a first glimpse of Wildhorse Lake.
The day’s first hike was Kiger Gorge, the largest of four stunning glacial canyons that mark the western slopes of Steens.
The ice that scoured the mountain is long gone, but a memory remains in these half-mile-deep valleys carved from the uplifted basalt flows. It was fall and Kiger was awash in color, with shrubs painting the slopes and golden aspen lining the creek that drains them. We found an access point on the rim and descended a few hundred feet into the gorge, enough to be swallowed in its grandeur. Kiger alone could provide a week’s worth of explorations.
The second hike had two parts. First, the relatively short walk to the true summit of Steens, 9,733 feet above sea level. The summit itself is not much to speak of: towers and equipment stand at the top, components of research projects and communications networks. The views are grand as they are from nearly anywhere on the rim, but there’s just something about knowing you’re at the top. From there, we descended off trail into the wilderness, picking a path down through the rock towards Wildhorse Lake. Sitting in a cirque at 8,410 feet, the clear (and cold) water pops against the arid and rocky world that surrounds it.
Our last day began early, back on the rim for sunrise. Light washed over Steens once more, and we admired the sweeping vistas as we ate breakfast.
Such an interesting mountain: sloping grassland and sagebrush on the west side, juniper woodlands below, and a steep and craggy escarpment running southwest to northeast for 50 miles. Throw in the glacial gorges, neighboring ridgelines and the Alvord Desert below and it all comes to a geographic crescendo.
Our last Steens adventure was a hike to a grove of orange aspen. We bushwhacked our way down the Fish Creek drainage and eventually walked into a grove of orange and white below clear blue skies. In a state of wonder, we wandered among the trunks, sifted through the leaves, and craned our necks towards the colorful canopy.