Steens Mountain rises up from the sagebrush desert to nearly 10,000 feet. This 59-mile/95-kilometer loop includes the highest road in Oregon, traveling around and up this grand Great Basin landmark.
Steens Mountain is one of Oregon’s great scenic and geologic wonders, a 30-mile/48.2-kilometer fault block that is a small mountain range rather than a single peak. This tour route scales the Steens, climbing thousands of feet and topping out just shy of the summit at 9,734 feet.
From Frenchglen, the first 5 miles/ 8 kilometers of the route along North Loop Road traverse the southern end of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Page Springs Campground sits alongside the Donner und Blitzen River (German for “thunder and lightning”). It’s designated a Wild and Scenic River from here to its headwaters atop the mountain.
The tour route begins its climb in earnest, ascending from arid sagebrush to small lakes and a shady respite of quaking aspen. Some of the graffiti scratched into the tree bark was made decades ago by Basque shepherds, many of whom first arrived in Oregon in the late 19th century and settled in the southeastern corner of the state.
Just shy of the rim is Kiger Gorge, a classic U-shape glacial valley about a half-mile/0.8 kilometers deep. Glaciers once scoured down this mountain, scrubbing away softer sediments and creating distinct notches in the bedrock.
From Kiger Gorge, the road turns south and skims along the rim. At the East Rim Viewpoint, peer off the precipice to the Alvord Desert 1 mile/1.6 kilometers below. On a clear day, you can see beyond Oregon to Nevada, Idaho and California.
From the summit, the tour route eases down the mountain’s western slope. Overviews and short trails offer looks into the picturesque canyons of Big Indian Gorge and Little Blitzen Gorge. You’ll once again cross the Donner und Blitzen River en route back to OR-205, the High Desert Discovery Scenic Byway. Watch for wildlife along this stretch, particularly the wild horses that roam these wild lands.