Steens Mountain from Alvord Desert
- Easy (to three viewpoints)
- 1 mile total
- 250 feet elevation gain
- Open mid-July to late October
- Map: Wildhorse Lake (USGS)
- Moderate (to Wildhorse Lake)
- 2.4 miles round trip
- 1100 feet elevation loss
The windswept cliffs at the summit of Steens Mountain seem perched on the edge of the planet. More than a vertical mile below, the Alvord Desert shimmers faintly, a mirage in the void. At 9733 feet, this is the ninth tallest mountain in Oregon, and the easiest to climb. In fact, after strolling through an otherworldly landscape half a mile to the top, you’re likely to have enough energy left over to scramble down into a hanging valley of wildflowers at Wildhorse Lake.
Fill your car’s gas tank before leaving Burns. Then drive 1.7 miles east on Highway 78 toward Crane and turn right on paved Highway 205 for 61 miles to Frenchglen. Just beyond the Frenchglen Hotel, fork left onto the gravel Steens Mountain Loop Road for 2.9 miles to the Page Springs Campground entrance. Keep left, past a snow gate that’s closed from about mid-November until Memorial Day.
Driving up Steens Mountain is like climbing a 20-mile ramp. A tilted mesa with an active fault on its steep, eastern side, this fault-block mountain has risen up in the past five to seven million years. During the Ice Age, seven large glaciers gouged 2000-foot-deep, U-shaped canyons into the western slope.
After driving 13.2 miles up from the gate, detour to the right into the Fish Lake Recreation Site. Mountain lakes are rare in southeast Oregon and this pool’s a beauty, with a campground and picnic area among silvery-leaved quaking aspen. Then continue up the main road another 5.7 miles, passing a snow gate that’s closed from about November 1 until July 1, depending on snow levels. At a pointer for the Kiger Gorge Viewpoint, detour 0.4 mile to the left and walk 100 yards to a cliff-edge panorama of Kiger Creek’s gorge. This colossal trough breaches the mountain’s crest, leaving a gap called Kiger Notch.
From the Kiger Gorge Viewpoint, return to the main gravel road and continue 2.7 miles to a 4-way junction. First turn left for a 0.3-mile side trip up to the East Rim Viewpoint and a dizzying look down to the Alvord Desert. Then return to the 4-way junction and follow a “Wildhorse Lake” pointer left on a rough dirt road for 2 miles to a parking lot at road’s end. The sparse blooms of white yarrow, pink desert buckwheat, and white phlox struggle here in a field of lava rocks encrusted with black, green, and orange lichens.
Two trails start from this parking lot. If you’re headed for Steens Mountain’s summit, simply hike up a barricaded, steep, rocky roadbed 0.4 mile to a crest. The actual summit is 100 feet to the left. To the right, you’ll find a different viewpoint just beyond five small radio buildings.
Alvord Desert and Steens Mountain
If you have a little more time and energy, however, try the other trail from the parking lot. This path heads downhill past a hiker registration box for 0.2 mile to a rimrock cliff overlooking Wildhorse Lake. Here the trail suddenly turns left, traversing down a precariously steep rocky slope. Soon the path begins following a brook through increasingly lush meadows, ablaze with pink monkeyflower, orange paintbrush, and yellow Oregon sunshine. At the 1.2-mile mark, the narrow sand beach of Wildhorse Lake makes a good turnaround point. If you’re backpacking, camp well away from the fragile shore and bring a cookstove, because fires are not allowed.
Adventurers who don’t want to backtrack can return from Wildhorse Lake on a loop through trailless but open alpine country. When you first reach the lakeshore, having followed an inlet creek down from the rimrock, walk to the left around the beach 150 yards to a different 3-foot inlet creek, and follow this stream uphill. After climbing above the waterfalls at a meadowed middle basin, head straight for the radio towers on Steens Mountain’s summit. At the top, simply walk the wide, 0.4-mile trail down to your car.
If you have a passenger car, it’s safest to drive back to Frenchglen the way you came. If your vehicle has high clearance, however, drive back 2 miles to the 4-way junction and turn left on the continuation of the Steens Mountain Loop Road. This longer route to Frenchglen includes a rough, 6-mile stretch of steep, rocky road.
This chapter taken from the book 100 Hikes/Travel Guide: Eastern Oregon.