Steens Mountain: Oregon’s Mysterious Secret
Deep in the southeast section of Oregon, a lone mountain sits. The mountain is locked in an arid country, far from any urban developments. A road leads to it; a pathway little-traveled except by scientists looking for answers to an ancient mystery, or those seeking solace from the travails of urban life in a natural place, built by forces beyond our control. The mountain was once known as a sacred place by Native Americans who lived on its slopes. Later, the area became known as Steen’s Mountain, named after the Army Cavalry Major, who defeated and removed the Native American population from the mountain during the Snake Indian Wars. Today, in recognition that no man can own such a place, the name dropped the ownership apostrophe and became Steens Mountain. Another mystery stacked on top of so many others.
I first heard the creation story that labeled Steens Mountain as the birthplace of the world from a fellow student in college during the 1960s. Anthony, a son of the Paiute tribe, told me of the mighty Wolf who brought his minions across the star trail to the void at the center of the world. The wolf tasked his followers to find a way to the surface. The route was blocked by water. Many tried but failed to swim through. Finally, the mightiest of Wolf’s followers volunteered to find a way. After ages of exploration through waterfilled caves, the follower found the surface and returned to lead the others. At night they emerged from a cave, which Wolf named Malheur Cave in celebration of their success. That night the world quivered, and they looked up in the morning to see a majestic mountain that reached for the star trail high in the sky. They did not name the mountain; it was too powerful to be limited to a name.
Wolf called the followers to him. He asked them to explore the land and decide where they wished to dwell. After a while, they returned to Wolf and proclaimed where and how they would live. The most powerful, the follower who found the way into the world, was granted the body and life of the Sage Hen so she could sail the sky, walk the soil, and dig into the ground. Another was labeled an Otter while another was a Mountain Goat and a fourth a Coyote. More of the minions became other creatures that explored the mountain and lived there in separate places. Wolf gave them a name—the nuwudu—the Animal People. Wolf charged them with a great responsibility. They were to guard the mountain until the nuwu—the new people—arrived. Then, they were to hide the cave and guide the nuwu to a life of respect and appreciation for what was created for them.
Wolf left through the cave and was never seen again. The nuwudu stayed, each in their home. The nuwu appeared many ages later, crawling through Malheur Cave. They were dirty, uneducated, and stood on two legs. The nuwudu hid Malheur Cave and taught the nuwu the way of the world, sacrificing themselves for the new people. The nuwudu are still there, waiting, watching, and guiding the faithful until Malheur Cave opens again, and the nuwu and nuwudu can return to the old home by the star path with the knowledge and the spirit for which they sacrificed much.
It was Anthony’s oral recitation from the Northern Paiute lore that excited me about Steens Mountain. I visited it soon afterward. I was not prepared to hike the terrain. Still, I saw enough to understand that Steens Mountain is a place of contradictions. The mountain is a massive bulge against a star-filled sky. The land is arid yet filled with flora and fauna on the western side. The eastern side is the opposite in every way. A few mesquites and scrub plants endure the parched conditions on the east side of the mountain, but below the feet of the mountain, everything is desert, pancaked earth, cracked under the punishing sun. The only thing alive there are the dancing dust-devils locked in a series of magnificent minuets.
When I returned home, I began searching for information on Steens Mountain. There was not much to be found as even scientists were not curious about the formation. At that time, the idea of tectonic migration was not yet recognized, and the construction of such heights was considered one of the unsolvable mysteries of the world.
With the events of the 1960s in front of me, I took my attention away from Steens Mountain to what seemed to be more important things. Civil Rights, fear of “The Bomb,” and the Vietnam War took center stage in my life, just as they did for nearly every other citizen of the country. Anthony’s story simmered in my mind. I married, began a family, and took on responsibilities in life and at work that demanded my attention. Still, something was missing, something that the fast world of urban life could never satisfy, that ever-present quality of human curiosity that makes us question the meaning of our existence.
Others questioned established ideas. Geologists found the mystery of tectonic movement and began searching for further evidence, which led them directly to Steens Mountain. After years of study, they discovered that Steens Mountain is the result of fault-block action where the crust stretches until a fissure forms from which the mantle oozes upward, forming a block. In the most extensive fault-block actions, the crack opens several times, creating block after block, forcing the already solidified material upward. At Steens Mountain, multiple events occurred four million years ago, some of them creating layers of basalt a hundred feet thick or more.
When the Earth cooled, glacial action carved great gashes into the mountain that ran from east to west. These glaciers failed to cut through the east side of the mountain, leaving a continuous 52-mile peak that still exists today. The length of the peak running from north to south builds its own climate. The mountain summit of 9,733 feet effectively blocks weather from traveling eastward, creating a dry area called the Alvord Desert—the driest region in Oregon with only four inches of rain per year. While the wester slopes of the mountain receives ample moisture for vegetation growth, the east side is parched, creating a contrasting ecology where different species exist in a relatively small area. From Steens summit on a clear day, you can seen Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, Mount Batchelor, and the Sisters Mountains.
The temperatures, though always cool due to the elevation, around Steens Mountain vary widely throughout the year, as this table shows.
Spring temp (March-May)
= 21-56 F
Summer temp (June-August)
= 38-76 F
Fall temp (September-November)
= 21-66 F
Winter temp (December-February)
= 16-31 F
Well after my first trip to Steens Mountain, the federal government addressed several concerns about the area. On October 30, 2000, President Clinton signed into law the designation of 170,166 acres of Steens Mountain as a Wilderness Area with 98,859 acres protected from grazing and labeled as “cattle free.”
Inside the same legislation, a cooperative effort between local landowners and national and local authorities established the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protective Area (CMPA), an area consisting of 425,000 acres, including the Wilderness Area. The legislation went further to protect 1,200,000 acres from mining activity as well. Various flora and fauna gained protection, including the Redback Trout found in the Donner un Blitzen River. Other animals, such as the Mountain Goat and the Sage Hen, are subject to limited hunting by permit only to keep populations under control. Vegetation only found on Steens Mountain, including the Steens paintbrush, moss gentian, Steens Mountain Penstemon, Steens Mountain Thistle, a Dwarf Blue Lupine, and Cusick’s Buckwheat are under extended protection from any collection, plucking, or transplanting.
When I explained all this to my daughter, she nodded, seemingly uninterested. Then she asked with that unmistakable spark in her eye, “When are we going, Dad?”
We took off in late July. The summer heat was harsh while we packed our tear-drop trailer for the trip. We took supplies of food, clothing, and extra water and fuel for the hooded lantern and cook stove. We added fishing poles, angling gear, extra boots, gloves, and coats. Our sleeping bags were tossed in, almost as an afterthought. Along with us, we took my eleven-year-old grandson, who already stood at five-foot six-inches. The trip was his first excursion into the mountains.
Our journey was not a short one. The route covered nearly 400 miles of Oregon. From our hometown of Salem, OR, we took Oregon Highway 22 East (OR 22 E) up the Santiam Canyon and over the Cascade Range, 120 miles to the Oregon High Desert. At Bend, the route moved to US Highway 20 (US 20) for another 130 miles to cross the Central Oregon desert area to the town of Burns. At Burns, the journey turned south for 60 miles on Oregon Highway 205 (OR-205), where we found Frenchglen, the doorstep of the Steens Mountain Wilderness Area.
At Frenchglen, Steens Mountain and its environs took up the entire horizon. The effect was unimaginable. Along the journey, we crossed mountains covered with forests and punctuated with lakes and rivers, some of immense size. From Frenchglen, Steens Mountain appeared bereft of forests. Most of the visible vegetation was grasses, low growing wildflowers, interspersed with a few gray mesquites, and the white trunks of infrequent Quaking Aspen. Steens Mountain appeared naked, a bulk of rock with a few plants clinging to a gradual slope.
From Frenchglen, we took the Steens Mountain Loop Road. The gravel and dirt road, a designated Oregon State Scenic Tour Route, wound up the mountain with several viewpoints along the way. The road seemed to grow from the rocky surface of the mountain. These regulated campgrounds seemed to spring up alongside the road.
Page Springs Campground
Page Springs Campground was the first site we passed just three miles from the town of Frenchglen, along the first length of Steens Mountain Loop Road. The campground offered 36 sites shadowed by cottonwood and juniper trees. The Donner und Blitzen River ran nearby. Page Springs proclaimed multiple vault restrooms and drinking water. We decided to return here later in the trip to enjoy the fishing.
South Steens Family and Equestrian Campground
Looking at a brochure we snagged at Page Springs; we discovered South Steens Campground located at the opposite end of Steens Mountain Loop Road. The campground has picnic tables and grills at 36 family campsites amid juniper and sage. The equestrian section, designed specifically for horse users, included 15 sites complete with tie posts and small corrals. Vault restrooms and drinking water were available in both areas. The South Steens Family and Equestrian Campground had immediate access to such sites as the Historic Riddle Brothers Ranch, the Little Blitzen and Big Indian Gorges, and several Steens Mountain hiking trails. Our time table only allowed two nights, so we decided to visit this campground and explore the locality during another trip.
Fish Lake Recreation Site
Fish Lake Campground laid on the upper flanks of Steens Mountain. The 23 site campground sat at an elevation of 7,400 feet alongside a glacial lake. Fish Lake Campground offered campers the opportunity to swim, picnic, and fish the lake for stocked keeper trout planted by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Drinking water was available along with a single universal restroom. As with all other campgrounds, we were expected to carry out your trash.
Jackman Park Campground
Though Jackman Park Campground sat just 3 miles from Fish Lake on Steens Mountain Loop Road, it was at 7,800-foot elevation, 400 feet higher than the Fish Lake Campground. Jackman Park Campground offered six campsites nestled among a grove of mature aspen trees. Each camp was divided from others by Aspen trunks and branches, which offered some protection from the elements. We found that drinking water and a vault toilet were available. The Campground had access points for trails that ran throughout the area, including to the summit.
We took the opportunity to stop at several places along our route. For us, this trip was a vacation of sorts. Like most people in Oregon, we were worn by urban life. We all experience it from time to time, and my family was no exception from the effects of urban living. Our journey took us to stops at Hoodoo, where we watched skiers fly down the hill and to Lava River Cave south of Bend to walk for a mile-and-a-half underground where lava once flowed. We also stopped at Burns and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to observe birds, antelope, and other animals in their natural habitat.
When we reached Steens Mountain, we chose to camp at Jackman Park first because of its elevation and the limited number of fellow campers. After setting up, we turned to look back down the road. You cannot realize how far you have climbed until you look at the winding road below. A sense of wonder seizes you at the sight. Turning around, you see the 2,000 feet in elevation still to be climbed and know that you have only begun to experience this incredible mountain.
We spent that night under a clear sky. We and the other campers hooded our lanterns. The sight of the stars above was amazing. Never had I seen the night display in such detail. My grandson remarked on the “road in the sky” as the Milky Way grew into a solid mass. Individual stars sparkled from horizon to horizon. We groped for words, found none, and were silent. Eventually, sadly, we went inside the trailer to sleep.
In the morning, we ate a healthy breakfast before driving our car up to the East Rim Overlook. The sights from this vantage point are inspiring. Looking down a precipitous slope, we saw the Alford Desert spread out like a table 4,000 feet below. Lifting our eyes, we were lucky enough to see a pair of Mountain Goats scrambling across the craggy rim tops.
We left our vehicle parked beside others at the Kiger Gorge trailhead and hiked through a fantastic sight. In late July, Kiger Gorge is already setting itself for Fall. The small plants that find purchase along the walls of the Gorge are turning color, creating accents of orange, red, and yellow. The Aspen lining the creek that drains Kiger Gorge are turning gold. We descended into the Gorge and found small enclaves where flowers grabbed the eye with displays of vibrant color. We reluctantly climbed back up the trail, knowing that we could explore this area for weeks and not take in all it offered.
When we reached our vehicle, we stopped for a dry meal and a drink of water to refresh ourselves before taking the half-mile trail to the summit. We rounded a corner, and I heard my grandson grunt. I looked and saw the problem. At the summit stood a tower with equipment for various environmental projects beside it. The vision was abrupt, an invasion by the world we had left behind into the world we sought. The effect was immediate and demoralizing. Ignoring the equipment, I stepped to the side of the summit and looked over the dizzying edge. For the first time, I glimpsed Wildhorse Lake. My grandson turned his back on the tower and equipment after briefly looking into the depths below us and led us back to the trailhead.
“Sad,” he said.
We took another trail that gently descended the dry eastern slope of the mountain. The trail wound around the edges sharp edges and up or down depressions. Nine miles later, we stood on the shore of Wildhorse Lake. The intense blue popped against the dry yellow rocks that surrounded the lake. We could feel and smell the moisture that came from its surface. We sat and basked it the local humidity for a while before taking on the task of enduring the climb back to the trailhead.
The day was complete. We returned to the park, ate a meal, and watched the ‘road in the sky” return on another clear night.
The next day we raised camp and took off for the lower campground at Page Springs. After finding an empty spot near the Donner un Blitzen River, we camped, ate, and grabbed our poles for some angling fun. The river ran slowly along this campground, wandering its way down the mountain. We took the four-mile trail to its end and began fishing our way back to camp. The fish were wary, and bites on lures were few and light. I set my pole aside and watched as fish dimpled the surface of the water, consuming small flies and mosquitos. Periodically, a fishtail would sweep the water, but such events were few. We reluctantly gave up on fishing and set ourselves to enjoying the view and the feel of the river. As we walked back, we noticed another trail and took it to find an overlook that showed the entirety of the valley below when looking west and the immensity of Steens Mountain when looking east. The view put our entire trip into perspective. For us, it was a defining moment, met in silence.
Even my eleven-year-old grandson was silent as we packed for our return home. We made sure to take our leavings with us. We climbed into the car and took off for home. Not much was said during the trip. We were all caught up in memories of Steens Mountain. Everything else seemed small in comparison.
Weeks later, my daughter pointed out that trips like the one we took to Steens Mountain were those that create memories that last a lifetime. My grandson took his memories to school and shared them with his friends, who took them home in turn. Other families have come to our door and thanked us for the inspiration to make the journey to Steens Mountain. Our memories are now shared with the people around us. Our trip is more than a family memory now; it has grown to become a community event, a mysterious land that unites all who visit.
What is there to do in the Steens Mountains? – Most people come here to camp, hike, play on the lakes, and just enjoy the beautiful views from the mountain. There are a few near by towns like Fields and Andrews for food and supplies. Most places are a good 30 minutes to an hour away.
Is south Steens Campground open? – The South Steens Campground is open when it is not snowed in. Normally, the gate is open to the campground from May to mid-November. I would call the local Bureau of Land Management office to check for openings and current conditions. You can reach them at 541-573-4400.
Where is the Alvord Desert? –The Alvord desert and Alvord lake are both in Eastern Oregon just south east of Steens Mountain. I’d say about a 30-40 minute drive.
How do you get to the Alvord Desert? – You can take highway 205 south from Burns, or Steens highway 78 from Burns, then exit on to Fields Denio RD which then leads you right down to Mann Lake, the Alvord hot springs, Alvord lake, and then the desert itself.
How do I get to Steens Mountain?
Driving guide to Steens Mountain: Steens Mountain is 87 miles south of Burns Oregon and 154 miles south of John Day Oregon. The map above will show Bend as a starting point if you so choose.