It's BIG COUNTRY... No, Really Big!
Located in the vast High Desert expanse of Harney County in southeast Oregon, Steens Mountain is truly an oasis. One of Oregon's protected places, the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area is an incredible 500,000 acres of one of the nation's most unique landscapes. It's 170,000 acres of Wilderness is a masterpice holding deep aspen groves and open meadow, glacial-cut valleys and sheer cliffs, lakes and mountain streams so clear it's unreal.
Here the Wild Places know no boundaries. In this vast "Big Lonesome", Wild abounds and is not confined to Wilderness alone.
As spectacular as any National Park, Steens Mountain is...it's Native Red-Band Trout, Bighorn Sheep, Elk, Mule Deer, Antelope, Sagehens, Wildhorses and over 300 species of birds. With a landscape this diverse, it's a miles-and-miles vista from the summit, or an inch-wide close up of iridescent wildflowers in an aspen grove.
Steens Mountain is nearly 10,000 feet high and over 30 miles long, an enormous fault block that rose up millions of years ago to cut a bold line between the greener western slpe of the Blitzen Valley and the Alvord Desert to the east. Here you find the Kiger, Little Blitzen and Big Indian Gorges, all formed by massive prehistoric glaciers.
Spring on the Mountain and Surrounding Area
Spring begins late in Harney County and on Steens Mountain. The migratory birds arrive in the Harney Basin the end of March to refuel before picking up again on their trek to points farther north. The annual John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival is held the first full weekend in April every year and is loaded with tours and workshops for participants.
Usually, the first wildflowers appear at lower elevations around Frenchglen in April. Near 4,500', Arrowleaf Balsam Root covers the hillsides in gold. Many times it graces the slopes most of the length of Hwy 205 from Burns to Frenchglen. Indian Paint Brush, Lupine, Mariposa Lilies, and Wild Onions are never far behind. With an average annual precipitation at lower elevations of 12", the wildflower crop is very dependant on the moisture received.
On Steens Mountain, spring arrives in mid to late May. The Mountain plays host to a tremendous variety of wildflowers all summer long as springtime moves up in elevation. Prime wildflower viewing is typically found the entire month of July through the first week in August. However, wildflowers can be found on the Mountain all summer long.
The Steens Mountain Loop Road is the highest road in the State of Oregon, and is ideal for getting an overview of the area. It is a high standard gravel road for most of its 52 miles. There is a short 8 mile section in the middle that may be unsuitable for passenger cars. The Loop Road gates open in the spring. The Page Springs & Black Canyon gates usually open just after Memorial Day, sometimes before. One can usually drive to the summit parking area around the fourth of July. To tour the North Loop Road, turn left on the gravel road across from the Frenchglen Hotel in Frenchglen. Some of the popular points of interest on this section of the road include: Lily Lake; Fish Lake; Jackman Park; Kiger Gorge, Little Blitzen Gorge, & East Rim Overlooks; & the Summit Parking Area affords access to the Summit and Wilhorse Lake Overlooks. The South Loop Road leaves Hwy 205 approximately 8 miles south of Frenchglen. Some points of interest on this section of the road include: Blitzen Crossing, Riddle Ranch, South Steens Campground, Little Blitzen, and Big Indian Viewpoints. The rough, 8 mile section of road linking the north and south sections of the Loop Road runs down the hogback between the Little Blitzen and Big Indian Gorges. This area is often referred to as the Rooster Comb.
Summer on Steens
Spring and summer often collide on the Mountain as these seasons here are short. Vacation activities abound for those who enjoy fishing, swimming, hiking, rock hounding, scenic touring, horseback riding, star gazing, or just soaking up the quiet in the tranquil and relaxing atmosphere. Peace and solitude are abundant here while development is minimal. Our trails and scenic sites are primitive in nature and relatively unmarked. The land is open to discovery with not only designate Wilderness, but is also full of Wild places.
Star gazing is amazing here because the Mountain is remote and far from city lights. The high elevation offers a clearer atmosphere. The Steens is a perfect spot to view the many meteor showers which grace the summer sky.
Summer temperatures on the Mountain are generally moderate. July is host to many 80 degree days while it may heat up a bit to 95 degrees or so in mid-August. Nights tend to be cool, in the neighborhood of 55 degrees, but beware, it can freeze any day of the year on the Mountain.
Wildlife is abundant in the summer on the Steens with mule deer fawning and raising their babies in the willow patches. Visitors may also see elk, antelope, cougar, coyotes, ground squirrels, beaver, badger, raptors including a wide variety of hawks and golden and bald eagles, as well as neo-tropical migratory songbirds in the aspen groves. Rattlesnakes are present at the lower elevations in the area around the Blitzen River, but at higher elevations (above 6,500') they are not found.
While there are four public campgrounds open and available on a first come first serve basis, you are not required to camp in a developed campground while camping on the Steens. You may also engage in dispersed camping, but the area is closed to off road motor vehicles. The Steens has a great deal of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, but it also has a substantial amount of privately owned lands. Many of these properties are still inked to the original homestead families and some are available for public reacreation. Please make sure to ask for permission before recreating on private lands.
Spectacular Fall Colors
Harney County often enjoys Indian summers into October, however one can experience cooler weather starting the first of September. The nights are often cool on the Mountain starting in late August. Travel prepared with cold weather gear as here it can freeze any night of the year, and the Mountain can get snow any day throughout the summer and certainly in the fall season.
Steens Mountain is known for its vast aspen groves. Many have said that in traveling the world they have never seen aspen as large as those on the Mountain. The fall colors are a treat and a site to behold. The timing is always a guess, but usually between mid-September and the first week of October you can catch them in some stage of turning their brilliant orange, red and gold. Keep your eyes out for historic Arborglyphs, or tree carvings, made by the sheepherders in the early to mid 1900's.
A Winter Wonderland
The Steens offers unique winter opportunities for those who enjoy winter sports with no crowds. The Loop Road is closed in the winter, however access is available by special permit through the Bureau of Land Management. Popular activities include: snowshoeing, cross country skiing, ice fishing, and snowmobiling. Steens Mountain offers outstanding snowmobile touring opportunities on open roads and trails with amazing winter views. Generally there is four feet of snow at the 7,000' level and eight or more feet above 8,000'. Steens often receives eight to twelve inches of powder at a time. Weather conditions can change rapidly especially at higher elevations.
For more information about the Steens Mountain and to obtain fee schedules:
Bureau of Land Management, 28910 Highway 20 W., Hines, OR 97738; phone (541) 573-4400. Information on public camping facilities and dates, seasonal access to the loop road to the summit, map.
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, 36391 Sodhouse Lane, Princeton, OR 97721; phone (541) 493-2612. Information on migratory bird seasons, wildlife, brochures. Headquarters and museum are 32 miles south of Burns on Highway 205; open 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday-Friday.
Harney County Chamber of Commerce Business Directory, select the Steens Mountain Area Businesses link.
For Road Conditions on Steens Mountain, please click here.