Steens Mountain can lead to splendid sights

Zach Urness, Salem Statesman JournalOctober 11, 2012 

BURNS, Ore. -- In the southeastern corner of Oregon, above a landscape famous for unconditional desolation, rises an alpine island called Steens Mountain.

This massive fault block is less a classic mountain than a long, wide, high-altitude world that stretches 30 miles north to south and supports a wealth of rivers, forest and wildlife above the high desert below.

The mountain is best known for the Steens Mountain Loop Road -- the highest road in the state -- which begins in the hamlet of Frenchglen and runs 52 miles past campsites, lakes and even to the 9,733-foot summit.

But the road also serves as a teaser for those seeking a wilder experience on Steens because it showcases views into the mountain's spectacular canyons. Carved by snow and glaciers, these massive chasms are 2,000 feet deep and over time have become incubators for trees, wildlife and even a few small trout.

The canyons are especially gorgeous during autumn, as leaves glow red, yellow and green in the sunlight and the smell of sagebrush wafts down the cliff walls. Hiking and backpacking can be heavenly between these thick walls, and often remain open into late November.

The drive from Salem requires more than six hours, so people making the trip always should call the Burns District Office ahead of time to check conditions at -541-573-4400.

On a trip two weeks ago, I made it my mission to explore as many of these spectacular canyons as possible.

What I found were three unique and accessible trails that make for excellent day or multi-day trips:

The most spectacular visuals are at Big Indian Gorge. Wide, deep and rich with color, it's the most visually stunning of the accessible canyons in Steens Mountain.

But reaching it does require some work.

South Steens Campground, home to running water and 36 sites, is the trailhead for Big Indian Gorge. The trail begins with 1.9 miles on an old road, through grassy meadows and below wide-open sky, to the first of three stream crossings. The crossings are 10 to 15 feet wide and require careful footwork even during autumn --to say nothing of spring and early summer, when extreme caution must be taken.

Beyond the crossings, the scenery ramps up as the trail swings east into the mouth of canyon. The entire gorge sweeps out in a massive U-shaped landscape carpeted with sagebrush, aspen and juniper.

There are places for lunch along the trail and a fantastic campsite among a grove of cottonwood trees at the 6.5-mile mark. The trail finally quits after 8.5 miles near a headwall where Steens Mountain's summit looms above.

Those with serious grit occasionally search the headwall for waterfalls sprouting from the rock, but this is done at their own risk.

The entire route is 17 miles round-trip and has a little less than 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Most people turn around early and are thrilled with this hike.

From Burns, follow Highway 205 south for 61 miles to Frenchglen. Then continue another 10 miles south toward Fields.

Turn left onto Steens Mountain Loop Road, a fairly bumpy gravel road, for 19 miles to South Steens Campground. The trailhead is in the back of the family campground area. (GPS coordinates: N42 39.381 W118 43.388).

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