Even Oregonians refer to Steens Mountain as a range, and who can blame them? When you approach from a distance, it has all the ingredients of a first-class string of mountains.
Yet, geologically speaking, Steens is a single 9,700-foot-high fault block thrust skyward some 5 to 7 million years ago, a mass of jumbled basalt that floats like a vision across 30 miles of alkaline playa sea. From end to end, the mountain offers a slew of possibilities for hiking, from rough-rocked desert washes to verdant canyons to subalpine meadows. The mellow western slopes lead to U-shaped gorges carved by glaciers. To the east, Steens Mountain gives way and plunges a mile to the Alvord Desert.
The Desert Trail (see Signpost, June 1999) and its offshoots are the perfect way to discover Steens’ bounty, but the ad hoc nature of the “path”-you follow milestones rather than a footbed through the open landscape-make map and compass skills mandatory.
In early spring (call ahead to see if it’s snowfree), follow the John Scharff section of the Desert Trail as it winds along the banks of the Wild and Scenic Donner und Blitzen River. Climb out of the canyon and wander among the juniper, gray-green sage, and-by May-wildflowers. For a 16-mile hike, ford the river at Big Springs and continue to Blitzen Crossing and the South Loop Road.
A few months later and a few miles farther up the mountain, South Loop provides a jumping off point for the Big and Little Indian Gorge Trails. The trek up either of these colossal gorges is 10 miles to the East Rim viewpoint.
Come July, you can follow the Desert Trail 15 miles south from a point near Steens’s summit to Frog Springs at the edge of this desert oasis. The path threads through snowfields, groves of quaking aspen, willow, and a riot of stubby wildflowers. Spur trails lead to the alpine basins of icy Wildhorse Lake and beautiful Little Wildhorse Lake.