06 Oct The Steens
For years, we’ve celebrated my daughter’s birthday on a wild southern Oregon beach, with inspiring sandstone cliffs, teeming tide pools and friendly seals watching us walk the sand from out in the deep blue surf.
But this year, Madeline wanted to go somewhere new for her birthday. It was her 10th, after all (a big one in kid years), and the coast and its unreal hikes and splendor just didn’t have that same allure. Instead, she wanted to go somewhere new, somewhere with storied milkshakes, a huge mountain unlike anything she’s ever seen, and, with a little luck, wild horses.
Somewhere like Steens Mountain.
In the nearly two decades that we’ve called Oregon home, my wife, Amy, and I had never been to Steens Mountain. Even though we feel like we’ve been all over the state—and we have—there are still gems we’ve never seen but always wanted to. Steens was always on our list, we’d just never done it.
So this year, we did. And it was amazing.
Rising up out of the remote southeastern corner of Oregon, Steens Mountain is a huge fault-block mountain that stretches for 50 miles and tops out at more than 9700 feet. The mountain itself, complete with a rugged drive to the summit and wild trails that push deep into the backcountry, is the main draw, but there’s so much more to the area than that.
That became incredibly clear when we rolled into Frenchglen, a charming throwback of a town that serves as a sort of last stop before visitors head on toward the mountain. It was Memorial Day weekend, and we naively figured that the road to the Steens summit would be open. Because there was still too much snow up high, it wasn’t.
But for those new to Steens Mountain and the surrounding terrain of Harney County, a road closure does nothing to stifle the experience of the area. Our first night, we struck out from our home base at the Steens Mountain Wilderness Resort on a Northwest wildlife safari—essentially a sunset drive through the hills above Frenchglen. We saw lumbering free-range cattle, deer and, a mile up a remote gravel road, one of the area’s elusive herds of wild horses. Called Kiger Mustangs, the horses are descendants of Spanish horses initially brought to the continent in the 17th century.
Madeline, one of those true horse people, was stoked, her birthday wish granted. And to top it off, we saw a bounding pronghorn antelope on the way back to our camp.
Day two found us motoring our way around the mountain. There’s not much out there as far as the eye can see—blue sky, sagebrush, the far-off ridges of the Pueblo Mountains—but that’s something in itself. Our first and only stop was the fabled Fields Station, a refueling hub known far and wide for its burgers and milkshakes. The service was super slow and sassy, the shakes simple. But the burgers that we took back on the road with us? Fantastic. We were sold.
Heading around the east side of Steens, we crested a rise and took in a broad expanse of white, like a lake, off in the distance—The Alvord Desert. The 12-mile-wide desert is actually the dried and cracked bed of an ancient lake. It can be empty and quiet at times, but on this day, the scene was pure Burning Man, Oregon style. We drove down and onto the lakebed, unable to resist the pull. Pods of campers clustered across the desert. There were gunshots and motorcycles racing past; a group was setting up a site for what, no doubt, would be a raging dance party that night. A woman in a bikini waved from a bike just as an airplane taxied past, took off and dropped two skydivers from the sky. The kids ran and ran and delighted themselves by covering their hands and feet in powdery white mud unlike anything they’d encountered.
The rest of the circuit around the mountain was scenic in a way completely different than the Cascade peaks we’re used to. There’s desert all around, but also a snow-covered mountain, Steens, that feels like a range of its own, up above the Alvord. Snakes slithered across the road in the sun, and a quick tour of the Pete French Round Barn on the way back toward Frenchglen gave a glimpse of the region’s early settlement history.
No trip to the Steens would be complete without a sighting of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge—especially after the ruckus raised by the occupiers there earlier this year—so the next morning we took a slow drive through the lower stretch, taking in magpies and redwing blackbirds and the most amazing pheasant any of us had ever seen before.
Our trip ended with a night at the South Steens Campground, a peaceful outpost tucked into the sage and juniper trees on Steens’ western flank. The kids fished in a quiet creek, and nearly every camper we met was friendlier than the last. A cool breeze blew through, and late that night, around the fire, we felt so at home that we almost convinced ourselves to call into work so that we could stay an extra day.
But the morning brought more prudent thoughts, and so we rose and gathered ourselves for the 350-mile drive home. Daunting, sure, but considering all we’d seen and the brand new experience we’d had in a state we’ve called home for almost 20 years, entirely worth it. We loaded up and started the long drive away from Steens back toward the pavement and, eventually, the city.
But just a few miles before we got back to the highway, as if punctuating our entire trip, we saw scores and scores of wild horses peacefully minding their own business not a quarter-mile away from us. We stopped, took pictures; Madeline tried to coax them over. It didn’t happen, but it didn’t matter.