I’ve been working a lot of overtime lately, and after a certain point I decided that enough was enough and I was taking a vacation. So after two long field days last week I took off for southeastern Oregon to meet up with my buddy Andrew, companion of many hiking trips including this one and this one. We had both been busy and didn’t have a concrete plan, but we knew we were going up on Steens Mountain. So he drove from Salt Lake City, where he is grad school, and I drove from Eugene, and we met up in the tiny town of Frenchglen (population estimates run from a dozen to a couple hundred) on Thursday night. Due to the town’s size, it wasn’t hard to find each other.
It was 4 p.m. when we started driving up the long gravel road into the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The road ran twenty or so miles to the top of Steens – a 9700 foot peak – and we planned to park near the top, hike a mile or so, and find an easy camping place for the first night since it gets dark early these days. We rattled along the road until…. whoops. It was gated and locked. Even though we had checked to see if the road was open, it wasn’t. Luckily there was a BLM campground near the gate so we sacked up and paid to pitch our tents and park our cars. In a way, we were relieved that we’d be able to postpone our final packing until the next morning. We ate some pasta for dinner and went to bed.
The next morning, we woke to find frost on our cars. Brrr! After a quick breakfast we shouldered our packs and began hiking up the road. It was a little discouraging to walk on the road, so as soon as we thought we could see one of the mountain’s signature canyons, we cut across the gently sloping plain to peer over the edge.
Even this first canyon took our breath away and we thought, now this is what we came for. Up until our first look over the edge, the trip had been off to an inauspicious start. As you can see in the picture, the desert just gradually climbs up to the top of the mountain over miles and miles, so as we drove up and later walked up the road, the terrain seemed pretty unimpressive. We began to wonder why we had each driven so far. Also, the road had been closed. And also, I hadn’t anticipated snow on the ground so was wearing trail running shoes, which quickly became cold and wet after traversing the periodic snowfields we encountered. Just a few hours into the hike, I was already looking forward to dry wool socks and a warm sleeping bag, and hadn’t even seen any great views.
But when we saw the first canyon, we realized that this mountain might be pretty awe-inspiring after all.
One interesting thing about the trip was that I had been pretty much unable to find a map of the area. As far as I could tell, nowhere in Oregon sold paper copies of the USGS quad; I could download it online, but didn’t have a way to print it at any useful scale. So we relied on a few computer printouts and generally didn’t really know where we were going. Our goal for day one was to make it to Wildhorse Lake, which lay at one end of the north-south ridge, and our strategy was to more or less wander along canyon rims wherever we wanted to.
It was a nice strategy.
While the slope was incredibly gradual from the west side, the east side of the mountain dropped off thousands of feet down to the desert below, and the rim was stunning.
Eventually we made it to the trailhead for Wildhorse Lake (incidentally, the only real trail I saw the whole time), and dropped our packs while we climbed to the mountain’s actual summit. It was covered in radio towers, unfortunately, but I managed to get some pictures from an angle that hides them. It was a beautiful day to be on top of one of Oregon’s tallest peaks.
From the summit we scrambled out the rocky ridge to another prominence which I think might be called Steenshead, but given the lack of maps, I’m not actually sure. In any case, it allowed us to feel even more like we were perched above the desert below. In some ways, it was nicer than the actual summit.
From Steenshead (I’m just going to keep calling it that) we also had a nice view of Wildhorse Lake, where we would be camping that night.
So we headed back across the summit to our packs and started down the trail. For a bit, it crossed the grass, but then dropped over the edge into a huge bowl. There was a problem: where the trail dropped down, there was a huge snowfield. I guess I don’t mean huge, but I mean big enough, steep enough, and cornice-y enough that we didn’t want to cross it. So we skirted the top edge of the bowl and ended up scrambling down a scree field to rejoin the trail far below as it switched back and forth across the steep slope. Even there, almost every other corner was under snow, so we found ourselves frequently hopping off of it and making our own routes. Bad etiquette on fragile alpine trails, I know, but it was necessary.
We found ourselves descending farther and farther – the lake had looked far below us, but for some reason we hadn’t realized exactly how much elevation we were going to lose in search of the perfect camping spot. Luckily, when we arrived at the lake, it was everything we could have hoped for: gorgeous in the late afternoon sun, which was just beginning to fall behind the ridgeline.
It was too early to consider dinner and bedtime, so we took a little walk across the basin to another, smaller lake – really a pond – perched even more precariously against the mountainside. The colors of everything honestly took my breath away, and I hoped that my camera would be able to capture their beauty.
Thanks Andrew for taking my picture.
The afternoon faded but we lingered at the tiny lake. It was too perfect.
We wandered over to the cliff overlooking a meandering stream far below, and Andrew trundled a couple of rocks to see how far they’d fall and how big they’d crash. There was an amazing pyramid-shaped rock formation across the valley. We oohed and ahed and then headed back to the big lake, which was looking more and more spectacular all the time.
We set up our tent on the edge of the lake – or tried to. The ground was hard and ledgey and we could barely pound the tent stakes into the ground. We ended up tying the rain fly to a couple of bushes and hoped that with us inside, it wouldn’t budge. After a quick dinner – nothing spectacular – we crawled into our sleeping bags. It was already dark and cold at 7:30 p.m., and while we weren’t ready for sleep, we were ready for warmth! We stayed up talking for a few hours and then tried to shut our eyes.
I wasn’t entirely successful, in no small part because our camping spot, perched in the basin as it was, turned out to be incredibly windy. I worried all night that the fly would blow off the tent because we simply hadn’t been able to stake it down. At a few points, the wind was blowing so hard that the side of the tent was literally blowing into me – I felt like I was the only thing stopping it from rolling into the lake. In the early morning, though, the wind quieted down and I finally fell asleep. I woke up at 8:30 the next morning to find Andrew staring at me… whoops, I never sleep that late!
We had our work cut out for us that morning. We had to get out of the basin and the only way to go was up – the canyon wound down down down, but not in any direction that would lead us back to our cars. We decided not to take the trail we had come in on; it was snowy and kind of useless, and if we were going to spend time off-trail, we thought that we might as well actually choose a new route. After discussing a few options we set off up the steep walls of the basin following a natural ramp through the cliffs. We climbed up boulderfields and with every step got a better view of the lakes below us.
We had assumed that this steep, off-trail ascent would take us a long time and a lot of sweat, and were surprised when only an hour or so later we were walking along the top of the basin again, looking down towards the lake on one side and off into another canyon on the other. We didn’t have much of a plan for this day, other than to make it over to the Kiger Gorge on the north end of the ridge to camp. So we once again wandered across the snowfields and along canyon rims, meandering our way northward. We stopped for a very cold lunch and took a nap in the sun. Honestly, we had lost a lot of our motivation. When we finally reached Kiger Gorge, we were a little overwhelmed. It was BIG.
Not only was it big, but the head of the canyon was impossible to descend. I had initially had the idea of camping down in the gorge itself, but we knew we wanted to be back at the cars by mid-morning and climbing out of the gorge the next morning and then hiking the few miles back to the gate seemed like too much work for our lazy selves. We took a long time trying to decide what to do and eventually just put off the decision. We dropped our packs and scrambled down some ledges to begin walking along the canyon’s east rim.
It was beautiful, but neither of us were very motivated for an out-and-back hike along the ridge. We ended up sitting on some rocks complaining about how far away the next high point appeared. But it was only 2:30…. what were we going to do?
Although we had initially ruled out the possibility of going down into the gorge with our packs, from our current spot the descent didn’t look so bad. And the ascent on the other side looked doable too. So…. impulsively, without any water or food, we decided to cross the canyon and come out on the other side. How long could it possibly take?
The descent, which hadn’t looked so bad, was actually quite long and very steep. Luckily I earned my stripes as a hiker in Colorado, so I was used to sliding down piles of scree. There were a few close calls and more than one moment where I stopped to survey the next section of the hill and wondered whether I was going to make it on my feet or not, but after a half hour or so and some burning quads, we made it to the more gently sloping canyon floor. We were surrounded by sagebrush and boulders; it smelled divine. We strolled along game paths through the shrubs straight across the canyon, through the willows and aspens surrounding the steam at its bottom, and began up the other side.
Just like earlier that morning, I felt like a wuss. A party-pooper. A lame-o. Eugene sits at 426 feet above sea level; Salt Lake City is ten times as high. Andrew was much better equipped to handle the elevation here and as I tried to climb up hill I huffed and puffed. I was short of breath, I was struggling to keep my balance and my composure. But somehow, the walls of the canyon weren’t as high as they seemed. Soon we were halfway to the top. Then we were closer. Near the rim of the gorge, we encountered some cliff bands. We weren’t sure if they would “go”, but it seemed like a better shot than climbing up the nearby snowfield, so we picked our way through the rocks, Andrew ahead and me lagging behind.
Finally, he stood above me and looked off into the distance.
“There’s another cliff,” he shouted down. “It’s really steep. I think we’re stuck.”
“You’re a terrible liar,” I shouted up. When I made it to where he was standing, sure enough we were back on the rim, surrounded by tall grasses and far-reaching views. No more cliffs. We sat down on a rock, exhausted. I wanted water and Andrew wanted dinner.
The walk back to our packs was easy – just padding through the high desert, up gradual hills and skirting the rim’s contours – but it was also much longer than we expected. By the time we got to our packs it was definitely an hour you could call dinner. We strapped our bags on and carefully downclimbed towards the ridge we had started off on a few hours earlier. After a few minutes we reached a flat area perched between a cliff and a more gentle, although still-imposing, dropoff and set up camp.
It was once again tough to pound in our tent stakes, but we used rocks to weigh things down and tied the fly to boulders. Then we cooked up what we had christened “pesto tuna surprise”, a dinner of angel hair pasta, dried pesto powder, and tuna. After a few days of hiking, it was actually amazing, even though pesto powder is pretty gross compared to real pesto. I think PTS is going to be a new sensation in the backpacking world.
Then it was off to our sleeping bags, a few swigs of whiskey from Andrew’s flask, and another night of worrying that the strong winds might blow us away – this time not into a lake but over a cliff. I also thought I heard it raining and began worrying about climbing up the ledges back to the canyon rim the next morning. What can I say, I’m a worrier. I finally got to sleep but it wasn’t particularly restful.
The next morning was even colder and windier, so we skipped breakfast and climbed back up to the plateau. To get back to our cars, we had to rejoin the road and follow it for a few miles. We made a few guesses about where it would bend and luckily turned out to be right. Cutting across the high desert was much nicer than following the gravel, and we had our last wonderful views of the canyons.
And, about a mile from the cars, we finally saw some of the wildlife we’d been hoping for – a herd of antelope!
I wish I had a bigger zoom lens, but c’est la vie. I swear there are antelope in that picture.
After finally eating breakfast, putting on dry clothes, and saying some sad goodbyes – it’s always great to rediscover a good friend and always difficult to when you part ways again – we rattled off back down the gravel road, and then in Frenchglen turned our separate ways and headed back to our homes. As I drove towards Burns, the nearest city, it began raining angrily. I was glad we were off the mountain, and wondered why the weather had to punish me even more; I was already feeling that post-trip deflation that comes when something wonderful is receding in your rearview mirror.
It was a great four days and I made it back to Eugene refreshed mentally, if perhaps not physically. Work seemed new again and not so monotonous; I was reinvigorated rather than dreading my job.
Despite a lack of maps, Steens is an amazing place to check out. It’s not on anyone’s way to anywhere, but it’s worth the detour if you ever find yourself within a few hundred miles. Discovering remote, undiscovered places is an incredible joy and I think it was good for my soul. What a relief.