A number of Oregon stereotypes don’t apply to Steens Mountain, located in the southeastern corner of the state. First, it doesn’t support a thick conifer forest, apparently because it’s so remote it was never seeded after the glacial retreat. Second, it’s in the “outback” east of the Cascades, popularly supposed to be the unattractive part of the state. Finally, although the mountain is made of layers of volcanic rock, it’s not a volcano, unlike the famous peaks in the Cascades.
Steens Mountain is a tilted fault block, with a gentle western slope that drops off abruptly some 3,000 feet from the crest to a closed dry basin that includes the Alvord Desert. This is Basin and Range-type structure much more characteristic of Nevada.
It nonetheless is a rewarding area, even though you might have trouble remembering you’re in Oregon. Not only are there sweeping views from the crest, but there are several large canyons of glacial origin and even a number of alpine lakes. The canyons, carved into layers of basalt lava flows, appear strikingly different from the glacial landforms found in the Cascade volcanos, or in granitic terrain such as in Yosemite. Hiking trails abound, with much of the area designated wilderness. One popular trail goes to Wildhorse Lake in one of the glacial canyons.
Know Before You Go
The area is largely included in the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management & Protection Area, which includes much officially designated wilderness and is managed by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management).
The main access is via the Steens Mountain Loop, the north end of which begins at Frenchglen, Oregon, off Oregon State Route 205. It rejoins SR 205 about 10 miles south. The loop road itself is over 50 miles long and runs for several miles along the highest part of the crest. Indeed, this part is claimed to be the highest road in Oregon. The road is graded and in dry weather should be passable to ordinary passenger cars. However, it typically opens only after Memorial Day due to lingering snow cover.