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:
MOST SPECTACULAR: Big Indian Gorge
Wide, deep and rich with color, Big Indian Gorge is 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.
Directions: From Burns, follow state Route 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 located in the back of the family campground area.
BEST COLORS AND ACCESS: Little Blizen Gorge
Almost as scenic as its neighbor Big Indian, the canyon of Little Blizen River features better autumn colors, fewer people and easier access to the canyon proper.
The trail begins by dropping half a mile to a river crossing before driving straight into the entrance of the gorge.
The 2,000-foot walls rise almost directly overhead and the trail follows the Little Blizen through dense groves of aspen, juniper and cottonwood. On hot days, the river features wonderful swimming holes between massive silver boulders. In autumn, the forest is ablaze with every autumn color imaginable.
After three miles, the trail enters a wide-open plateau and the canyon walls spread out. Many nice campsites can be found in this area.
The trail runs a total of nine miles (18 round-trip), but grows increasingly difficult as you approach the headwall. The first three miles make for a nice day-hike, while the entire canyon is great for backpacking.
Directions: From Burns, follow state Route 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 21 miles (past South Steens Campground) to a parking area on the right marked as Little Blizen Trailhead. The
official trail begins just up the road on the left.
A CRACK IN THE MOUNTAIN: Pike Creek Gorge
Half the fun of exploring this rich and brightly colored canyon is simply finding it. Unlike both Big Indian and Little Blizen, this trail begins near the vast Alvord Desert and charges into the mountain's sheer eastern face. It can only be accessed on a rough and unmarked road.
Along with being more remote, the hike also is narrow, rocky and steep. But don't let that discourage you ‹ the trail is surprisingly well maintained and open longer because its lower trailhead elevation of 4,300 feet.
The trail begins on the unmarked road, crosses to the creek's left side and enters what seems little more than a crack in the mountain.
With bright colors of red, pink, orange and dark blue highlighting the rock – and massive statue-like formations rising into the sky – the trail climbs 1.7 miles and 862-feet to a rockslide that makes a fine turn-around spot.
Directions: From Burns, drive east on state Route 78 for 65 miles past the town of Crane. At mile marker 65, turn right onto Fields-Follyfarm/Fields-Denio Road, which has sections of both pavement and gravel, for 38.5 miles to an unmarked road on the right that can be indentified by a yellow cattle guard. The road is roughly 3.7 miles past the Alvord Ranch.
If you go
Location: Southeastern Oregon
Getting started: Burns is the unofficial gateway to the Steens, and the only town of size in the area, with plenty of grocery stores, hotels and gas stations. Although the tiny towns of Frenchglen and Fields do have gas stations, their hours are unpredictable so make
sure to fill up your tank before leaving Burns.
Drive: The town of Frenchglen, which is located at the beginning of Steens Mountain Loop Road, is located roughly six hours from Salem.
Access: The main access road is the Steens Mountain Loop Road, which runs 52 miles from Frenchglen and passes campsites, overlooks and points of interest. The Fields-Denio Road traverses the mountain's east side.
Campsites: Page Springs ($8 per night/36 sites); South Steens ($6/36 campsites); Fish Lake ($8/23 sites); Jackman Park ($6/6 sites).
Information: BLM Burns District Office, call 541-573-4400 or go to