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Big Indian Gorge Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Looking to the headwall, Big Indian Gorge (bobcat)
View to Little Indian Gorge from the Big Indian Gorge Trail (bobcat)
Ruined cabin near Big Indian Creek (bobcat)
Western tiger swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) on bog orchid, Big Indian Gorge (bobcat)
Sneezeweed meadow, Big Indian Gorge (bobcat)
Big Indian Creek at Cottonwoods Camp, Big Indian Gorge (bobcat)
Anicia checkerspot (Euphydrias anicia veaziae), Big Indian Gorge (bobcat)
The trail up the Big Indian Gorge to the Cottonwoods Camp (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: Caltopo
  • Start point: Big Indian Trailhead
  • Ending Point: Big Indian Cottonwoods Camp
  • Hike Type: In and out
  • Distance: 13.0 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1485 feet
  • High Point: 6,450 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Seasons: Mid-spring into Fall
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: Yes
  • Crowded: No


Hike Description

Big Indian Gorge is arguably the most accessible of the classically carved glacial valleys on Steens Mountain. As far as Big Indian Cottonwoods Camp, the trail follows an easy gradient on an old jeep road used to supply stockmen who spent their springs and summers surrounded by the stunning landscape (The road is returning to sagebrush in its upper reaches, so you won’t really notice you are on it). If you hike as far as the camp, you will be getting magnificent views of the gorge headwall with its multiple waterfalls. And if you spend a couple of nights at the camp, you can take a day to hike to the upper end of the gorge to view the alpine cascades close up. Others backpack the gorge as the first stage of a loop that ascends to the summit of Steens Mountain and then returns along the Little Blitzen Gorge. Spring is the time to see the waterfalls and also the wildflower displays in the meadows along the trail, but there are three creek crossings which may involve fords, so be prepared to take your boots off and do some wading (See Tips for Crossing Streams)! By mid-summer, you may not need to ford the creeks, but it will be very hot, so the next best time to visit is early fall. At all times of year, wear long pants as woody sagebrush overhangs the trail and will gouge your flesh if it’s not well protected.

It’s almost two miles to your first creek crossing. Walk up the gravel road to a fence, where you find a wilderness sign and a kiosk. Follow the road bed from here through the juniper/bitterbrush landscape with a carpet of lupine. You’ll be looking up to the steep slopes of the Rooster Comb, which hosts the roughest, steepest section of the Steens Mountain Loop Road. Sign in at a wilderness registration box, and then hike up an expansive prairie to reach a broad crest. The openings of Big Indian and Little Indian Gorges can be seen ahead. Drop gradually back down through a juniper parkland where wild onion, buckwheat, and eyelashweed bloom. A row of boulders and a faded No Motor Vehicles sign block the track at the point where vehicles were permitted until wilderness designation in 2000. Just beyond this barrier is the Big Indian Creek Lower Crossing. You’ll need to wade the creek in spring and early summer, but it’s a refreshingly cool experience, especially on the way back!

On the other side of the creek, notice the old cottonwood that had been gnawed by a beaver. Hike up through juniper, mountain mahogany, sagebrush, and bitterbrush. Soon reach the aspen and alder shaded Little Indian Creek Crossing. There are enough exposed rocks here in early summer that you may not need to remove your boots, but use trekking poles for support. The road bed ascends. Where the trail steepens, look left for a short spur leading to the ruins of an old cabin near a spring issuing in a thicket of rustling aspen. Descend gradually to enter the mouth of Big Indian Gorge, with the creek running close to your left. Walk through a dense thicket with aspen on one side and mountain mahogany on the other. Reach the Big Indian Creek Upper Crossing, where you’ll again have to make a ford if creek levels are high.

Hike along in an open sagebrush/lupine/groundsel landscape, and cross a boggy aspen brook. Look up to the layered and weathered basalt canyon walls above. Thread through a large aspen grove and, at the top of a rise, pass a boulder which offers your first view of the gorge headwall in the distance. The U-shape of this glacially carved valley becomes more apparent from here. Pass a grove of large cottonwoods, and then stroll through a meadow that blooms with dwarf larkspur in the early summer. More lush meadows are bordered by willow thickets along the creek. You'll take in additional views towards the headwall as you cross a spring area vegetated by false hellebores. Orange sneezeweed, a major attractor for the legions of butterflies that flit about these parts, also occupies the lush grassland. Alternate between meadows and sagebrush until you cross a dry wash, and find yourself looking down on Big Indian Creek from the lip of a willow-colonized slide. You’ll see a couple of wood fence corners in the area, the remains of a stock corral. Soon you’ll observe a large aspen grove at the base of the gorge slope on your left. Then notice a thin waterfall plunging down the slope on your right across the creek. Make for the grove of cottonwoods on the creek, where you’ll find the Big Indian Cottonwoods Camp. Take a quiet respite here and, if you’re just out for the day, return the way you came.

Fees, Regulations, etc.

  • Wilderness registration
  • Vault toilet at trailhead
  • Campground with restrooms and drinking water at trailhead
  • Share trail with horses
  • Wear long pants and be prepared for creek fords


Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this destination

  • 100 Hikes/Travel Guide: Eastern Oregon by William L. Sullivan
  • Atlas of Oregon Wilderness by William L. Sullivan
  • 100 Classic Hikes in Oregon by Douglas Lorain
  • Backpacking Oregon by Douglas Lorain
  • 50 Hikes in Oregon by David L. Anderson
  • Hiking the Great Basin by John Hart
  • Oregon’s Wilderness Areas by George Wuerthner
  • Oregon Hiking by Sean Patrick Hill
  • Best Dog Hikes: Oregon edited by Falcon Guides
  • Canine Oregon by Lizann Dunegan

More Links

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Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

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