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Little Blitzen Gorge Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

View to the upper gorge, Little Blitzen River (bobcat)
Zerene fritillary (Speyeria zerene), Little Blitzen River (bobcat)
Canyon walls, Little Blitzen Gorge (bobcat)
California false hellebore (Veratrum californicum), Little Blitzen Gorge (bobcat)
Pools on the Little Blitzen River (bobcat)
The day hike to the upper viewpoint in Little Blitzen Gorge (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: Caltopo


Hike Description

The Little Blitzen Gorge is one of five classically U-shaped glacially carved gorges on the slopes of Steens Mountain (The others are the Kiger, Big Indian, Little Indian, and Wildhorse.). The mountain is a fifty-mile-long fault block of basalt that was folded and tilted during the Pliocene. Ice Age glaciers began carving their way down the valleys about 1.6 million years ago. Native Americans foraged and hunted along the canyon bottom, and Euro-American stockmen arrived in the late 19th century with their herds; at the beginning of the 20th century there were at least 100,000 head of sheep and cattle grazing in the Steens Mountain area. The Little Blitzen Gorge now lies within the Steens Mountain Wilderness, part of the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area created in 2000, and cattle ranching is no longer permitted here. For most hikers, an excursion that takes in the entire ten-mile gorge is an overnight backpack. Others do the Steens Mountain Loop as a three or four-day affair, often beginning with Big Indian Gorge, a cross-country hike up to the summit, and then a return down the Little Blitzen. The trip detailed below is a day hike that takes you about halfway along the trail.

Walk across the road to the trail: This is a relatively new section which begins about half a mile below the former trailhead, which was past the seasonal closure gate on the loop road. Hike along in a juniper/low sagebrush/bitterbrush parkland with lupine, wild onion, and eyelashweed blooming in early summer. Sign up at the wilderness register, and from a large boulder near a crest, get a view to the mouth of the Little Blitzen Gorge. The trail drops down a slope and passes the decommissioned tread that came from the former trailhead. Reach the Little Blitzen Crossing under shady cottonwoods; in spring and early summer, this is an easy ford; by late summer, you may be able to rock hop across.

Pass the junction with the Fred Riddle Trail, constructed in 2017, and continue through a green horsetail meadow as you enter the Little Blitzen Gorge. Hike through thickets of choke cherry and groves of aspen and cottonwood as the Little Blitzen thunders a bouldery course below. Great Basin redband trout make their home in these lower reaches of the river. Small Brown’s peonies grow low along the trail here. Across the river, you’ll see a dense wood of mountain mahogany trees. The path undulates along above the Little Blitzen on a verdant but rocky slope. Sticky geranium, groundsel, lupine, and sweet cicely are abundant here. In spring and summer, butterflies converge on these plants in their hundreds.

At a constriction in the canyon, drop down to river level. There’s a swimming hole here under the boughs of cottonwood and aspen trees. Wade through a clump of cow parsnip, and then pass through a grove of aspen. Look up to the gorge ramparts above to see various pinnacles and columns as well as numerous rough layers of basalt above the smoother lower section of the gorge walls, which had direct contact with glacial ice. Circle around above a backwater buzzing with dragonflies, and pass a small eddy in the river. Hike through a lush bottomland blooming with orange sneezeweed to pass a rather exposed campsite at a single mountain mahogany. Get views up the gorge as you pass below an extensive aspen grove. Hike by a false hellebore meadow and then an expanse of tall groundsel to reach a damp bottomland of willow, sedge, cottonwood, and aspen.

Under the tall cottonwoods is the green meadow that hosts Four-mile Camp. This is a great overnight spot which serves as a base for a day’s exploration of the upper gorge. If you’re just doing a day hike, continue on about a quarter of a mile. You’ll pass the corner of an old corral and, at the top of a gentle rise, you’ll arrive at the Little Blitzen Gorge Headwall Viewpoint with a vista almost to the canyon headwall. This is a good place to turn around. About three-quarters of a mile farther on, you’ll reach a fork in the trail where the Nye Trail splits left and heads up the steep gorge wall to the Steens Mountain Loop Road. It’s about another six miles to the gorge headwall and the cross country route up to the Steens summit.

Fees, Regulations, etc.

  • Wilderness registration
  • Vault toilet at trailhead
  • Campground with restrooms and drinking water at trailhead
  • Share trail with horses


Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this destination

  • Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes by Andy Kerr
  • Backpacking Oregon by Douglas Lorain
  • 100 Hikes/Travel Guide: Eastern Oregon by William L. Sullivan
  • Oregon Favorites: Trails and Tales by William L. Sullivan
  • Atlas of Oregon Wilderness by William L. Sullivan
  • Hiking Central Oregon & Beyond by Virginia Meissner
  • Oregon Hiking by Sean Patrick Hill

More Links

Page Contributors

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.

Hiking is a potentially risky activity, and the entire risk for users of this field guide is assumed by the user, and in no event shall Trailkeepers of Oregon be liable for any injury or damages suffered as a result of relying on content in this field guide. All content posted on the field guide becomes the property of Trailkeepers of Oregon, and may not be used without permission.