Steens Mountain, August 22-26

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dixhuit
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Steens Mountain, August 22-26

Post by dixhuit » September 3rd, 2008, 3:40 pm

We said we’d never hike Steens Mountain in August heat again, but when the forecast turned rainy on us, we ditched our North Cascades plan and headed for the sun of Eastern Oregon. Steens Mountain is a 50-mile long plate that was tilted up so that it rises gradually from the west to a 9733’ summit, but drops a sheer mile on it’s eastern cliffs. Ice age glaciers carved dramatic U-shaped gorges on the west side. Our trip was a loop, hiking up the gorge of Big Indian Creek, scrambling to the summit, crossing the summit ridge on Oregon’s highest road, descending into the gorge of the Little Blitzen River, and hiking out along it—a total of 26 miles and 4200 feet of gain according to Doug Lorain. Since it’s an all day drive from Portland to the trailhead, we treated ourselves to a night at the 92 year old Frenchglen Hotel—inexpensive rooms & great food.

Steens Mountain offers a unique combination of high desert and alpine ecosystems. The trees are juniper, cottonwood, aspen, and mountain mahogany. The late-season flowers we saw were mostly the dry-loving aster, lupine and paintbrush, with red and yellow monkey flowers along the creeks, and occasionally an incongruous bog gentian among the sagebrush. Raptors soar everywhere along the gorge cliffs. The sun was hot; the wind was strong; the bugs weren’t bad.
gentian & sagebrush.jpg
Day 1—The Big Indian trailhead (5300’) is at South Steens Campground, about 20 not-too-rough miles up the gravel Steens Mountain Loop Road. We hiked 6.5 miles on trail up Big Indian to a lovely camp in a grove of cottonwoods (6500’). We could easily have gone further, but campsites with flat ground, water, and shade are rare in this sagebrush country, and this one was particularly inviting. Sometime in the early evening Big Indian Creek virtually stopped flowing. It started again around midnight. We never figured out what that was about.
cabin on big indian.jpg
An abandoned cabin on Big Indian Creek
up big indian.jpg
Looking up Big Indian Gorge
cottonwood camp.jpg
Our camp on Big Indian
big indian from cottonwood camp.jpg
aspens near cottonwood camp.jpg
Day 2—The trail continued for another 2 miles or so, then disappeared as we entered the basin at the head of the creek. It was easy enough to navigate in open country, but extra work high-stepping through the sagebrush. We followed Lorain’s advice, and chose a scramble route up the south wall of the basin. The steepness and loose rock made this a challenging climb with backpacks. When we reached an upper basin at 8500’ the route became less steep, and we were delighted to find flowing water. Although there was no shade, we decided to camp here. The next possible water would be at Wildhorse Lake, 3 miles further and 1000’ below our route.
big indian basin-our route.jpg
We scrambled up toward the base of the pinnacle, and then left
big indian basin from above.jpg
upper basin camp.jpg
Day 3—We made the relatively easier climb to the ridge above Wildhorse Lake (9300’) where there is a boot-made trail that followed the ridge to a spur road near Steens Summit. We hiked the road 2 miles north to the main Steens Loop Road, then followed it for another 3.5 miles. Along the way we had amazing views down Big Indian and Little Blitzen Gorges, and, off a .5 mile spur road, the spectacular Kiger Gorge. We were pleasantly surprised by the very light traffic on the loop road. When we were here 6 years ago, it was almost bumper to bumper. On this day (a Sunday!) we saw fewer than a dozen vehicles the whole afternoon.
wildhorse lake.jpg
little blitzen gorge.jpg
kiger gorge.jpg
About a mile beyond the Kiger View turnoff, we left the road to hike southwest down an unnamed tributary of the Little Blitzen. We were not pleased to see a herd of cows grazing in the high meadows here, and fouling the creek that we intended for our water source that evening. After a mile or so, we found the trail along the west side of the creek that we had used on our last visit. This lead us down to the trail along the Little Blitzen, and 200 yards to the east, a wonderful campsite in a grove of old mountain mahogany trees (6800’).
little blitzen camp 2.jpg
Day 4—We took a layover day to do laundry, bathe, and rest.

Day 5—We hiked the 8 miles or so down the Little Blitzen trail and back to our car. From here we drove back to the highway, then north to the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness for the rest of our vacation. But that will be another trip report.
along the little blitzen.jpg
In certain trying circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate
circumstances, profanity furnishes a relief denied even to prayer.
--Mark Twain

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MarkInTheDark
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Re: Steens Mountain, August 22-26

Post by MarkInTheDark » September 3rd, 2008, 5:10 pm

excellent photos! Especially the "big indian from cottonwood camp" photo!

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Charley
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Re: Steens Mountain, August 22-26

Post by Charley » September 3rd, 2008, 6:42 pm

I can feel Steens Mtn. drawing me toward it like a magnet! I'm so envious. . . next summer I'll make it out there.
Charley

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Martell
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Re: Steens Mountain, August 22-26

Post by Martell » September 3rd, 2008, 9:10 pm

How long does the season last out there? Do the roads get snowed over early on?
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fettster
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Re: Steens Mountain, August 22-26

Post by fettster » September 3rd, 2008, 9:19 pm

Hmm, that is an odd mystery with the creek. Weird!! I must say I really want to get down that way even more now. It sounds like you have to gamble on finding water and know you are going to have a long day getting to a reliable source otherwise?

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sparklehorse
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Re: Steens Mountain, August 22-26

Post by sparklehorse » September 3rd, 2008, 10:14 pm

Nice report and pics, thanks for that! Brings back some great memories. I love Steens Mountain, it's one of the state's great treasures, imo. A friend and I tried to do a backpack trip there one Memorial Day weekend starting from the closed gate at the Rooster Comb, but we got hit with an unexpected snow storm the first night. In the morning we bailed, drove back down the mountain and then backpacked up Big Indian Gorge since it was below the snow zone. That turned out to be the single wettest day/night I've ever spent in the backcountry, so we bailed again and drove over to the Alvord Desert to car camp, thinking we'd escape the rain on that side. Wrong. I think that area got its full six inches of annual rainfall in one 24 hour period that year, and it all fell while we were there. Which made it tricky getting the new Subaru off the wet, sticky, muddy lakebed the next day. Am I complaining? Not at all, that trip was actually a blast.
I've been back several times since, but just to car camp and drive to the top and gawk at the massiveness of it all. It's wonderful. And with the exception of that first trip the weather's always been good.
G
.
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dixhuit
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Re: Steens Mountain, August 22-26

Post by dixhuit » September 4th, 2008, 8:03 am

Martell wrote:How long does the season last out there? Do the roads get snowed over early on?
Depending on the the particular year, the loop road over the summit is usually open from about July 1 until October or November, but there should be good trail access in June. It would be fun to do this trip before the summit is open to traffic, and while there is still some snow. We saw an elaborate stone bivouac along the summit road that would make a nice stop if there were snow for a water supply. I would avoid the area during hunting season.
In certain trying circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate
circumstances, profanity furnishes a relief denied even to prayer.
--Mark Twain

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dixhuit
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Re: Steens Mountain, August 22-26

Post by dixhuit » September 4th, 2008, 8:20 am

fettster wrote:It sounds like you have to gamble on finding water and know you are going to have a long day getting to a reliable source otherwise?
Water is not really a gamble in either the Big Indian or Little Blitzen drainages, although the rivers have steep banks in some places. We weren't sure there would be water in the upper basin of Big Indian this late in the season, and were pleased to find it there, even if there was no shade.

Once you climb above the canyons to the summit ridge, there's no water unless you go early enough to melt snow. Finding an excellent campsite is tricky because much of the land is covered with sagebrush, and flat places with shade trees are infrequent.
In certain trying circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate
circumstances, profanity furnishes a relief denied even to prayer.
--Mark Twain

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