Steens Mountain Wilderness
September 19-23, 2020
Written by: Jan Zarella
What a beautiful place! This trip report can essentially be broken down into 3 different trips, as my favorite hiking buddies and I spent 3 very full days, each a thorough exploration of a different aspect of the Steens Wilderness. Little Blitzen Gorge and Big Indian Gorge trails parallel each other and can be connected into a loop via extension trails, some bushwhacking and extreme off trail travel via ascending most of Steens Mountain. If one is wishing to do this, allow 2-3 days, get water when you can and hone your navigation skills! Such a loop was not in the cards for this particular trip, but could be a lovely backpacking option in the future.
Day 1-2 LITTLE BLITZEN GORGE:
We drove from Portland to Frenchglen, where we met up with our best Adventure Buddy Danielle who had travelled from Boise the same day. Along the way we encountered countless scenic Oregon views and some Free Range cattle. Upon meeting up with Danielle we traveled to the South Steens Campground that comprises the Trail Heads for both Little Blitzen and Big Indian Gorge trails. These trails parallel each other separated in the middle by the Steens Mountain Loop Road that traverses the high cliffs above the two gorges. We drove this road in the dark, I would NOT recommend such a perilous traverse be repeated!
After a decent night’s sleep, we ventured, trail running style, into Little Blitzen Gorge, a 20 mile round trip out and back that parallels the Little Blitzen River and ends in a beautiful waterfall. Having not run for around 2 weeks due to excessive wildfire smoke in PDX, I will say I certainly felt the distance and elevation. The trail finishes around 8,000 feet, with the last couple of miles averaging a 15-20% grade. I will not lie...we flat out gave up on running around mile 8! We took a lunch break at the waterfall (Mile 10) and ventured our way back to our cars to finish out the afternoon. Overall, this trail was well marked and easy to follow. We saw precisely 4 people on the Little Blitzen Trail, all of whom were within a mile of the Trail Head on our way out. Danielle had some work to tend to so we parted ways on Sunday evening and the dogs and I spent another night at the campground.
Day 3 WILD HORSE LAKE:
After 20 miles and a lot of elevation gain the dogs and I were pretty well worked, so we decided to take a “rest” day and hike down to Wild Horse Lake. The Trail Head for Wild Horse Lake originates near the Summit of Steens Mountain, which is approximately 9,500 feet. The short, steep trail switchbacks DOWN to Wild Horse Lake with a total elevation loss of somewhere around 12-1400 feet in approximately 1.3 miles….This means the hike up is a doozy! The lake was peaceful and pristine! It was a bit too windy and chilly to swim in the lake, but I refilled several water containers for the next leg of our trip and the dogs and I enjoyed a beautiful afternoon lounging and relaxing at the lake. I knew the sun would set fast and furious behind the hills surrounding us and it would get cold FAST, so we timed our ascent back up to the top of Steens Mountain accordingly. I was still surprised how quickly the shadows engulfed the shore of the lake where we had been lounging in the sunshine only moments before! We spent the night camped on a pullout off of Steens Loop road where we were assured a beautiful sunrise the next morning.
Day 4 BIG INDIAN GORGE:
The sunrise on day 4 did not disappoint, but was soon engulfed by smoke that finally started to roll in. Afterall, one of the main reasons we were in the Steens was to escape the smoke in the Valley! We drove back to South Steens Campground where we had spent the first 2 nights of our trip and parked at the Trail Head for Big Indian Gorge. This was a beautiful hike and very different from Little Blitzen. Even though Big Indian Creek paralleled this trail, water was only accessible in a few key places. Toward the beginning of the trail you will find the remains of a small cabin. Between mile 2-3 one crosses the creek 3 times and water is in ample supply for all 3 crossings. The river is pretty much inaccessible until mile 6 where there are some lovely creekside campsites shaded in cottonwood trees. There are a few select campsites between mile 6-7 and the trail here passes through scrubby sagebrush that eventually gives way to a large cottonwood grove. This stand of trees provided much appreciated relief from the hot sun as well as the scratchy bushes we had been walking through. Now, this trail is an approximately 17 mile out and back, but if you feel like turning around at mile 8, you won’t miss much. Further exploration of this trail all the way to mile 9 will take you to the top of another lovely waterfall via a deer trail through more scrubby sagebrush...NOT recommended, but I had to see where the trail “ended”. After off trail adventuring to the waterfall, the dogs and I returned to the car and headed away from the Steens Mountain Wilderness.
I was feeling a little sad that we had not yet laid eyes on the anticipated, perhaps fabled Wild Horses of the Steens, when what to my delight should appear, but herds of wild horses!! They, at least 50- 60 animals, were a beautiful site...Paints, Palominos, and an array of other colors, I even saw at least one foal! After taking in their beauty from a distance I tore myself away and forged on back toward Frenchglen. My car was in desperate need of gas and there is precisely ONE gas station in French Glen and it closes at 6:00 P.M. or when the last customer (me) leaves at 5:55! It’s a pump your own non-digital unit that’s an experience all its own. After getting gas in Frenchglen, we had just enough daylight to make it to the Hart Mountain Antelope Reserve Hot Springs before dark. I got in a relaxing soak while the dogs lounged in the car and we moved on away from the crowded hot springs campground to find a more remote wilderness campsite. We happened to stumble upon the original headquarters for the Order of the Antelope, (ask me to tell you the story some time!) which I had only read about in a book about 20 years ago! After a good night car’s sleep in our remote locale, we drove out of the Hart Mountain refuge area back toward Paisley, where we eventually met up with Danielle in Bend for much appreciated cold beer and tacos!