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Photos and Story by Larry Turner (www.larryturnerphotography.com)

HighOnAdventure.com   August 1, 2012

  Steens Mtns. at Wildhorse  
The author at Wildhorse Lake

My son Steen is named after this high desert, remote southeastern Oregon mountain range.

Many call this unique area the Crown Jewel of Oregon. But that title could fit many places in my home state, including Crater Lake National Park which is in my home county of Klamath. The Steens are the Crown Jewel to me though because of my son and the memories that led to his naming and the journeys there since his birth in 1985.



My wife and I named him Steen because it represents wild, untamed, beautiful, solitary and adventurous country where one’s spirit soars and is challenged by the immensity and grandeur of the elements. Little did we know that the Scandinavian name (part of his blood line) Steen means steel, iron, strength. With his beloved Mom’s (and my wife’s) passing when he was 14 years old, that meaning of Steen has had to come into play as he has moved forward in life without her mortal presence.

  Oregon Eastside Steens View   Oregon Steens Wildflowers  
Eastside Steens View
Steens Wildflowers
  Oregon Steens Sagegrouse   Oregon Steens Mule Deer  
Steens Mule Deer


My wife Jeannette, aka JJ, and I explored the Steens thirty some years ago before our son’s birth. We spent weeks in this enchanting zone unlike any other in the varied topographical state of Oregon. The Steens is a fascinatingly diverse mountain, a perfect fit for adventurous travelers, especially those who like to get off the beaten tourist path. There are no five-star resorts here, so cross that thought off your list if this is where you plan to travel. There are, however, a few places that offer unique overnight accommodations in this neck of the woods: the Frenchglen Hotel (http://www.oregonstateparks.org/park_3.php), the Diamond Inn (http://www.central-oregon.com/hoteldiamond) and Steens Mountain Resort (www.steensmountainsresort.com).

The Steens Mountains run north to south. The approach from the west via Frenchglen is a gradually-rising 18 mile road to Fish Lake, a great place to camp, fly-fish and explore, Pate Lake (camping) and Jackman Park (camping). Page Springs Campground along the Donner Blitzen River is just a few miles up the road from Frenchglen. This is sagebrush steppe country surrounded by the McCoy Creek and Fish Creek drainages, filled with aspens. This is part of the Steens Loop Road—the highest road in the state of Oregon—which is a 50-mile circle from and back to Frenchglen.

  Oregon Kiger Gorge   Oregon Little Blitzen Reflection Point  
Kiger Gorge
Little Blitzen Reflection Point
  Oregon, Aspen Road to Nye Cabin   Fish for breakfast   Oregon, Brenda in cabin doorway  
Aspen Road to Nye Cabin
Brenda at Nye Cabin Door
  Oregon, Brenda in the Nye cabin   Oregon, camp reading tent  
Brenda in the Nye Cabin
Camp Reading Tent
  Oregon woodpecker   Oregon dawn's first light  
Camp Woodpecker
Dawn's First Light



Camp dinner cooking
  Campers around the cooking fire  
Drew, Brenda, Rob, Max


The real eye opener surprises come past Jackman Park where one can view the immense, verdant Kiger Gorge that runs south to north. Years ago, I backpacked into this inner cathedral carved by ancient glaciers, and slept under a canopy of pulsating stars in a grove of old aspens and alders along Kiger Creek where eastern brook and rainbow trout rise to a proper dry fly.

The mighty Little Blitzen Gorge can be viewed, looking south, traveling up the Steens west face. One of my favorite side trips in the Steens—which I took with my sister Brenda and Lynette Shirley a week ago—is the second dirt road on the right, past Jackman Park, to the Pruitt (Nye) Cabin, an old hunting camp run by these families years ago. Ida Pruitt is famous in southeastern Oregon for her wonderful paintings. This is not a road for the faint of heart. A four-wheel drive is a must! Better yet, a combination of driving and hiking is recommended. It is worth it though for the views of the Little Blitzen Gorge, the fecund aspens groves, mountain mahogany and venerable junipers shaped like bonsais along the rim. The functional Nye cabin is available to stay in on a first come, first serve basis.

The Steens heavy snow pack is the source for the Donner and Blitzen (thunder and lightening in German) River, a wild trout river with difficult access except for the Page Springs Campground near Frenchglen. The bureaucratic powers that be changed the river’s name to just Blitzen. But to me, it will always be Donner and Blitzen. To be ‘politically’ correct they also deleted from their maps my favorite camping spot in the Steens: Whorehouse Meadows, named because the Basque sheepherders of years past had ‘favors’ brought to them by their bosses, to keep them from straying away from the bands and ‘going to town’ to be treated for their natural desires.

Just past the headwalls of the Little Blitzen Gorge is a turnoff that leads to a nice kiosk and the first view of the Steens’ east side—an infinite view of the immensity of Oregon’s lonely southeast corner along with the Steens rugged east face which cannot be accessed by any road, except to the base of the mountain (the Andrews-Mann Lake Road).

  Oregon, Big Indian Gorge Signage   Oregon Big Indian Gorge  
Big Indian Gorge Signage
Big Indian Gorge


The road that leads to the kiosk also offers two other choices: the Steens South Loop Road which straddles Big Indian Gorge and Little Blitzen Gorge, eventually leading one back to Highway 206. The other road continues on to a small parking lot with access to trails to Wildhorse Lake and another that leads to the summit of the Steens Mountains. Do both.

In August and September wildflowers abound in these upper stretches of the Steens, as do pockets of snow. There are many small glacier cirques here, too—places to cool off from heated hiking. I saw and photographed a small herd of antelope between the Blitzen and Big Indian gorges. This is also the land of the solitary mountain lion, an occasional bear, coyote, bobcats, elk (Kiger Gorge), deer, the rare pica, sage grouse and other birds and squirrels/chipmunks. Our Fish Lake camp was bountiful with birds, butterflies, insects and other critters.

While traveling down and exploring the South Loop Steens Road, you’ll get spellbinding views of Big Indian Gorge. Stop and explore the small watersheds that form directly from snowfields and find their way down the canyon walls. It is worth it just for the wildflowers alone.

Near the historic Riddle Ranch there is a BLM campground and equestrian camp. It is very dry here and not as desirable—for my tastes—as the higher country camps.

  Oregon, Wildhorse Cutthroat   Oregon, Wildhorse Evening  
Wildhorse Cutthroat
Wildhorse Evening
  Oregon, Wildhorse Lake Evening Moon   Oegon, Wildhorse Lake  
Wildhorse Lake Evening Moon
Wildhorse Lake

Oregon, Wildhorse Lake

Wildhorse Panoramic


  Oregon, Wildhorse Lake  
Wildhorse View
Oregon, Wildhorse Wildflowers
Oregon, Rob in Wildhorse Camp
Wildhorse Wildflowers
Rob in Wildhorse Camp
Oregon, Wildhorse Lake swimmer
Oregon, 3 guys near Wildhorse Lake
Rob takes a Dip
Rob, Author, Max
  Oregon, tent at Wildhorse Lake   Oregon, father and son at Wildhorse Lake  
Rob's Tent
Father and Son, Wildhorse Lake
  Oregon, hiking from Wildhorse Lake  
Hiking out of Wildhorse


The best adventuring in the Steens is by foot or horseback. Backpacking and day hikes are highly recommended. Fellow Highonadventure writer Lee Juillerat and I (along with others) once spent a week backpacking through Big Indian Gorge and into and beyond the Wildhorse Lake drainage. Last week, my brother-in-law Rob Crawford and my nephew Max Crawford donned our packs for an overnight trip to Wildhorse, a three-mile journey each way.

It is wild country, hauntingly beautiful, a high tundra-like mountain landscape where ancient glaciers left diamond jewels such as Wildhorse.

We packed as light as we could for the overnighter though the ideal was different than the reality with extra water, fly-fishing gear and a bottle of great claret wine. There is a small parking lot below the Steens Mountain summit (Oregon’s ninth tallest mountain). The parking area overlooks the Alvord Desert, Oregon’s driest region, getting less than 6 inches of rain a year.

With Max and Rob departing before me, I veered off the main trail and took my favorite trek to the lake along the creek and through a plethora of wildflowers, naturally terraced throughout the descent. I packed the rain fly of my mountaineering tent, using it to set up a small camp by a grand old rock overlooking the lake, and slept along the shore that night. Our protein source was cutthroat trout which we caught.

Wildhorse is deep, crystal clear and great for swimming. The water is bracing and perfect after a hot hike. Night skies here are amazing. I was up throughout the night with my small tripod beside my sleeping bag, photographing the moon set, the emergence of the night stars and the first stars and planets of the morning. Before departing the following day, I also fly fished in the buff in homage to JJ as this is the first place where both of us had done such years ago, wearing only our hat and shoes (a great way to learn back casting!!!).

We had the lake and this unforgettable landscape to ourselves, except for the critters that live here. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t see any of the critters from the lake’s namesake though, as I never have.

  Oregon, Fish Lake chipmonk   Oregon, Fish Lake, flyfishing in the buff   Oregon, Fish Lake, initials carved into tree  
Fish Lake chipmonk
Flyfishing in the buff
Our Initials from long ago
  Oregon, Fish Lake sunset and ducks   Oregon, Fish lake sunset  
Fish Lake sunset and ducks
Fish Lake Sunset
  Oregon, Max and Rob at the Rock Camp   Oregon, Fish Lake casting  
Max and Rob at the Rock Camp
Max casting
  Oregon, author  
The author




Other than the one night at Wildhorse, our camp was at Fish Lake. My sister Brenda and her boyfriend Drew and Lynette would join us for a few days. These were great camp days filled with fireside conversations, delectable meals, reading and relaxing. I stayed on after everyone left. Fish Lake has plenty of fish to catch and release, and some to fry. It is a relaxing place to stay as a staging area for meanderings elsewhere in the Steens. Modern outhouses, fire pits and water are available in the campground. The nightly rates are $8 per camp ($4 if you have a Golden Eagle Passport).


When visiting the upper reaches of the Steens, check out the aspen forests (the largest in Oregon) for arborglyphs left behind from the old days of sheep herding on the mountain. These are thin, bladed knife carvings in the aspens. The best one that I ever saw in McCoy creek was of an intricate coffeepot. You know what that herder was wanting that particular morning! As you can imagine, there are many graphic carvings of women and some of men with sheep (need I say more!).

The highlight of my trip one day with my sis and Lynette was to the Pruitt Place where I came across an arborglyph of 20 years ago with my name and Steen’s on a tree next to where Leroy Pruitt had carved in his youth (he is near 90 now). Tears came, thinking about those memories and the memories with my wife in the Steens years before that. But they were memories of joy, and always will be of joy connected to this unique place on Earth.






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