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    Road Trip USA: Steens Mountain, Oregon

    [September 5-9, 2018]
    My 'sabbatical year' road trip around the USA brought me back to the Steens Mountain in the far southeast corner of Oregon.

    I am a world traveller, you could say, and as such,I am often asked what is the most beautiful places you have ever been. I usually answer, that among my favorite places on the planet, Steens Mountain (or The Steens) takes a high spot. When I was planning my USA road trip, I realized that I hadn't been back to The Steens for over 30 years!  Were they still as beautiful as I remembered them?

    The road ahead . . . phone poles and mirages. (Color caste is from  tinted front windshield.)

    A road to forever.

    To get to The Steens from my base in western Oregon (Keizer) meant I had to drive across the Eastern Oregon high desert.

    Eastern Oregon has a very special barren beauty.  It is anything but empty.

    A failed homestead in Eastern Oregon.

    The further east and south I went in Oregon, the more mountainous the countryside became.

    The road to The Steens passed nearby the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge . . . a vast plain of colorful wetlands.

    I drove nearly all day under cloudy skies, but when I stopped to take photos of the Malheur Basin the sun shown through.  Extraordinary color and pattern.  This photo has not had the color bumped!

    The beauty of the Malheur Basin.

    I worried it might rain . . . it never did.  The clouds and the wind blew away the wildfire smoke that pervaded the entire western third of the USA over the summer.

    At last I arrived in The Steens!

    The tiny old cowboy town of Frenchglen is the front door to the Steens Mountain Loop.  The Frenchglen Hotel is a listed building that still operates as a hotel to this day - you will want to book well in advance.  I went there for lunch one day (more on this later). My goal was the Jackman Park Campground up 20 miles of washboarded gravel road.

    The flora changed from high desert scrub . . . .

     . . . to sparse grasses and rocky soil.

    Driving up a lower section of the Steens Loop.

    I arrived here just before dark . . . my campground was down in that stand of aspen trees! 

    I found this campsite and quickly unpacked the camper and made camp and went straight to sleep.  I woke in the middle of the night, as old men do, to see more stars in the black sky than I have ever seen in my life!

    My campsite in the morning . . . very dry . . . and very quiet. There were only 8 camping spots in the campground . . . and only one other was occupied, although I never saw or heard them.  The next two nights I was the only person there.

    With the help of my good friend, Jeff Milligan, I carefully selected my camp gear.  This was my set-up everywhere I went (except sometimes I used my own table when there was none provided.)  Coffee is very, very important.

    After breakfast I took a short walk in the aspen grove that surrounded the campground.

    I could not explain why these aspens were all twisted.

    Remains of ancient lava flows wound their way through the grove.

    After clean-up, I drove up the loop to near the edge of the East Rim . . . and Kiger Gorge.

    A north-south escarpment over forty miles long, Steens Mountain is “the largest fault-block mountain in the northern Great Basin.  During the cooler, moister climate of the Pleistocene Epoch, between four million and ten thousand years ago, glaciers carved out the mountain’s dramatic canyons, including Kiger Gorge. (Steens Mountain) The thinning wildfire smoke can be seen in this  photo . . . it would mostly go away in two days time.

    The Steens Mountain Loop road is normally closed due to deep snow from late November until late May.  This is the very last bit of snow left on The Steens in early September 2018.

    I loved walking along the path on the edge of Kiger Gorge . . . looking down into amazing and grand scenes of Nature.

    Kiger Gorge is full of unique wildlife protected by the State of Oregon - it is a kind of vault of nature . . . untouched.

    It is nearly 4000 feet to the bottom of Kiger Gorge. An incredible view.

    Magnificent geology.

    Steens Mountain wild flower against Kiger Gorge.

    I left Kiger Gorge along the Loop Road, hugging the great escarpment.  I love this road!

    There are several points along the Loop Road where you have a grand view of the Alvord Desert below.  Unfortunately, the massive wildfires in the western USA left thick smoke at lower elevations, obscuring what is normally a panoramic view.  It is, nevertheless, a wonderful sight.

    Craggy cliffs form the eastern edge of the great hinge fault that made Steens Mountain.

    Photographically, perhaps the wildfire smoke helps define the rows of sharp ridges . . . .

    This is why I came back to Steens Mountain:  this is the view I had in my memory for 30 years . . . . now renewed.

    Driving along the Steens Loop Road toward Wildhorse Lake.

    The road to Wildhorse Lake had marvelous views of Lower Indian Creek Canyon.

    The view from the Wildhorse Lake parking area . . . .

    At the southwest point of the Loop Road is Wildhorse Lake (aka, Alvord Lake).  Magnificent, smoke and all.

    Wildhorse Lake.  If you look closely you can see a trail to the lake . . . and two small tents on the lakeshore.

    Again, the views from the Wildhorse Lake overlook down to the Alvord Desert were fantastic, in spite of the wildfire smoke.

    I sat here for quite awhile . . . enjoying the grandeur of this actuality.

    I walked out on the Jeep trail I came on . . . a road to the sky.

    Back in the camper and along the rim loop road . . . incredible views wherever I looked.

    At the southern end of the great Steens hinge fault the road begins to wind down the escarpment.

    More ancient, deep glacial valleys fell out of the high plateau on the south end of the Steens.

    I stopped often to take in the beautiful scenery more closely.


    Ancient trees cling to life and the cliffs.

    I turned back to my campground at this point, knowing that I would be driving up from Frenchglen along the south section of the Loop Road the next day.  I was hoping that tomorrow would be clearer . . . without the wildfire smoke.

    I was treated to a beautiful sunset that evening.

    The next morning I woke up to find a camper van had arrived in the campground.  As luck would have it, he was a professional photographer from Portland, Oregon.  We met and chatted and I took him to the twisted aspen grove for a morning of photography in amazing light.

    Scrumptious morning scenes.

    I finally figured out why these aspens were twisted:  There must have been very deep and heavy snow covering them when there ere very small saplings.

    Snow-twisted aspen.

    Morning magic light in a grove of twisted aspen . . . magic indeed!

    Before heading into Frenchglen, I took a three mile walk to check out this stand of aspen trees.

    The grove was fed by a small spring coming out of the hillside.

    I had read that sometimes the early Basque shepherds would camp in these groves and carve their names and their home Basque village names on the aspens.

    Such a calm and peaceful aspen grove.

    I found an old cast iron stovetop among the aspens.

    I found the Basque shepherd tree carvings.

    These carvings are said to date from the 1870s . . . nearly 150 years old.

    There were many of these small isolated aspen groves - each a world of their own.  I wanted to explore all of them . . . but couldn't.

    I drove down off the mountain to the little village of Frenchglen.

    The Frenchglen Hotel is run by the State of Oregon and is an old cowboy rest spot.  I had delicious home made lunch here.

    When I was last here 30 years ago this was an old cowboy bar and provisions store.

    The Frenchglen Mercantile as it is today . . . a general store and souvenir store with a gas pump (thank goodness!).

    The interior of the Frenchglen Mercantile had been cleaned up and reorganized since I was here.  A few dollar bills were still on the ceiling as a reminder of the drinking games the old cowboys liked to play when it was still a bar.

    It is still a very interesting old space . . .

    Out front of the Frnchglen Mercantile.

    An old shepherds chuckwagon stands near the Frenchglen Mercantile.

    Imagine the old time reality of these Basque shepherds.

    I grove out on the paved Oregon Route 205 to the southern entrance to Steens Mountain Loop Road.  I love this high desert landscape.

    Although beautiful, the southern portion of the Loop Road had awful washboarding.  I was reduced to 10mph for 10 miles of bone-shaking and teeth-chattering driving.  Perhaps they only grade it a few times of the year.  I would check before you attempted it.

    The road eventually smoothed out and began to wind up into the edges of Steens Mountain.  This is Indian Creek.  I stopped for a leg stretching.

    Such an idyllic mountain stream.

    The babbling stream echoed against the canyon walls.

    The road climbed back up onto the high Steens ridges.  The light today was the best since I arrived . . . the wildfire smoke was beginning to dissipate.

    I stopped often to take in the grandeur.

    More glacial valleys to the left . . . . and to the right of the Loop Road:

     . . . Big Indian Gorge . . . a glacial valley and source of Indian Creek.  Magnificent!

    In the late afternoon 'magic light' overlooking this glorious glacial gorge.  Overwhelming beauty.

    These cliffs! This light!

    Yellow lichen growing on the sunny side of Big Indian Gorge walls.

    The geology here was fantastical!

    A rocky spine jutting out above the gorge . . . and a path to follow.  This may be my favorite photo from my Steens Mountain experience.

    Approaching the spiny outcrop.

    I took this photo from a bench next to a sign that said, "A Good Place To Meditate."  Gotta Love Oregon!

    Looking out to the opposite cliffs of Big Indian Gorge.

    I took the path out to the end of the outcrop . . . . stunning . . .

    Nearing the tip of the spiny outcrop. I was overwhelmed with the natural beauty.

    At the very end was this old scrub tree . . . hanging on.

    The view up Big Indian Gorge from the outcrop.

    The next outcrop to the south.

    I took my time walking back to the camper along this path . . . composing photographs to take advantage of the extraordinary light.
    As the sun dropped lower toward the horizon, the colors became richer and richer.

    I enjoy taking photos of my camper in these environments . . . it's like pinching myself to prove that it is real!

    I could walk on these wild high desert paths forever . . . .

    So much fascinating geology everywhere.

    Back on the Loop Road taking photos . . .

    These grouse stopped to pose for me among the dry bush.

    The scenes of vast landscapes of tufted grasses were lit in golden light.

    I find this complex scenery incredibly fascinating.

    The Loop Road ahead in magic evening light.  I loved driving through this grand landscape.

    I arrived back on top of the East Rim as the last light was fading.

    Big Indian Gorge in amber shadow.

    I waited outside in the very cold evening until the red sun sank into the thick wildfire smoke . . . .

    My last sunset in The Steens.  I left the next morning for Lake Tahoe and more adventures.

    I awoke on my last day to glorious light and  color in my campground.  I decided to take a short walk with my camera before I packed up and left.

    I walked out across the Loop Road and over this hill to see what I could see.

    What I found was this hidden little valley full of bright yellow aspens.

    I miss this place.

    Looking out and down the Steens hinge fault to the bank of wildfire smoke below.
    I stopped to study the interesting geology on the way back to the campground.

    These almost looked hand made!

    These appeared to be Scottish thistle, just as I have seen in my years in Scotland.

    Surprisingly, I saw very few insects during my entire stay.

    Steens wildflowers.

    I walked back down the hill to take a last look at my camper among the aspens.

    I took a shower at this hand pump every morning . . . there were no people around to see me.

    After packing the camper, I stopped to take a photo of my campground sign on the way out.

    And then I drove down the Loop Road to Frenchglen and a very long drive.

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