Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Steens Mountain National Conservation Area (Proposed)

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 145-149.

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An ecological island in the sky.

Location: Harney County, 60 miles south-southeast of Burns

Size: 1,221 square miles (903,759 acres)

Terrain: A massive fault-block range, sculpted by Pleistocene glaciers and carved by streams with vast flats to the leeward

Elevation Range: 4,015-9,773 feet

Managing Agency: Burns District BLM

Recreation Maps: South Half Burns District BLM; Northeast Quarter, North Half Burns District BLM

Steens Mountain is a sky island. Rising over a mile above the surrounding landscape, the massive fault-block range makes its own precipitation. The result, according to the Oregon Biodiversity Project, is "some of the most ecologically diverse landscapes in the Basin and Range Ecoregion." [1]

Steens Mountain is a glaciated fault block of uplifted volcanics that has had significant erosion, the evidence of which is equally obvious and beautiful.

Topographically, Steens Mountain can be divided into three major zones sepa- rated by cross faults (it was too big to rise as one): North Steens, High Steens, and South Steens. High Steens towers 2,000 feet above the others. All part of one large fault-block range, it slopes west, either to the Catlow Rim at the edge of the Catlow Valley in the south or to the Blitzen Valley in the north.

To the east on its leeward side, Steens Mountain casts a huge rain shadow across the Alvord Desert country—as ecologically interesting as Steens Mountain, though in very different ways.

"The Alvord Basin ... contain(s) extensive areas of playa, salt desert scrub, and sand dune habitats. They provide habitat for several at-risk endemic fish species and a variety of reptiles, small mammals and insects," notes the Oregon Biodiversity Project. [2]

A story of Steens Mountain can be told through its vegetation.

The first chapter starts at the Catlow and Blitzen Valleys, at the Arid Sagebrush Zone, which is dominated by both big and low sagebrush, with only the occasional western juniper thrown in. The elevation band is 4,200 to 5,500 feet.

As elevation increases, so does precipitation. The next band is the Western Juniper Zone (5,000-6,000 feet). You'll still see sagebrush, but the juniper is dominant.

As elevation increases, so too does the harshness of the seasons. The Mountain Mahogany Zone (6,000-8,000 feet) is named for a species that favors poor soils and rocky ridges, so its occurrence is scattered.

The fourth zone is sagebrush again, only this time it is the Mountain Big Sagebrush Zone (6,500-8,500 feet). This species of sagebrush may reach 2 to 3 feet in height. In this zone you'll see an abundance of wildflowers during the spring and summer.

Notice the overlap in elevation ranges. This reflects other factors coming into play, such as soil depth and type, slope, aspect, and so forth. Nature is rarely discretely packaged.

Steens Mountain is unusual in that timber line is defined by nonconiferous species. (Isolated white fir trees and stands can be found on the mountain, but they are relics from a far different time.) The Quaking Aspen Zone (6,000-8,000 feet) is perhaps the most colorful zone. In the fall the leaves clothe the moun- tain in a crimson and gold mantle.

Ever upward and onward, the sixth band is the Subalpine Meadow Zone (7,000-8,400 feet), the meadows of which are found below large snowdrifts and along streams. Wildflowers dominate the view.

The next band is the Snow Cover Zone (8,000-9,700 feet). Drifts of snow remain until late summer. The soils—if they exist at all—are quite shallow and rocky. Vegetation is limited to colorful herbs.

Finally is the Subalpine Grassland Zone (9,000-9,700 feet). These grasslands are found where snow doesn't usually accumulate and the soil is very rocky. It is too harsh for shrubs, and other vegetation rarely exceeds a half foot in height.

These first eight zones are spread across a horizontal distance of 20 to 25 miles on the west slope of Steens. The next seven chapters are repeats of the first seven, though in reverse order and in a very compressed form. On the east face of Steens Mountain, the horizontal distance from the summit to the Alvord Desert Playa is 4 to 5 miles, five times as steep as the west side. Given this steepness, the manifestations of some of the zones are very scattered. Obviously, stream charac- ter is also extremely different than on the more gentle slopes of the west side.

The remaining three chapters of the story are not on Steens Mountain proper, hut within its massive rain shadow to the leeward east. Coming down off the alluvial fans that support the Arid Sagebrush Zone, we now can see the Salt Desert Scrub Zone (3,900-4,200 feet). Because of the alkali and often coarse sandy soils, shadscale and greasewood are the dominate species.

In the same elevation band, but distinctly unique, is the Playa Zone. These large barren playas are sinks that fill with water in the winter and are mostly bone-dry in the summer.

Often to the east of the playas—due to the prevailing westerly winds—is a Sand Dune Zone. Some dunes are very open, others somewhat vegetated with salt desert scrub and big sagebrush.

As the elevation rises—perhaps as little as 20 feet—to the east, one starts to see a return of the Arid Sagebrush Zone. Along a rim, where soil and moisture accumulate in cracks, the western juniper can again be seen.

This story is not complete without sidebars. Where cold springs exist, so do oases. The Steens fault created several hot springs in the Alvord Desert, all of which have their ecological uniqueness. Certain areas have almost pure stands of winterfat (a very nutritious shrub) or Great Basin wildrye. Several rare plants are associated with the alkali soils.

A diversity of vegetation on Steens Mountain means a diversity of wildlife. Most species associated with the Great Basin are here, as well as several more associated with mountainous forests. "Large portions of the area have barely been touched by development, and the area provides important habitat for a wide variety of wild- life, ranging from migratory birds and big game to rare and endangered mammals and fish," says the Oregon Biodiversity Project about the Steens Mountain Conservation Opportunity Area. [2] For example, the only populations of northern water shrew in eastern Oregon and pika in southeast Oregon exist on Steens Mountain. A subspecies of tiger beetle is found only on Steens, as are certain species of ants.

The riparian areas of Steens Mountain are a stronghold for redband trout, a species in serious decline. The mountain is also a haven for bighorn sheep, a species in serious recovery.

One species, no longer present, was the grizzly bear.

What To Do

Most people first experience Steens Mountain by driving the North Loop Road from Frenchglen to the summit. The road is usually open after the Fourth of July, but check with the Burns District BLM. It is about 30 miles to the summit. Take all day, explore Whorehouse Meadows (below), take in all the overlooks (each one is different). Walking 1/4 mile in any direction from along the loop road will yield you solitude. If you do take the hike (especially to the summit), remember the thinner air.

Most return the way they came, as the south Steens Mountain Loop Road is harder on vehicles. It is about as far back to Frenchglen, but it will be much slower.

Perhaps the Steens Mountain Loop Road should be called the Inner Loop.

The Outer Loop circumnavigates the entire mountain. Starting at the Diamond turnoff between mileposts 40 and 41 on OR 205 (measured from OR 78 near Burns), go east to Diamond (BLM has a brochure for the Diamond Loop National Backcountry Byway) and to Diamond Craters (see Diamond Craters National Monument) and Diamond. Continue northward to New Princeton and turn southeast on OR 78. In 32 miles turn southwesterly on the Andrews—Folly Farm County Road.

Where the county road bends 90 degrees to the west, go easterly 6 miles to Mickey Hot Springs (210 degrees Fahrenheit). The road goes just south of Mickey Butte (see exploration in Sheepshead Mountains Wilderness). Sometimes a tiny geyser is present; at all times the mud is boiling and steam is venting. Keep dogs on leash as many a canine has met a scalding end by jumping into the inviting, but deadly pools. These hot springs are not for soaking.

Back at the county road, go about 8 miles to Pike Creek (see exploration in Steens Mountain Wilderness). Note the juniper growing out of the huge boul- der. Primitive campsites are plentiful both on some private land on the creek and on public land up the hill.

Continue southward on the county road from the turnoff to Pike Creek about 2 miles and take a bath at Alvord Hot Springs (the tin shack in the meadow east of the road). Don't let the bullet holes bother you, though some came in and some went out. These springs are on private land but are open to the public.

If you didn't walk out to the Alvord Desert playa during the last stop, then take the dirt way down to the playa's edge 2.5 miles south of Alvord Hot Springs. There is fresh water (untested) at Frog Spring. (See Alvord Desert exploration in Alvord Wilderness.)

At the intersection 1 mile north of Fields, hearty souls with hearty vehicles can take the powerline road east-northeast 2.1 miles and turn northerly on the first prominent way. In 1.8 miles you come the site of the first official Twenty Mule Team borax mine. More interesting is Borax Lake, home of the Borax Lake chub. Belly crawl up to the lake shore and you'll likely see some of the diminutive fish. The row of hot springs a 1/2 mile north of the lake is worth the walk. Borax Lake and vicinity is owned by The Nature Conservancy.

After Fields (best chocolate malts for hundreds of miles), pick up OR 205 westward through Long Hollow to the Catlow Valley, coming through a break in the Catlow Rim. Head northward past Home Creek (see exploration in Steens Mountain Wilderness) and past the Roaring Springs Ranch and the South Steens Mountain Loop turnoff and on to Frenchglen (best food and drink in Harney County). About 20 miles north of Frenchglen is where you started.

The elapsed distance is about 250 miles. It can be done in one day, but passengers may get quite cranky. Camp along the way to fully enjoy.

The Desert Trail traverses the area (see Appendix D).

1. Oregon Biodiversity Project. Oregon's Living Landscape. Portland, Ore.: Defenders of Wildlife, 1998, 132.

2. Ibid 132

3. Ibid 132