Ascent of Steens Mountain on 2004-07-30

Climber: Scott Surgent

Others in Party:Beth
Date:Friday, July 30, 2004
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Steens Mountain
    Elevation:9733 ft / 2966 m

Ascent Trip Report

Steens Mountain is an interesting "mountain" located in southeast Oregon in the Great Basin desert. The mountain is a result of one massive fault-uplift. On the west, the slopes are so gentle that you'd never know you were on a mountain at all, while on the east, there are cliffs nearing 4,000 feet in height. Getting to the top is fairly easy, as some good gravel roads get near to both candidate highpoints.

Beth and I stayed last night at the Crystal Crane Hot Springs, about 30 miles southeast of the town of Burns. This little establishment features a few cabins surrounding some natural spring pools and hot springs, and included (at the time) a friendly kitty who hung out with us during our stay. This whole part of Oregon is extremely remote and lightly populated. We learned that the town of Crane features the only (?) public high school with dormitories, since it serves an area larger than some eastern states, and is not practical for the kids to be driven to and from school every day given the distances.

This morning, we got rolling fairly early, aiming for Steens Mountain and the town of Frenchglen, the let-in point west of the mountain where the road to the top starts. Along the way, we let ourselves get sidetracked with a visit to the Peter French Round Barn near the town of Diamond. Peter French was the son-in-law of William Glenn, a wealthy California-based wheat farmer. Together, they founded the French-Glen Ranch and of course, the town of Frenchglen is named for them. Interestingly, Glenn County, California, is named for William Glenn.

After our visit to the Round Barn, we drove on state route OR-205 to the village of Frenchglen, which is just a couple of buildings and a mercantile. Some of the town looks preserved from the olden days, and I doubt more than 20 people live there full time these days. We turned east onto the Steens Mountain Backcountry Byway, a 60-mile loop that re-emerges with OR-205 about 10 miles south of Frenchglen.

Driving on the Steens Mountain Byway, we kept a steady pace and enjoyed the rolling foothills, copses of trees and open meadows, and the slow change from lower semi-desert scrubland to higher montane and semi-alpine terrain. There were runners, bicyclists and a few other vehicles on the road. We didn't rush things, and in a little over an hour, had arrived to near one of the two summit candidate points. The change in elevation was so gentle that even we were caught off guard, getting out and immediately feeling short of breath.

We came to a three-pronged intersection, the left leading to one of the 9,730-foot bumps along the eastern cliffs. The walk was short and easy, just following the road, but we definitely felt the effects of the elevation change. The views east into the Alvord Desert, nearly a full vertical mile below us, were outstanding.

Back to the main road, we followed the middle prong and went south about 1.5 miles. This road ends at a small parking area and about a half-mile walk from the second summit point, this one marked at 9,733 feet elevation. We walked around a small gate and followed a service road to a small set of buildings, solar cells and towers, where we paced the immediate ground and called it good. Of the 5 or 6 cars in the lot, no one was up here with us. It seemed everyone else was interested in hiking down to Wildhorse Lake, a neat glacial remnant about 1,000 feet below us from the summit. We could look down and see the lake and make out some of the people. After taking some photos, we hiked back out and started our drive out.

We had driven nearly 30 miles from Frenchglen, and the roads to here had been fantastic. Our little passenger vehicle with weenie little tires and no clearance had handled the roads very well. We assumed that the remaining 30 miles of the Backcountry Byway was of the same quality. We didn't necessarily want to return to Frenchglen, plus we were a little adventerous anyway, so we continued on the remaining loop. For a few more miles, the road was well-tended gravel, but then, bam, the gravel ended and the road became rough dirt.

We should have turned around right there. A normal high clearance vehicle would be fine, and the roads did not need 4-wheel drive. But we had a very delicate passenger vehicle. Nevertheless, we continued on, thinking that the road would improve. For awhile, the road was etched into the sides of cliffs, a true mountain road. We were committed now! We just rolled forward slowly, and somehow we got out okay without badly damaging the little car. However, had we known what the southern half of the loop was like, we wouldn't have driven it.

In any case, we were back on the main highway (OR-205). We drove south through more desert valleys and rangeland, then rested a spell in the tiny village of Fields (population 11, said a sign), and had milkshakes. We spent the night in Winnemucca, Nevada, and flew home the next day.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:180 ft / 54 m
    Round-Trip Distance:1 mi / 1.6 km
    Trailhead:9553 ft / 2911 m
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Open Country

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