Exploring the East Side of Steens Mountain
Tuesday 22 May 2012 — Category: Outings
In April 2012 I took a trip to “dry” Eastern Oregon to escape the Willamette Valley rain. I set up my “base camp” at the Frenchglen Hotel (pictured) on the west side of Steens Mountain. My first full day there I was up early to explore the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, but wouldn’t you know — it was raining!
While researching the area, I had read that the east side of Steens Mountain receives much less rain than the west side I was on. This massive block of rock rises about a mile up from the valley floor, so it seemed possible that it might be tall enough to prevent the rain clouds from coming over. Therefore I hit the road to see what the conditions were like on the other side of the mountain.
From Frenchglen, I first had to drive 52 miles south to the hamlet of Fields, situated between the Pueblo Mountains (pictured) to the south and Steens Mountain to the north. All of the literature I've read on this place raves about the awesome hamburgers and milkshakes at its restaurant / general store / gas station. (The next day, even the ranger I met at the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge patted his belly and told me how good they were! Sorry that I didn’t think to take a photo of the store — I had to get one off the Web.)
Well, seeing that it was before 9:00 AM, I decided to skip the famous lunch there, and just put gas in my truck. Then I was ready to begin the 65-mile trek up the valley on the east side of Steens Mountain.
Unfortunately, it was kinda rainy on this “dry” side of the Steens too. Nevertheless, I was able to take photos in numerous places along the way. Because of the bad weather, I reluctantly decided to skip visiting Borax Lake. Maybe next time!
A bit further up the road was the abandoned hamlet of Andrews, where the photogenic old schoolhouse (pictured) looked so forlorn with the mist-shrouded Steens Mountain in the background.
Continuing up the western edge of the Alvord Desert, I came next to the Alvord Hot Springs (pictured). The man-made soaking-pool portion of Alvord Hot Springs features 112°F water brought by a system of pipes and channels from the 174°F source, which is right next to the road.
Use of the hot springs is free and open to the public year round, though they are on private property. The high mineral content of the source waters produces some interesting colors and formations. After the waters leave the man-made soaking pools, they flow eastward in a channel to the Alvord Desert. I didn’t go in the water, content to just document the area with my photographs.
My next stop was just another mile up the road, where Pike Creek meets it. Here I parked on the side of the road by the creek, got out my picnic supplies, and had my lunch on the tailgate of my truck. A short distance further north I found the rough, rocky road which can be followed a half-mile west to the Pike Creek trailhead. You’ll definitely want a high-clearance 4x4 on this “road!”
At the trailhead is a very unusual juniper tree growing out of a boulder (pictured). Because of the volatile weather and a lack of time, I wasn’t able to hike up this trail as I had hoped to — again, maybe next time. I took quite a few photos in this area, with its beautifully-colored cliffs and huge boulders.
Pressing northward, I began to appreciate the 43 miles of gravel road (pictured) I was travelling on. It was so well made, that on some stretches I could comfortably cruise at freeway speeds! Of course, it also helped that I pretty much had the road to myself. But still, I was amazed that a gravel road could be so smooth, particularly at higher speeds.
Around the Mann Lake area I got a couple of shots (photographic, of course!) of deer on the side of the road. Eventually I reached the end of East Steens Road at its junction with Oregon Route 78, which led me back toward the Malheur Lake area and finally Frenchglen.
All in all, it was a 200-mile, nine-hour journey around Steens Mountain, which resulted in 372 photos. I've distilled that down to the best 55 pictures, including seven panoramas, which you can view in the Steens East 2012 photo album. It’s really a region of wide open spaces — Steens Mountain itself is fifty miles long! — which are difficult to capture except through panoramas.
For a complete list of all the blog entries and photo albums resulting from my trip to Eastern Oregon, be sure to check out the April 2012 Eastern Oregon Photo Outing Recap
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