The Steens Mountains are about as far away from civilization as you can get in Oregon. Make sure you have plenty of gas in your tank before you head to this area. You have to go to the small community of Frenchglen on State Highway 205. Highway 205 connects Burns to Denio, NV. The only thing that is still open in Frnchglen is the historic hotel. If you go another 40 miles south of Frenchglen you find the smaller town of Fields, but it has gas and a café. Try the “world famous” burgers and milk shakes at the café and you won’t be disappointed.
Near the historic hotel in Frenchglen is the turnoff that goes to the Steens Mountain area. The turn-off is well marked. Head up this wide gravel road known as the Steens Mountain National Back Country Byway
. It is about 20 miles to the “trailhead”. There is no formal trail, so continue up the road until you see the turnoff for the Kiger Gorge Overlook. You can go to the parking area at the end of the Overlook road, or continue up the main road for another .4 mile and just park as much off the road as you can. Either way you should go to the Overlook first to see where you will be climbing. As you look down into the Kiger Gorge, notice the eastern edge of the gorge and the big U notch about half way down the ridge. The highpoint you want is just before the U notch. The easiest route to the highpoint is to follow the ridge from the south.
This route begins at the Kiger Gorge Overlook or on the road a little above the Kiger Gorge Overlook turnoff. Either way you have to head to the southern end of the ridge line that leads to the highpoint. This ridge line is the main fault scarp that goes to the Steens Mountain highpoint further south.
It is about .5 mile east from the Overlook to the ridge line. The most difficult climbing will be to get off the relatively flat area by the Overlook and down onto the ridgeline. It is only Class 3 scrambling on good rock, but you have to pick a route that you are comfortable with. You can probably see a faint use trail where others have scrambled down.
Once off the flat area, just follow the ridgeline north. Stay on the east side or on top of the ridgeline. There is a faint use trail made by animals or other hikers, but it isn’t too difficult to follow. It is braided in areas, but just keep heading north up and down the rocky areas on the ridge. Some of the areas are a little steep and you have to pick your way up to the next level, but there isn’t anything technical. There were patches of snow on 7/1/2007 along this ridge that were easily avoided. Earlier in the year you would have to deal with that obstacle.
After about 2.0 miles of climbing up and down these rocky piles, you finally crest the final rocky slope and you find yourself on a broad almost flat looking plateau area. You can see the highpoint almost a mile ahead of you. Enjoy the walk to the highpoint and take in the views from both sides of the ridge and all the wildflowers on top of the ridge. If you are lucky, you may even see some wildlife up here.
After visiting the highpoint, it is a short walk down to the U notch and it is worth the hike. The slopes on the east here are actually steep cliffs, so don’t get too daring. I didn’t climb down into the U notch, but I think it could be done from the ridge.
Return to your trailhead the way you came. I measured the round trip distance for this route at 7.1 miles, with about 2,300ft of elevation gain (most of it going up and down rockpiles along the ridge), and it took me 4 hours.
The 10 essentials are always required. There is no water available, so take all you need. Summertime thunderstorms are not uncommon in the afternoons, so be prepared.
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