Steens Mountain– Into the heart of Oregon’s “Big Empty”


A lone hiker is dwarfed against massive Steens Mountain.

Quick Facts:

Location: Great Basin, Eastern Oregon

Land Agency: Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area (BLM)

Roundtrip: Kiger Gorge Rim; up to 4.0 miles

Elevation gain: Up to 500 feet

Difficulty: moderate

Contact: BLM Burns Office 

Access: From Burns, Oregon travel 60 miles south to Frenchglen. Take Steens Mountan Loop Road for 23 miles. Proceed .5 mile to Kiger Gorge Overlook.

Notes: Water limited; be aware of electrical storms

Good to Know: Dog-friendly, exceptional wildflowers, exceptional solitude,



A lone hiker enjoys the view into Kiger Gorge.

Distances are grand and settlements are few in Oregon’s southeast corner. A land many wet-siders deem harsh and barren, countless surprises exist for those who explore it. Dubbed “Oregon’s outback,” by local Chambers of Commerce, I refer to it as the state’s “Big Empty.” Empty in people that is: for it’s far from void of flora and fauna-and far from featureless, too. It’s ringed in ridges, cut by canyons, and streaked by streams. But, it’s Steens Mountain that commands the most attention.

Thirty miles long and reaching a height of 9,733 feet, Steens is an impressive and imposing natural feature. The longest fault block mountain in Oregon, Steens appears gentle and broad from the west. But its eastside plunges 5,000 sheer vertical feet into the Alvord Desert. Steens’ four immense U-shaped gorges, results of past glaciations, are even more awesome.

             The most dramatic of Steens’ giant clefts, Kiger Gorge is 2,000 feet deep and adorned with a spectacular notch on its sheer eastern wall. From the overlook, hike east (no formal trail) along the open rim for spiraling views down into the canyon. If you dare, hike west and take a primitive trail dropping precipitously to the canyon floor.

Owing to its lofty height, Steens traps more moisture than the surrounding plains, helping it support cedar, aspen and mountain mahogany on its high slopes. Wildflowers, many endemic, paint the mountain in a profusion of colors come late spring. Creeks cascade down ravines and snow lingers well into summer on its northern slopes.


Early summer, desert wildflowers add brilliant colors to Steens Mountain.

A wide array of wildlife flourishes on Steens, too. Here, the deer and the antelope play. Wild horses, too. Coyotes, jackrabbits and the elusive kit fox live in this wild corner of Oregon. Before becoming a conservation area, Steens was the domain of Basque, Welsh, and Irish sheepherders; then the grazing grounds for ranchers. Relics of Steens’ past exist scattered across the mountain, including structures that belonged to Peter French, who at one time controlled the largest cattle ranch in America.

In 2000, 170,000 acres of Steens was classified as a federal wilderness area. The Steens Mountain Loop Road, a 49 mile graveled Bureau of Land Management (BLM) road provides access points into the wilderness. The high slopes and deep gorges of Steens make for some worthy hiking, but beware; trails here are primitive and often unmarked.

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For great family-friendly ideas on where to stay and other places to play near Steens Mountain consult Northwest TripFinder.Snohomish-NEW

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