Steens Mountain Loop Road: An Unforgettable Trip

Escaping the smoke of the Oregon forest fires in the fall of 2020, we drive east from Bend.

Three hours later we reach Steens Mountain.

Steens Mountain is a fault-block mountain – a large rock caused by tectonic stresses – unlike the Cascade Mountains, which are volcanos. From the base town of Frenchglen, the mountain is deceptively unassuming. It’s not until you begin your climb on the Steens Mountain Loop Road that you realize its raw beauty.

A natural wonder in the high desert of South Eastern Oregon (about 1 hour SE of Burns)

Steens Mountain is a vast, rugged wilderness, with deep glacial-carved gorges and expansive untouched terrain.  The loop road is approximately fifty miles and winds you up and down the peak of 9700′ through unspoiled land and breathtaking outlooks. At times, you could nearly touch the clouds.

We chose to do the route counterclockwise and arrived there at midday. The air was breathable but cast a yellow hue across the terrain. It’s stunning on its own, but then we came across the South Steen heard of wild horses. I will be honest; we knew there were wild horses, but our expectations were low, having spent time looking for the wild horses that roam the Outer Banks in North Carolina to no avail.

But there they were.

Living in Oregon, horses are not a rare sight, but there is something mystical about seeing them roam free, living as untamed as the wilderness that surrounds them. Believed to be the descendants of Spanish mustangs brought to the new world by conquistadors in the sixteenth century, they apparently lived undetected for centuries. Only in the 1970s were they spotted by BLM surveyors.

You might think it would be hard to top seeing wild horses, but the lookouts further up the Loop do not disappoint.  There are several lookouts (Wildhorse Lake, East Rim, Kiger Gorge, Little Blitzen, and Big Indian), and I recommend stopping at each one. Make sure your phone is fully charged, because you do not want to miss anything.

We were only there for the day and our time was too short. The loop is amazing but really only the beginning. There is so much to explore that we will definitely return.

Published by Janet