Friday, July 29, 2016

ExplOregon, June 2016 edition, part one.

So yeah, that farm internship? It didn't work out.

Luckily for us, Patrick's family offered us a roof while we worked on Plan B.

Also luckily for us, after 3+ years on the road we were in a pretty good position to deal with just about anything thrown our way. (Dear 2016, not to complain, but would you please stop throwing things at us? Or at least wait for our bruises to heal? XO, J&P.)

Most luckily for us, with unexpected FUNemployment comes unlimited opportunity... such as finally crossing Steens Mountain off our list!

Steens Mountain in Oregon's high desert is known as some of the "wildest and most remote land left in Oregon." The area features four massive glacial gorges formed during the Ice Age; wildlife and wildflowers galore; and the highest road in Oregon.

It's a pretty far drive no matter where you live, and it seems that few Oregonians actually find the time to visit. Unexpected FUNemployment for the win!

About that far drive... Eugene to Frenchglen, the nearest town to Steens, is about 300 miles. The drive gets pretty boring once you get past Bend so we'd encourage anyone making the trek to load up on coffee, Mad Libs, podcasts - whatever gets you through.

We'd also encourage anyone making the trek to take their first stretch break at Koosah Falls and Sahalie Falls off Highway 126.

exhibit A

exhibit B

(Seriously, people. They're right off the road. Just stop the next time you're eastern-bound.)

From Bend, the road mostly wove through flat ranchland. The area's major town, Burns (population: ~3000), offered basic services and, according to TripAdvisor, something called the "Harney Valley Big Ol' Flat" (we didn't ask). The only things we saw from there were cows and an almost plague-worthy swarm of grasshoppers - it was truly impressive.

scenic byway #7

cow conference
(insect-splattered windshield optional)

As we got closer to Steens the scenery improved dramatically. Before hitting Frenchglen (population: 12) for supplies, we considered stopping by Malheur National Wildlife Refuge just to reverse all the recent negativity, but the clock won so we picked up ice and headed up to Fish Lake Campground in Steens Mountain. (We'll see you someday, Malheur NWR.)

home for two nights

Fish Lake

moonrise over the mountain

As usual, we did no planning and our timing was a bit off - it was mid-June and the Tour Route doesn't open until July 1. But as usual, we didn't let that stop us! Monday morning we drove to the gate near Jackman Park Campground and hiked seven miles to our first destination, Kiger Gorge. Yep, seven miles of gently sloped, exposed road in glaring sun and constant wind.

so worth it

This U-shaped glacial gorge was formed nearly a million years ago when snow compressed into ice a thousand feet thick. It was - wait for it - GORGE-ous.

From Kiger Gorge we walked another two miles along the road, stopping here and there for photo ops.

Little Blitzen Gorge and Little Jen

obligatory feet shot

Our second destination that day was the Alvord Desert overlook - definitely worth the extra two miles! The mountain still had snow, but the spring wildflowers were in bloom and the view of the desert and beyond was pretty amazing. Rumor has it that on a clear day you can see Idaho, Nevada and California. (And Russia too! Just kidding.)

"the driest place in Oregon"

spring in the snow

The historic Alvord Ranch and several hot springs can be found a mile below. We didn't have time to take those in... We also didn't have time to hike all the way up to the Steens Mountain summit. (Okay, we did have time but after nine miles we didn't have interest.) Next time!

About two miles into our return hike, we ran into a BLM employee doing some road maintenance, and he kindly offered us a ride back to our car. We'd been mentally prepared for the full nine-mile walk but I can't say that we were sad about getting a ride instead...Thanks, karma. We owe you one.

The next day we moved to South Steens campground and spent our saved energy from the day before on an easy 8-mile return walk in Big Indian Gorge. A flat, shaded trail and three bitterly cold barefoot stream crossings led us to a stunning view of "the wall." The day before, we'd seen this bright green foliage from above at Kiger Gorge. Being up close with the trees and brush in Big Indian Gorge put a whole new perspective on things.

hello, headwall

hello, new friend

hello, wildflowers

Enthusiastic (read: crazy) hikers can follow the trail four more miles and actually climb the wall.

we opted to do this instead

For us, three days on the mountain was the perfect amount of time but avid hikers, backpackers, and fishers should probably plan a week. Of the two campgrounds, we preferred Fish Lake for its peacefulness, tucked-in campsites, and lake views - South Steens was much more crowded and open, which meant that we heard our Trump-fanatic neighbors All. Night. Long.

And since everyone seems to enjoy hearing about what we eat for dinner when we camp, I'll just say that this time we had limited cooler space and even more limited ice rations so I kept it simple.

Sunday night: salad with a view

Monday night: simple tofu stir fry

Tuesday night: perhaps a little TOO simple

More pictures start here... Until recently, I hadn't even heard of Steens Mountain. If you fall into that category too, please put it on your list. I know I keep saying that it's a long, mostly boring drive from wherever you live, but the payoff is well worth the pain of getting there!

Coming up in part two: antelopes, hot springs, Hager Mountain, and some truly crazy Oregonian geology!


  1. Sounds like a mix of a lot of work but a lot of peaceful relaxation too... Not sure how I feel about a plague worthy swarm of any insect - cool from far away where I can see them but not have to touch/ go through them I guess!

    1. Haha... The worst part about the plague drive-through was having to clean the car afterward. Yuck!