Steens Mountain is a mighty fault-block edifice that rises dramatically from its surroundings. You might hear a stray reference to “The Steens” and think it’s a mountain range, but there’s really just the one – and it’s huge one. Here’s an idea of the scale: At the top of the mountain’s loop road, you’re standing at nearly 10,000 feet, looking down at the Alvord Desert, almost exactly vertically below you at around 4,000 feet. That’s more than a mile, nearly straight down. It’ll make your jaw drop.
This grueling but extreme-adventurous 276-mile loop takes you around and on top of Steens. You’ll come away with an up-close-and-personal appreciation for the scale of this geologic goliath, with its glacier-carved valleys, aspen groves, pure-water lakes and views to forever.
And Steens is not the only wonder you’ll experience; there’s also the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the aforementioned Alvord Desert, and the milkshakes in Fields.
Start in the tiny community of Frenchglen, where the historic hotel is now run as a state park. If you want one last hit of civilization before heading out into the wilderness, book a room here (you can also camp on the lawn) and enjoy a family-style meal or two.
You can ride this loop in either direction, but for the sake of this description let’s assume you want to save the most stupendous views for later in the trip. So head north out of Frenchglen up Highway 205 to get warmed up; after almost 18 miles of pavement, veer off the highway toward Diamond (even smaller than Frenchglen, but another great historic hotel/restaurant) and then onto the first stretch of the many, many miles of unpaved road you’ll experience.
As you head north on this lonely road, you’ll find a new level of depth for the phrase “wide-open spaces” – the horizon can seem might far away out here.
Eventually you’ll make it to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, home to tens of thousands of birds who stop here on their long migratory voyages. Here the road turns west, and when you reach The Narrows there’s a store if you’re feeling like something cold to drink – and you probably will.
You’re back on 205, and this time it looks like a causeway as it bisects two shallow lakes (water levels are quite seasonal; no guarantees on how much you’ll see here). As you’re pedaling along, tune in to the chorus of bird calls and see how many distinct ones you can distinguish.
About 8.5 miles up the road – and it’s arrow-straight through here – you’re back off the highway again, and returning to true solitude for the 13 miles between highways. You’ll connect to Highway 78 at about Mile 65, and you can roll on to Crystal Crane Hot Springs at about Mile 74. It’s a rustic resort that offers several ways to soak in a hot pool, plus camping and a store.
A note: From here to Fields, it’s a long and typically hot stretch of riding – just over 100 miles, so carry two days’ worth of water with you.
Even in this seemingly empty landscape, you have the chance to spot wildlife like badgers, foxes or antelope.
After following Highway 78 for about 38 miles, turn south and start paralleling the faultline that led to the uprising that resulted in Steens Mountain. Mann Lake (Mile 137) offers a camping spot to split the distance from Crystal Crane to Fields.
The landscape to your west has been gradually taking up a higher spot on the horizon, and after you leave Mann Lake you’ll be below the main bulk of Steens, at the same time as you spill out into the Alvord Desert. A true desert isn’t something you come across too often, but this expanse that’s more akin to the Bonneville Salt Flats than the Gobi or Sahara, is one very large piece of flatness.
In the midst of this vastness is Alvord Hot Springs, if you’re feeling like a relaxing soak to soothe your muscles. Next up is the tiny ranching outpost of Fields, where the drive-in is renowned for both their food and their ice cream – and not just because it’s the only option for a very long way in any direction.
The climb up and west from Fields on Highway 205 will give you a miniature preview of what you’ll encounter scaling Steens later on. And once you turn right onto the Loop Road (Mile 220), your world starts turning upward – the first climb gains about 1,000 feet over 7 miles.
Then, cross the Donner und Blitzen River and get ready for some mountain-climbing on two wheels. Over 12 miles, you’ll climb about 4,400 feet – but the scenery will distract you, as you ascend the ridge between the Little Blitzen and Indian gorges; make sure to stop for every viewpoint along here.
When the hard work ends, you’ll be at the top of the road, at over 9,500 feet, looking back down on that desert you camped in, and the road you pedaled, far below. Talk about seeing what you just climbed.
As you crest and start downhill, take the time to stop for Kiger Gorge, perhaps the most magnificent of the glacial gorges carved into this mountain. Odds are good if you have sharp enough eyes (or binoculars) you’ll see elk on the canyon floor thousands of feet below – and you might even spy the famous Kiger Mustangs, a legendarily beautiful band of wild horses that roam this remote part of the state.
On the way down, Fish Lake offers a nice campground – and the chance to catch your dinner. The road can be rough on the descent, with some washboarding, but it’s a small price to pay for seeing the land you’re riding through.
Notes: Consider the timing of your journey: There’s almost no shade in this area that routinely hits 90 degrees, and water is extremely limited. While spring and fall are your best bets, the mountain Loop Road is only open certain months of the year – typically August and September – so you’ll want to check on that before starting out. The mountain loop is also the only truly rough riding.
A standard touring bike with wider tires (35c to 38c) will work nicely.