When asked to ponder the highest points in Oregon, which place come to mind? Most certainly Mount Hood, as it is the highest and best-known. How about the highest-reaching road in Oregon? Easy, the road to Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, right? Guess again. At 6,000 feet, Timberline Lodge is a well-known and premier high-elevation destination in Oregon. However, a road exists in southeastern Oregon that reaches more than 3,700 feet higher than this: the Steens Mountain Loop Road.
Rising to almost 10,000 feet, Steens Mountain is the 6th highest peak in Oregon. It sits approximately 60 miles southeast of Burns, Oregon, near the small hamlet of Frenchglen. This is where our exploration began.
Frenchglen got its start during the big cattle ranch days of the 1800s. Peter French, a clever, aggressive cattleman from northern California came to southeastern Oregon while under the employ of Hugh Glenn, a prominent doctor, rancher, and financier. The combination of their last names lives on to this day. The centerpiece of this small community is the Frenchglen Hotel, built 100 years ago and still in operation.
The north end of the Steens Mountain Loop Road begins here. From this end, the road ascends deceptively gradually in elevation up to the summit at 9,738 feet. Along the way are Page Springs, Fish Lake, and Jackman Park campgrounds. We stayed at Jackman Park, a small, cozy campground at 8,000 feet. At this elevation, the nights cool off rapidly, even in mid-July, so bring warm clothing. The morning sunrise and fresh-brewed coffee helped us forget about the chill.
After breaking camp, we continued on toward the summit. Aspen groves quickly gave way to the sage steppe, a tapestry of lush greens and the bright colors of alpine wildflowers.
Not far beyond Jackman Park, a short spur road turns off to the left. This takes you to the Kiger Gorge Overlook. Kiger Gorge is an amazing U-shaped gorge carved from an ancient glacier. It is vast and deep.
We continued on, higher and higher. After a while, we arrived at an intersection where two short spur roads fork off, one going to the East Rim Overlook and the other to the summit. A marker resides here, casually pointing out that we had climbed impressively high.
From here, we decided to head to the summit first. The spur road goes to a turn-around area about 1/2 mile from the summit. This is the parking area for hiking to the summit or traversing down the hillside to the shore of Wildhorse Lake. The road continues to the summit, but it is gated due to the radio/microwave site at the summit. You are welcome at the summit, but your feet have to get you there.
After enjoying the views at the summit, we headed over to the East Rim Overlook, which offers equally impressive vistas as well as the potential for wildlife viewing.
It was literally all downhill from here to complete the loop road. Along the way, more spectacular scenery and views captured our attention.
After gloriously taking our time, we arrived at the southern end of the Steens Mountain Loop Road, merely 10 miles south of the beginning of the northern end in Frenchglen.
This trip is a must-do for die-hard Oregon explorers. Remember that it is a summer trip and the road has a series of gates that open as the snow-melt allows. Check with the Burns District of the Bureau of Land Management to ensure all gates are open before coming here. Believe me, it will be worth it!
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