OUTDOORS - Steens Mountain views are jaw-dropping

Amazing views are afforded from Steens Mountain despite smoke from recent wildfires

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A glacier carved Kiger Gorge to a depth of one-half mile.

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A BLM spokesperson says the green circle may be an alfalfa or hay field.

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Big Indian Gorge runs southwest from near Steens Mountain summit.

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Despite the smoke, East Rim views stretch eastward, with what a BLM spokesperson said was either an alfalfa or hay field in the mid-distance.

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Despite visible forest-fire smoke, the view from Steens East Rim stretches across the Alvord Desert.

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Nora leads the scenic half-mile hike to the Steens Mountain Summit.

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Visitors see this view of a glacier-carved canyon in Steens Mountain from the South Steens Loop Road.

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Visitors stand on the edge of the half-mile deep Kiger Gorge.

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Wildflowers and pine white butterflies may flourish on Steens Mountain.

Editor's Note:

Part one of this trip to Harney County and Steens Mountain area appeared here last Wednesday.

The day after Labor Day, smoke from Central Oregon wildfires limited the view from the East Rim of Steens Mountain.

Yet, my jaw dropped.

So did Darlene's.

"Wow!" she said, although she remained several feet from the precipice.

Nora, with toenails overhanging as usual, stood in silence at the scope of it all.

To our distant right spread the Alvord Desert, which once stretched for 100 miles north and south, barely visible in the smoke, yet awesome.

Sheepshead Mountains rose farther to the east in diffused silhouette. Sadly, the name derived from the original California Bighorn Sheep being decimated by "sheep scap" from domestic sheep that littered the mountains with Bighorn skulls.

To our left lay a large green circle (later tabbed as either an alfalfa or a hay field by a BLM spokesperson) and a receding succession of shadowy buttes.

"Better late than never," I said.

We had intended to look across the Alvord playa from this nearly 10,000-foot height in the spring, but snow clogged the access road.

According to one Internet site (Google Steens Mountain Oregon), "Steens Mountain is the largest fault-block mountain in North America. Pressure under the Earth's surface thrust the block upward approximately 20 million years ago, resulting in a steep eastern face with a more gentle slope on the western side."

The flat, white Alvord playa lies at 4,000 feet above sea level, 5,733 feet below the summit of the 30-mile-long Steens.

Anyway, at 7:33 that morning we had headed south on Highway 205 from Burns. I outwrestled the impulse to stop at Malheur Lake to watch birds. So, at 8:51 and 60 miles later, we slowed to a crawl on the dry, dust-choking gravel road that climbs for 24 miles up the mountain from Frenchglen to the East Rim.

I stopped once to photograph a red-tail hawk on a shrub, and near the Fish Lake turnoff (17 miles up) we encountered serious road-repair work, which lasted for several miles.

At the 8,800-foot level, we paused to study the sweep of the west slope and to let Nora test the terrain.

Bunchgrass, sagebrush, mountain mahogany, aspen groves and juniper trees spread across the slopes, along with knotweed, false hellebore and countless fall blossoms.

With the summit in view, we turned off to Kiger Gorge, our first truly awesome view from the mountain.

According to the Internet: "During the Ice Age, glaciers formed in the major stream channels on the mountain. These glaciers dug trenches about one-half mile deep, through layers of hard basalt. The result was four immense U-shaped gorges - Kiger, Little Blitzen, Big Indian and Wildhorse."

Nora and I bustled to peer over the edge into Kiger Gorge where the famous Kiger Mustangs roam.

Or did.

Alas, I didn't see any.

Nora bounded around, introducing herself to a dozen people scattered along the rim as if she hadn't seen anyone in weeks.

I pointed to the gap in the east wall, visible from miles away on the Malhuer refuge.

"Nora, see the gap," I said. "In a long-ago time, a small glacier in Mann Creek Canyon eroded through the ridge-top to create it."

She walked away as I talked.

We soon continued to the East Rim, and after ogling the awesome view, we drove two miles to the 9,600-foot staging area for a half-mile hike to the summit and/or a mile hike to Wildhorse Lake.

By then, the temperature on the sun-baked mountain had reached a sizzling 91 degrees.

Nora lolled her tongue as we trudged the steep 133 vertical feet to the summit on a road, the highest in Oregon, used to service a radio facility.

On top we rested and hydrated while I signed our names in a notebook found among a pile of rocks.

Back at the truck, and despite recalling an eight-mile stretch of rocky, bone-racking road, we headed west on the south loop.

Surprise!

Not only did we enjoy the stunning views of Big Indian and Little Blitzen gorges, the shock-knocking road had been 'dozed and spread with oversized gravel.

Smooth.

After passing the South Steens Campground, however, we rolled through nine miles of the nastiest wash-boarded gravel ever created. I clinched my jaws to avoid biting off my tongue.

We reached the paved road 10 miles from Frenchglen at 1:42 p.m. and reached the hotel well before it stopped serving lunch at 2:30.

We parked in the shade of a cottonwood tree. While Nora dined on kibbles and treats in the shade, I waded into a thick tuna sandwich and a cup of chicken soup. Darlene stowed away a bacon-cheese hamburger with fries. We each saved bites for Nora.

A red haze lay in the distance as we headed toward Burns.

Editor's Note:

Part three of this trip to Harney County and the complete Blitzen River Valley Auto Tour will appear here next Wednesday.

Contact Don Davis at dondavis@wwub.com. More of Don's photos can be found online at www.tripper.smugmug.com .

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