Steens Mountain is a high mountain peak at an elevation of 2.968m (9,737ft) above the sea level, located in Harney County, in the southeastern part of the U.S. state of Oregon. Steens Mountain is traversed by a 52-mile (84 km) loop road, most of which is suitable for passenger vehicles. It’s said to be the highest mountain road of Oregon.
Located within the Steens Mountain Wilderness, the road to the summit is called Steens Mountain Loop Road (Steens Mountain Backcountry Byway). It reaches an elevation of 9,700 feet. A gated road (closed to the public) goes right to the top, at 9,734 feet to service an array of communications towers. The peak isn’t quite sublime, however, because cell phone and radio towers, along with propane tanks, are present. The peak was renamed in 1860 for United States Army Major Enoch Steen, who fought and drove members of the Paiute tribe off the mountain.
The road is a spectacular gem in the high desert. Avoid driving in this area if unpaved mountain roads aren't your strong point. Stay away if you're scared of heights. This track can get very muddy and slippery after rain making it challenging to get through. During and after a storm the road may be impassable, even with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The road is bumpy in places, but much of the 50 miles of the loop road surface has been upgraded and improved in recent years, except for one short, narrow, steep section of the road near the viewpoints of Big Indian and Little Blitzen gorges. It can be driven by standard vehicles. Passenger cars shouldn’t have any trouble. The gravel is generally good throughout the route. It’s usually open from mid-June to October. Snow can remain on the Steens Mountain Loop Road into the summer, delaying the opening of the full loop. The zone is prone to heavy mist and can be dangerous in low visibility conditions. Weather conditions – the mountain’s high elevation can cause rapid temperature changes. Blustery, 100-degree days are common and snow can fall year-round. Be prepared for sudden lightning storms, snow, rain, and high winds. The road provides spectacular views of the region, including Wildhorse Lake and Keigor Gorge. The road also provides access to Steens Summit and the Riddle Brothers Ranch National Historic District campgrounds.
Due its unique location and the climb in elevation over thousands of feet, and passing through remote areas, it is important when driving in these conditions to be prepared. The Steens Mountain Loop Road departs the tiny, historic town of Frenchglen and climbs up Oregon’s eighth-tallest mountain on a tour of massive gorges, vast panoramas and one of the most spectacular lakes in the Pacific Northwest. This is an exquisite winding mountain drive with sharp and blind curves and hairpin switchbacks leading the traveler over the mountains. Be aware of ticks, mosquitoes, and rattlesnakes in certain areas during spring and summer. High quality tires are a must for all vehicles, even when traveling on maintained routes. Located in Oregon's high desert, the area is the premier recreation destination in Southeast Oregon and an iconic part of the Oregon's High Desert landscape. There are many excellent photo opportunities. Don't forget your camera with lots of film/memory, fully charged batteries and an empty memory card! The drive offers an extraordinary landscape of volcanic uplifts, deep glacier-carved gorges, stunning scenery, wilderness, wild rivers, and a rich diversity of plant and animal species.
Pic: Jared McCullough