Steens Mountain

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By: Bob Michael


Loneliest Place In The Lower 48:
Southeast Oregon’s
“Empty Quarter”
and Steens Mountain (9,733’)

The blankest spot on the map left in the contiguous United States is the desert southeast quadrant of Oregon.

On the way to nowhere; far from population centers; offering few resources anybody could make a living on, that part of the state is mostly empty space even on road maps. With place names like Wagontire, Guano Valley, Blizzard Gap, Stinkingwater Pass and the Donner und Blitzen River, this despoblado had long intrigued me. The clincher was a National Geographic photo essay on the Oregon desert a few years back that included the fascinating tidbit that some arbitrary point out there is the furthest in the lower 48 you can be from an Interstate highway. And reality did not disappoint. My fellow explorer, George Quinn, also a geologist who has poked around some mighty forlorn parts, agrees: Southeast Oregon is the loneliest, emptiest, most forgotten outback left in this overpopulated country. Lonelier than central Nevada. Emptier than Wyoming. (Never thought I’d say that.) As different from the damp, green, thoroughly civilized Oregon of Portland, Eugene, and Mt. Hood as Badwater is from the Del Norte County Redwoods.

Mid-September seemed like the perfect time to explore this country, missing summer’s heat yet not cutting it too close to winter in this far northern locale. Quinn and I met at the airport in Boise — the closest major airport — rented a 4WD, and headed into the outback via a scenic dirt-road jog over the Owyhee Mountains in the southwest corner of Idaho, past the lively “ghost” town of Silver City. (There are some named summits over 8,000’ in this range, but our schedule didn’t allow time for the “coup” of an IDAHO Desert Peak.) The back side of the road over the Owyhees comes down into Jordan Valley, Oregon, populated largely by Basques who seem to be among the few people tough enough to make a living in this country — one of the biggest structures in town is the jai alai fronton in the little city park.

Another day of exploring in a generally westward direction brought us to the base of ~ great topographic landmark of southeast Oregon. Perhaps surprisingly, given its remoteness, it’s a near-driveup — not just for our 4WD but for Grandma’s Buick. Still, it’s one of the most extraordinary desert mountains in this country, and well worth a write-up.

Overall, southeast Oregon is notably less mountainous than Nevada just to the south; the prevalence of the basin-and-range block faulting which has sculpted almost the whole state of Nevada decreases sharply north of the state line. A remarkable exception to the general picture is Steens Mountain (singular). One of the biggest single fault blocks in the West, after the Sierra, it is a north-northeast-trending asymmetric upthrust some 60 miles in length — the biggest thing between the Cascades and Idaho. With its gentle west slope and sheer east face, it’s a structural analogue of the Sierra but made of somber layered basalt (the universal rock of southeast Oregon) instead of granite. The east side falls 5,000 feet in a fierce and hostile escarpment to the perfect playa of the Alvord Desert. The broad west side is so gentle that any car can drive a good BLM graveled road to within half a mile and 150 vertical feet of the summit.

From the tiny historic settlement of Frenchglen, in a lush oasis valley well watered by runoff from Steens, the road climbs very gently for many miles through juniperdotted grassland. Higher up, scattered aspen groves were just beginning to blaze with fall color. Aspen segues to spare alpine tundra at about 9,000 feet. The road passes a U-shaped glacial canyons which were carved by valley glaciers many miles long into the otherwise featureless western slope. How remarkable to see this massive glaciation on a sere desert range! Must come from being so very far north.

At the point where the south loop road turns west to descent to the valley south of Frenchglen, a well-signed spur road branches south two miles to a parking spot. The last little bit to the top is on a closed, very rough 4WD track. There is the inevitable radio installation atop the high point of Harney County, Oregon. Haze degraded the distance views. Close at hand to the southwest on a tundra-clad bench glittered Wildhorse Lake in the vast cirque at the head of yet another great U-shaped canyon (this one facing almost due south, no less!) To the east, forbidding crumbling black and brown cliffs and ledges tumbled a mile to the Alvord Desert. We shared this exalted spot with a few nice folks; because of the good road and the mountain’s prominence, this is one of the few places in southeast Oregon you will see other people.

We drove down the south side of the loop back to the main valley road. Part of the south loop was rougher than the north loop we came up, and a Buick might have bottomed out in a few places. We eventually linked up with the road that runs south from the Alvord Desert towards Denio, Nevada. The night, we stayed in the surprisingly cushy four-unit motel in the family-run “town” of Fields, Oregon, the biggest city in hundreds and hundreds of square miles. That night, sage- and rainscented wind lashed the trees, and the clouds we had seen building to the west all day drummed rain on the roofs. Those raindrops would have found very few other roofs between the northeast corner of California and Boise.

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