In a remote corner of southeast Oregon, generally labeled as “barren scrubland” on many maps, there is a mountain that creeps to nearly 10,000 feet, only to end in a sheer drop-off down to a starkly contrasting 4,000 foot desert below. The largest fault block mountain in the country, Steens Mountain was created by tons of pressure under the earth that pushed the block up over 20 million years ago, and in the process created an imposing behemoth in the middle of nowhere. Unique in the fact that very few trees are found on Steens Mountain and with some of the most perfect examples of glaciated valleys around, the terrain looks closer to Iceland and Alaska than it does to Central Oregon.
Intrigued by this geographic and geologic dichotomy, we made a conscious two-hour detour across sagebrush-lined, dirt BLM roads to reach the turnoff for Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area. Having heard few stories and seen little photographic evidence, we didn’t really know what to expect as we made the turn onto the 50-mile scenic gravel loop. The entire west side of Steens gradually ramps as you follow the road further east towards the unassuming summit, pass several tempting campgrounds and invasive juniper groves. With most of the views looking back behind you, down craggy valleys and of wild horse pastures, Steens slowly prepares you for the big reveal.
Eventually, the horizon ends as you find yourself on a long, north-south ridge, the blind anticipation creeping from the back of your mind while hiking towards the summit. If you’ve ever been to Crater Lake and witnessed the expanse that opens as you reach the crest, that is probably the closest thing to compare it to. What you’re about to witness is nothing short of breathtaking, also literally in the fact that you’re on the 8th highest mountain in Oregon, at over 9,000 feet.
Looking over the edge, down into the Alvord Desert over 6,000 feet below, the view is closer to looking out of an airplane window than that of a typical peak. Even though it’s mid-August, between the wind and the elevation, puffy jackets and beanies were pulled out after we took some time to stare out into the void. While a gusting wind blew up from the valley below, we watched countless hawks effortlessly cruising the thermals in the hunt for rodents. Way down in the expansive valley below, the few farms, roads and perfect green crop circles look miniature.
Being on the summit of Steens Mountain feels like you’re standing on the edge of the earth. Or maybe this is what it feels like to be on top of the world? But visiting Steens is more than a way to catch a glimpse into a prehistoric past and escape the bustling National Park crowds. Sure it was nearly empty of tourists and over a hundred miles from the closest amenities, but the reason was bigger than that. Visiting Steens gave us a moment of perspective, the time to realize there are bigger events happening in the world, and the acceptance that there are some things we will never have control over.
- Chris Zimmerman