Camping in the Steens Mountains, Oregon

Sometimes, you just have to get away from it all. Or at least away from certain parts of “it all.” With summer coming to an end, XY and I and the dog decided to head for the hills. Or more accurately, the mountains.

Eastern Oregon might be considered an acquired taste. (It tastes a little like volcanic ash and sage.) It’s not as imposing as Mt. Hood. It’s not as lush as the Cascades. It’s not as easy as the coast. But if you like your drama on the high and dry side, Eastern Oregon is delightful.

Steens Mountain Oregon camp

We chose the Steens Mountains in Eastern Oregon because we’ve done the area before, but the weather was not ideal (i.e. rain, snow, mud, ice) and we wanted to try it again. Weirdly, we managed to arrive exactly three years to the day back at the same place.

We showed up at camp in the afternoon, just in time for dinner.

cooking camp stew

Dinner was — as it always is — camp stew, which is homegrown tomatoes, peppers, beans, and squash with onions and whatever else is floating in the cooler. The tomatoes glow in the late afternoon light.

The sliver moon set early so we had great star watching. The Milky Way cut a pale swath across the sky and little shooting stars made us go “Ooh!” often enough that we started to sound like owls. Travel-induced weariness finally sent us to bed where we lay ourselves down to sleep… only to discover a slow leak in the inflatable mattress.

Steens outhouseAdmittedly, the tough guys out there will be, like, “Inflatable mattress? That ain’t camping!” (These are the same people who think this two-holer we discovered up in the hills above our campsite is the height of luxury. It’s even got one seat! Never mind the lean. Or the eerie darkness under the floorboards…) But ever since we started bringing a mattress, I’m a fan. Being OFF the ground when sleeping ON the ground is waaaaay better.

fix a flat mattressUnfortunately, the loss of such luxury is devastating. In a moment of brilliance (or was that the headlamp?) XY suggests using our Fix-A-Flat to attempt to repair the hole. So hope, ingenuity and some cursing, we sallied forth… and failed miserably. Oh well. I think if we’d used up all our Fix-A-Flats we might have managed to find the hole, but then you just KNOW we’d get a flat car tire.

Steens camping morning view

After a rough night in close communion with numerous small rocks that grew mysterious larger in the night, we woke to this view from the tent. Lovely! Desert sun is even prettier through dappled leaves and the babble of the brook was absolutely wonderful. And it was just chilly enough to justify hot cocoa for breakfast!

However, the morning view was quickly eclipsed by a menacing dark cloud…

begging dog with donettes

Ha! As if I’m going to share my delicious chocolate Donettes with a dog! Hostess could go out of business again at any moment and I could be left flat. Flatter than an air mattress with a slow leak! Donettes are the perfect camp breakfast. The sugar gets you up and out of bed, and I ask you, how many baked goods can last a week in the desert without appreciably changing taste?

But in the interests of fairness, I did share my Donettes. Although of course I had to eat all the chocolate off of them before she could have any. I’m a good dog owner like that.

Big Indian Gorge Steens Oregon

Properly fueled, we headed out on our first hike into Big Indian Gorge. Although some trail sites say this hike is for experienced outdoorsmen, I’d disagree. I am not an experienced outdoorsman. (See above references to inflatable mattresses and Donettes.) Reasonably sturdy walkers with a good sense of when they are “half tired” will do fine.

hiking essentials snacks

As always, I carried what I consider the most crucial hiking gear: peanut M&Ms, Kashi dark choco mocha almond bars, mint choco Milano cookies & Trader Joe’s dark choco mints & mini choco chip cookies plus Goldfish crackers (not choco, sadly) plus peaches and plums (which are healthy!) and lastly William Sullivan, who writes the best Oregon hiking books ever.

Big Indian Gorge Steens aspen

Of the handful of hikes in the Steens, I think Big Indian Gorge is rightly considered the most impressive of the bunch. With an ever-changing landscape of scrubby sage and fragrant juniper to elegant aspen and towering cottonwoods and back again, with sections of hot sun and cool streamside, this hike brings all your senses alive.

rabbitbrush and Indian paintbrush

In September, most of the colors are more muted. Only the rabbitbrush still blooms with any abandon, although we caught a few last splashes of scarlet in the Indian paintbrush, and in cooler, damper spots, we found a few purple asters.

We walked the full 13 miles to Cottonwood Camp and back, which is far for us. We usually spend too much time dawdling, poking around, snacking, looking for cool rocks, taking pictures, and after-lunch napping to cover much ground.

Big Indian Gorge hike

By the time we turned around, the daylight was slanting low. You definitely feel the rhythms of the earth more when you are walking it. And sleeping on it, of course.

The next day, feeling complacent about our 13 miles the day before, we decided on a lazier overland walk to Mud and Ankle Creeks. We weren’t sure how far we’d get, and we really didn’t care.

If you are a hiker reading this post, I’d like to advocate for taking more time to fill out the registration forms at the start of wilderness area hikes. It drives XY nuts that I always stop before we’ve even really started (for non-hikers, the registration kiosks ask for dates of entry and exit, number in party, purpose of visit, destination, etc.) but hey, I’m a reader and a writer, and I love to see what notes others have left. One of the registration forms had hikers walking, surveyors, hunters scouting, and a foursome on a vision quest. But the vision questers didn’t make any notes on their return! How frustrating! So, please, if you’re hiking out, leave a little note for posterity. And for me.

Mud Ankle Creek crossing

Here’s a tip for other Steens hikers: Because there are several stream crossings in most of the hikes we did, we always brought our flip-flops along so we could wade without having to risk wet boots. This late in the season, the water was cold but not painfully so, and the rocks were not at all slippery. You’d think late summer  in the desert would mean the water would be low enough to rock hop across, but really, the puzzle of suitable rocks rarely lined up for an easy crossing. I much preferred wading. Plus, of course, it’s fun.

Mud Ankle Creek meadow

Pretty meadows full of curious birds that watched over our lunch stop and the little rivulet that is Mud Creek make this a peaceful walk. Not glamorous — it’s named the Mud/Ankle Creek Trail, after all — but we hadn’t brought our ballgowns anyway. Though we didn’t add many miles — only 6 or so — they were good miles. And we didn’t see anyone else all day.

Steens Mountain Loop Road overlook

The next day, I wanted to do the Steens Mountain Loop Road. The last time we’d been up in the area, the road (or the steep “Rooster Comb” section that climbs toward the peak) had been closed. Apparently it washes away with alarming frequently and must be frequently rebuilt. Luckily, this year it was smartly graveled. Shout out to the road crew that does such beautiful work. The Rooster Comb offers amazing views… that I absolutely FORBID XY from enjoying since the drop-off is stomach-churningly steep. Fortunately there are a few overlooks where we could stop and look over. And down. Down down down. Gulp.

Wildhorse Lake

After the Rooster Comb section, the loop road winds up toward Steens Peak, but we took the turn-off to Wildhorse Lake. The Wildhorse Lake Trail drops down down down 1200′ in 1 1/4 miles. As a fair-weather, lazy hiker, I tend to get mulish after 10 miles or 1000′ elevation gain/loss, so this one made me gulp again. Ooh, but this tempting view of the little jewel of a lake was irresistible. So down down down we went.

Wildhorse Lake stream

Along the way, a charming little stream peeked in and out of the rugged rocks. I will say, this hike is not one I would do with inexperienced walkers. While it wasn’t technical or anything like that, there was one short stretch of sketchy footing (steep, slippery, and sheer) that would make me nervous for a child or other potentially unsteady person.

Steens Mountains drama dogAlso, if you are hiking with a dog, I would strongly suggest bringing dog boots. I didn’t for this hike and regretted it. While I would not have booted her for the main part of the climb (I think it is more important for her to have full gripping power with her toes on uneven footing) I would have booted her for the time we spent hanging out and having lunch. The volcanic rocks are very sharp all on their own and there was a black lichen that seemed even more sharp than the rocks.

Steens Mountains sleepy dogNot that Monster Girl cared, of course. With a ton of rodent burrows and coyote scat to sniff, plus a lake to swim in (and dead fish to try to roll in) this was Dog Heaven. Especially once I made a nest for her AND shared my ham sandwich (shout out #2 goes to Otto’s in Portland for the most excellent ham) because I felt so damn guilty about not bringing her boots.

Wildhorse Canyon

It really was quite heavenly, and not only because I figured I’d probably die down there rather than hike the 1200′ straight up.

If you do go to the effort of the descent, don’t just stop at the lake, which is beautiful enough, it’s true. Continue around the lake to the left and hop up on the rocks so you can look down Wildhorse Canyon. There’s a hanging valley with silvery brooks meandering through with a view of more mountains beyond. Though of course photographs don’t do it justice, It looked like a Valley That Time Forgot in the Land of the Lost at the Journey to the Center of the Earth. Or something.

Wildhorse Lake trail

It was utterly worth the lung-busting, leg-burning climb out.

Feeling quite, quite satisfied with ourselves after that outdoorsman-like feat of hiking (and fretting a bit over Monster Girl’s poor paws) we decided the next day to do a goal-less meander down Little Blitzen Gorge.

Little Blitzen Gorge trail

Like a milder cousin of Big Indian, Little Blitzen doesn’t have quite the impact but the terrain was different enough to be engaging, with horsehair ferns in the wetter areas and deciduous trees just starting to hint at fall color to come.

(I’ve read warnings about rattlesnakes here, which we’ve seen before in Eastern Oregon. None on this trip, I’m glad to say, but it did look like rattlesnake country. So watch your feet and your dog’s feet.)

hiking lunch rain

Because apparently none of our trips to the Steens would be complete without at least a touch of inclement weather (Note to self: There is NEVER an excuse not to bring your rain jacket. If you don’t need to wear it, use it for a pillow) lunch on our last day was punctuated by 10 minutes of torrential downpour. Fortunately, we hike with a small tarp/space blanket/picnic blanket and a bunch of bungies and binder clips, so we were able to rig up a shelter that kept us dry enough for lunch AND a nap. What more could we ask for?

hiking fun

It was a fantastic trip. Thumbs up! The memories will sustain me until our next camping trip. Or maybe I’ll just eat a Donette.