Steens Mountain

The most stunning, unique route in Oregon

Overview

Steens Mountain is one of the most spectacular places anywhere.  The dramatic rise of this fault block mountain above the surrounding landscape and its impact on the topography, including the Alvord Desert and the Malhuer Wildlife Refuge, makes for an unforgettable experience.  Starting in Frenchglen, you’ll get to completely circumnavigate the mountain, adding in hot springs, our usual flavor of remote gravel riding, and a little taste of classic Americana as you pass through Fields.

Other highlights along the route include strange geologic features like the Borax Lake, catching sight of wild horses up on Steens Mountain, and beautiful glacier carved valleys high up on the mountain loop road.

At a glance

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Map

Details

Route

Although this falls a little closer on the spectrum toward road touring than we typically ride, this continues to be one of our all time favorite routes and it deserves more attention.  And really, if you’re riding the 60-mile mountain loop road, we think there’s enough dirt, gravel and rough riding to justify calling this a “bikepacking” route.

Theoretically you could ride the route around Steens Mountain just about any time of the year.  Unfortunately, the mountain loop road to the summit is only open for a few months, typically August and September, limiting your options if you want to ride the whole thing.  Obviously you can skip the mountain loop road and ride the rest of the route – just avoid high summer.  There is limited shade, limited water, and the temps typically are in the 90s.  It can get pretty brutal out there.

The gravel is generally good throughout the route.  The only potential pitfall is the Center Patrol Road that cuts down the middle of the Malheur Nat’l Wildlife Refuge, following the Donner und Blizten River (“Thunder and Lightning”).  It’s amazing, and completely worth riding if the gravel is in decent shape.  We’ve heard conflicting reports that it is un-rideable.  Hopefully someone whose been out there more recently can comment in the forum page for this route and update folks.  If either section of the Center Patrol Road is in bad shape, the main, paved highway runs roughly parallel to it and is an o.k. alternative.

This route can be ridden in either direction.  We originally rode it clockwise, but you may want to get the summit loop out of the way first by riding it counterclockwise.  One advantage of riding counterclockwise is the summit loop road is much more gradual on the north end.  The southern end is relatively steep and rough.  So it depends on if you’d rather ride up or down the steeper, rougher stuff.

We are aware of two options for overnight parking.  The folks at the Frenchglen Hotel have always been very accommodating when we’ve asked to leave a car parked out front for a couple days.  We’ve also parked at the Narrows RV Park, where they’ll let you leave a car parked out back for $5/day.

Check out the route forum for the most up to date information

Services & Water

Although this route looks extremely remote on a map, there are surprisingly good services available along the first half-ish of the route. Generally speaking you can expect the following:

  • Mile 0 – Frenchglen: tiny general store and the Frenchglen Hotel, which serves lunch (open to the public) and dinner (by reservation only).  We recommend eating at the hotel if you get the opportunity; it’s a great little place run by some really nice folks and the food is excellent.  And they sell beer.
  • Mile 37.5 – Refuge Headquarters: water, bathrooms
  • Mile 43.2 – The Narrows: bar/restaurant, very limited groceries and convenience store food
  • Mile 73.8 – Crystal Crane Hot Springs: very limited convenience store food
  • Mile 178.2 – Fields: Fields Station has great burgers & shakes, limited groceries and convenience store food, and a shockingly good beer selection.  Highly recommended.

Note that some services are only open seasonally.  You’ll need to research this yourself – see “Using this Site“.

Water is a serious issue between Crystal Crane Hot Spring (mile 73.8) and Fields (mile 178.2), in that there are no reliable water sources between the two and you are likely to be dry camping somewhere in between.  Do not be fooled by the “lakes” on the east side of Steens Mountain.  While several have water in them, none are drinkable.  The water is highly alkaline and not potable regardless of any filtering/treating.  You will presumably need to carry 2 days of water from Crystal Crane Hot Springs.

We marked two “possible” water sources on the GPS route between Crystal Crane and Fields.  The first is a dribble and likely only running in early spring.  It also runs straight through cattle country so it may be beyond drinkable.  The other, Alvord Creek, is much more reliable in early spring as it’s fed by snow melt off the summit of Steens Mountain.  It’s also in cattle country but seemed less tainted.  I would not rely on it unless you are riding in spring when there is still snow up on the mountain – which typically means the mountain loop will be closed.  I prefer a filter when relying on questionable water sources when cattle is involved, but we’ll leave that up to you.

There is water available at the South Steens Campground at approximately mile 240.  There are several creeks between Fields and this campground along the paved road before you begin the gravel climb up the mountain.  The first couple you come across on the southwest side of the mountain are the best and most reliable, so filling up early is your best bet.  We marked a couple of them on the GPS route.

It seems odd to include information about shade but if temps are high when you’re out there you’ll be glad to know where the limited opportunities are.  We tagged the three critical shade trees on the GPS route as you climb up and over the north end of Steens Mountain and loop south towards Fields.  They will come in pretty handy on hot days.  They are literally all there is available.

Cell service is very limited along the route.  Depending on your carrier, you may have service along the northern sections of the route and near Fields.

Camping

Camping options are limited and will largely dictate your daily mileage and overall trip pace.  The following are your options along the route:

  • Mile 0 – Page Springs Campground:  Technically this is off route, but near Frenchglen for those looking for a place to camp near the roue start/end.
  • Mile 43.2 – The Narrows RV Park:  Small RV resort with grassy tent camping, showers.  Nice place, see above for services.
  • Mile 73.8 – Crystal Crane Hot Springs:  Tent camping, cabins, showers, hot springs.  Highly recommended.
  • Mile 137.5 – Mann Lake:  Tent camping, pit toilets.  Dry camping – see above re: water issues.
  • Mile 178 – FieldsFields Station has a tiny RV area with limited tent camping and a few cabin rentals.  Tent camping is not great.  One alternative would be to fill up on food/water and ride out to the Borax Lake and camp there.  This would be interesting.  Dry camping.
  • Mile 239.4 – South Steens Campground:  Tent camping, water, pit toilets.
  • Mile 259.3 – Fish Lake Campground:  Filterable water, pit toilets.

Note that there is a fair amount of BLM land on the east side of Steens Mountain but little of it is suitable to bush camping.  We recommend sticking to the established campgrounds.

Navigation

You do not need a GPS to ride this route.  We suggest using the Benchmark Oregon Road & Recreation Atlas and supplementing it with this Steens Map.  For the map geeks we recommend the Steens High Desert Country map and the standard BLM surface maps for this area.

Borax Lake is the only place you may have trouble finding.  Ride north out of Fields on the main road until you hit the power lines at the intersection with OR-205.  Go east on the dirt power line road ~2 miles, then head north until you run into the signs and the lake.  I would recommend downloading a satellite map of the area from the internet if you plan on trying to ride out there.

Bike & Tire Selection

This is one of those routes that blurs the line between touring and bikepacking.  Ultimately, there is no perfect bike for this route and we aren’t going to strongly suggest one bike over another.  Cross bike, touring bike, bikepacking rig – it’ll all work – you just have to pick your poison.

We suggest riding at least a 35c tire, with the optimal tire size probably around 40c.  The loop road to the summit of Steens Mountain is the only truly rough riding.

Route Alternatives

There are a couple decent options to mix things up from the recommended route.  The first is the Diamond Loop.  This adds about 40 miles and quite a few interesting stops, including the Diamond Craters (unique geologic formations), the Peter French Round Barn (historic barn with small gift shop, water, and convenience store snacks), and a possible stop at the historic Diamond Hotel (hotel, lunch – open seasonally).  The Diamond Loop is about half paved and is marked as an Oregon Scenic Byway.

The other option is to skip the route section north of Malheur Lake including the Crystal Crane Hot Springs.  The only reason to do this is if you need to shorten the route, otherwise we wouldn’t recommend it.  There are a couple options if you do this: 1) ride part of the Diamond Loop, staying on the Diamond Loop Road northeast towards OR-78; and 2) ride the Center Patrol Road up to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters and head due east on Sodhouse Road until you run into OR-78.  Both are good options.

Highlights, History & Other Resources

There are a lot of really unique places along the route worth exploring. We won’t go into great detail on them all but some of the highlights we didn’t mention above include:

  • Malheur Nat’l Wildlife Refuge: The sheer quantity of wildlife in this refuge is staggering. We’ve seen foxes, badgers, antelope, owls, pelicans and tens of thousands of random birds.  People travel from all over for the world class birding.  It’s pretty spectacular, whether you’re into birds or not.
  • Secret Freemason Cave:  We aren’t going to tell you where this is because we aren’t sure whether it’s off limits.  You can find some limited information on the internet, but know it’s pretty hard to find.
  • Alvord Hot Springs:  Due to its popularity, the landowners are now charging to use the hot springs.
  • Alvord Desert:  We’ve also heard rumors of being charged to access the playa that makes up the Alvord Desert.  You can probably avoid this when traveling by bike, as there are numerous access points that are not terribly car-friendly.  Note that the Alvord Desert is ironically full of water in the spring due to snow melt from Steens Mountain.  It dries out completely later in the summer and into the fall.  When completely dry, the playa is a pretty unique place.

For anyone who enjoys obscure books, check out the slightly racist historical fiction novel “Pete French Cattle King” by Elizabeth Lambert Wood, and Eileen O’Keeffe McVicker’s memoir of growing up on the flanks of Steens Mountain, “Child of Steens Mountain”.  If you’re savvy with a map, you can actually find the spot where Ms. O’Keeffe grew up outside Fields.