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Steens Mountain Loop Rd s(u)

I feel a little torn about this one. This dirt road goes over some of the most unusual and incredible scenery in Oregon and the western US. There is hardly any traffic. But it also involves, what must be the worst washboard surface anywhere. In a civilized world this would be a paved road. But then again - the civilized world is over 70 miles distant from the summit, assuming you want to attach any kind of label, let alone this one, to the pleasant agricultural town Burns. .... and looking on the bright side, having a mountain range above a shining white salt dessert to yourself for the ride, does have its own appeal. I met one other cyclist on this route - a great proponent and enthusiast of biking this road, also working as campground caretaker together with his wife in the area.

1.(00.0m,4260ft) START-END North-1:Steens Mtn Loop Rd crosses Blitzen river at campground turnoff
2.(13.8m,7410ft)turnoff to Fishlake and its campground
3.(19.3m,8850ft)turnoff to Kiger Gorge viewpoint
4.(22.3m,9550ft)TOP: turnoff to East Rim viewpoint and Steens Summit
5.(45.0m,5590ft)profile turns right onto paved Or205
6.(62.3m,4210ft)profile turns right onto Steens Mtn Loop Rd
7.(65.3m,4260ft)START-END NORTH-2: same as point1


From North-1: The location marked in big bold letters on Oregon maps as Frenchglenn, turns out to be a hotel, with all the supporting infrastructure that it takes when you are 59 miles from a town.

Just south of there a dirt road with a prominent BLM sign, marked Steens Mtn Rd and Fish Lake Rd turns off to the south, and descends a little on a slightly inclined plane, in order to cross Donner and Blitzen River. And that is actually where the profile starts. There is also a pay BLM campground without water, hiding in the crack of a thick layer of lava or basalt here.

The road starts to climb gently and I keep a lookout for Steens Mtn. But I don't see it, and suspect that it is hidden in the haze somewhere. After returning to this spot after the ride, I now know, that Steens Mountain from this location is the almost unrecognizable lip of rock, barely rising above the horizon in the distance. Maybe it is good thing, that I did not know, because the oppressing September heat and the extreme washboard surface make progress slow, and there is not that much to look at.


After several miles of variably steep climbing the road reaches another BLM fee campground. This one is grouped around  peaceful Fish Lake. If you just stay at the shore of the lake, you get the impression, that it could be also located in Wisconsin somewhere. That's how planar the scenery appears to be. Wrong impression ! The road just keeps climbing over gentle waves of grass-scape.

Suddenly it becomes apparent that the road runs along the rim of a plateau, that falls off with perfectly vertical walls onto a deep and stark, U shaped canyon.

All the viewpoints are located a short distance away from the loop road, and require a little additional climbing that is not included in the profile. The first one of these over Kiger Gorge includes something special to look at, for this plateau range: a sharp ridge. Glaciers on both sides carved almost vertical walls, and their tops meet for a short distance, before the range resumes its plateau character on both sides.

It soon becomes apparent that the road follows this strip of a plateau around the head of a canyon. The canyon itself is a perfectly U shaped gigantic raingutter, the canyon carved by Little Blitzen River. The little refers to the river, which is nowhere to be seen on this dry September day.

The top of the loop road is located at the intersection with the short access road to East Rim Viewpoint. At this intersection another road branches off to the plainly visible transmission facility. It is labeled as Steens Summit. The last part of the Steens Summit out and back route is a foot trail that was previously also used by small motor vehicles. The highest point is only about 200ft higher than the loop road summit. But the view is quite different, because it includes the canyons falling off to the south. Nestled between the canyons on the south side likes an almost unbelievably big lake for such a dessert range: Wildhorse Lake.

Back to the loop road: access to the East Rim viewpoint is much shorter, just a couple of hundred yard. Below lies a white plain floating in the haze, the Alvord dessert. The range falls off in craggy ridgelines with barely any vegetation

SLIDESHOW1: Steens Mountain Loop Road

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From North-2: (described downwards). For the first several kms of the descend the road builders picked, what must surely be the most spectacular location for a road in the Steens canyons. The road runs on a roughly half km wide erosional surface between Little Blitzen Gorge and Big Indian Creek Gorge. Even after taking in the many dazzling views along the plateau, the last one is a kind of extreme example of this vertical block landscape.

Finally the erosional surface ends and on the west side the road manages to find gentler slopes to descend, but not before one last traverse along the high plateau presents and a plethora of views showing off Big Indian Creek Gorge like a bowling alley.

At the bottom of this set of switchbacks the road passes South Steens campground, the only point along the road where water is available. Past this point the already extreme washboard character of the road becomes even more extreme -and worse the road starts climbing again gently. The good side of this is, that after the small climb you actually get some descend views of the Steens Mtns from a distance. This really is one range where the designation plateau and range would fit equally. It is shaped like a cubistic impression of a coffin.

This second section of the ride back to Or205 is easily underestimated, when looking at the route on the map. Finally 8 miles of sweetly paved road lead north back to the Frenchglenn Hotel. One of the biggest surprises of the loop comes before reaching it. After endless miles of straight road, or at least spotting parts of the road in the distance half an hour before reaching it, Or205 suddenly turns right and descends unexpectedly for at a grade of 12 to 14 percent. The view during the descend is the vast inclined alluvial plane, leading up towards the Steens mountains. It is so vast and shallow, that it is disorienting from a bike with screeching brakepads. The profile continues down the northern Steens Mtn Rd to the low point where the profile starts.

Dayride with this point as highest summit:


( < Snowqualmie Pass | Adape Summit > )
Steens Mtn Loop Rd s(u) , additional out and back : Fish Lake Rd, about a mile past the lower campground > up Fish Lake Rd > Fish Lake campground > up Steens Mtn Loop Rd <> out and back to Kiger Gorge viewpoint > Steens Mtn Loop Rd s(u) <> out and back to Steens Summit as far as end of road >> <> out and back to East Rim viewpoint > down South Steens Rd > Or205 north > Fish Lake Rd east back to starting point: 72.7miles with 7520ft of climbing in 8:04hrs (garmin etrex30 m5:17.9.10).
Notes: I met one other cyclist on this loop, a caretaker of the South Steens campground and an enthusiastic and accomplished mountain biker of this area. Otherwise the traffic was confined to perhaps 20 cars on this prime touristic weekend in September.

SLIDESHOW2: sidetrip to Steens Summit

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