Steens Mountain Wilderness, OR

Empty Peaks

STEENS MOUNTAIN LOOP ROAD, east out of Frenchglen, Oregon (population: 9 in winter, 39 in summer), rises so gently through grasslands wild with mustangs that it's sometimes hard to imagine you're on a mountain. The Steens Mountain Wilderness is so big and unusual—an ambling "fault-block" massif cocked like a ramp 9,700 feet into the high-desert sky—that its topographical schizophrenia surprises as much as the views. On one trip, I watched thunderstorms rip across the South Dakota–style prairies of the 170,000-plus-acre wilderness and hiked Montana-esque meadows sprinkled with endemic paintbrush wildflowers. In winter, you can ski into ancient glacial valleys, or in the fall, horse­­pack­ along the gold-flecked banks of the Little Blitzen River (bring a fly rod). Check it out yourself and stay at the Hotel Diamond, a former stagecoach stop north of the mountain, though camping under the ash flows at Page Springs, a BLM campground in a valley 4,000 feet up, is always good, too. Either way, Steens is yours: So few people live in the area—just 7,000 real-life "buckaroos" in a 10,000-square-mile county—that the state still considers it frontier.

Last fall, Jake Ruhl, a backcountry-pilot buddy of mine, landed his 1954 Cessna on that road out of Frenchglen. We parked the plane under a cottonwood, hiked the U-shaped walls of Big Indian Gorge, and snoozed on rocks by the river. The next day we took off for the Alvord Desert to the east. I got out and walked aimlessly into the playa, while Jake flew south to fetch burgers and shakes from a store in nearby Fields (population: whoever is in the store).

Yeah, the frontier is fun like that.

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