Steens Mountain should be on the bucket list of every trail rider in the Northwest. Period.
Yes, I know, it’s a long way from where you live. But the riding is fabulous, the camping facilities are nice, and the scenery is not only breathtaking, it’s unlike anyplace else in the Northwest.
Steens Mountain, located in southeastern Oregon, is the largest fault block mountain in the Great Basin. Eons ago, enormous pressure under the earth’s crust pushed up one side of an existing fault line, creating the jagged east face of Steens Mountain, which towers nearly a mile above the Alvord Desert below. On the west side, Steens Mountain slopes down more gradually, and over time the western side was carved by glaciers that created the Big Indian, Little Blitzen, Kiger, and Wildhorse gorges.
Big Indian Gorge
Streams flow through these gorges today, with riparian vegetation along their banks. As you move away from the streams and toward the canyon walls looming over 1,000 feet above, the grass and cottonwoods near the creeks give way to sagebrush and rabbitbrush, junipers, and quaking aspen. Seasonal wildflowers are plentiful, and Steens Mountain is home to wild horses, antelope, bighorn sheep, deer, and elk.
You’ll find nice horse facilities at South Steens Campground, which features a horse camp on one side and a people campground on the other. The campground lies between the mouths of Big Indian Gorge and Little Blitzen Gorge, providing access to the trails that run through these U-shaped glaciated valleys.
South Steens Campground has nice facilities and provides easy access to the trails.
Big Indian Trail is the easier of the two gorge trails that are accessible from South Steens Campground. The trail begins between campsites 9 and 10 and travels about 2 miles along a rocky hillside that offers sweeping high-desert vistas. (Though the terrain is rocky, the trail is not.)
Then the trail crosses Big Indian Creek and enters the canyon, running along the creek to its source on the east end of the gorge.
The trail crosses Big Indian Creek.
In the canyon, you’ll marvel at the contrast between the lush vegetation near the creek, the belt of dry sagebrush and rabbit brush along the base of the cliffs, and the jagged majesty of the cliffs themselves. The wildflowers are spectacular in season.
You’ll find a nice picnic spot in a grove of huge cottonwoods on the grassy bank of Big Indian Creek about 7 miles from the campground. Near the east end of the gorge the trail crosses just above a waterfall that you can hike down to on foot. And if you ride all the way to the box canyon at the east end of the gorge, you’ll see waterfalls cascading off the cliffs all around you. What a splendid ride!
Trail Statistics: The Big Indian Trail is an 18-mile round trip if you go all the way to the end of the gorge. But it’s a beautiful ride no matter how far into the gorge you go, so you can so shorter rides and still experience the beauty of Steens Mountain. The elevations range from 5,300 up to 7,000 feet, depending on how far you ride. The trail is moderate difficulty, with several creek crossings. Stock water is available on the trail. The best map is BLM’s Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area map.
Getting to South Steens Campground: The campground is located about 90 miles south of Burns. Take Highway 20 through Burns and veer east on Highway 78. After 1.7 miles, turn right on Highway 205. Follow it 59 miles to the town of Frenchglen and then continue another 10 miles. Turn left on the gravel South Loop Road (the sign mentions the Upper Blitzen River), drive 19 dusty and washboardy miles through spectacular desert terrain (watch for antelope and wild burros), and turn right into the campground.
Season: Summer through fall. (Fall has spectacular colors and fewer mosquitoes.) Bring plenty of mosquito repellent if you go early in the season.
Parking and Camping Facilities: 15 equestrian sites with hitching rails, fire pits and picnic tables. Five sites have oversized corrals that can hold 2 horses. The corrals and hitching rails were built by Back Country Horsemen. Six sites are pull-throughs and the rest are back-ins. Several can accommodate 2 trailers. Potable water, toilet, garbage cans, and manure bins. Fee for overnight camping.
More Information: The Big Indian Gorge Trail is covered in more detail in the South Steens Mountain chapter of Riding Southern Oregon Horse Trails, by Kim McCarrel, Ponderosa Press, 2014).