Thursday, May 7, 2015

Steens Mountain, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are a great spring camping destination

Kiger Gorge 
Steens Mountain from the Alvord Desert side by Mann Lake 
Here's Steve biking the Steens Mountain Loop road from our camp to Fish Lake C.G.
You can see that there's still some snow on the top of Steens Mountain. 
We camped in the meadow below the junipers off the loop road ... 
We had the place to ourselves ... very quiet all weekend
Hi all,

Wendy and I had a fun little spring camping trip over a three-day span to Steens Mountain and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last week, and I wanted to share some highlights from our trip for those who might want to visit this unique area in Eastern Oregon.

It had been more than 10 years since I'd last visited the Steens Mountain area, but it's a place I've visited from time to time since the early 1980s. When I used to live in La Grande, Oregon, way back in the day, working for the local newspaper there, we used to head down to the Steens Mountain-Malheur NWF area every spring to go birding, hiking, hot-springing and camping.

Nowadays, you also can bike the graveled Steens Mountain Loop Road (59 miles total distance), which climbs the north slope of Steens Mountain from Frenchglen and takes you to the very top of the mountain at nearly 10,000 feet and provides access to super-cool hiking or backpacking trips in a variety of canyons.

You also could bring your road bike and cruise around the Malheur NWF on paved roads or ride from Frenchglen to Burns or vice-versa, if you're so inclined. Since I'm training for the Lyle Pearson 200 in late May, I decided to crank out the 60-mile route from Frenchglen to Burns, and really enjoyed it -- mainly because I didn't have a bad headwind. : - )

Camping - Page Springs Campground is a beautiful spot in the springtime near Frenchglen, Oregon. I was expecting to camp there for our trip, but then they opened the Steens Mountain Loop Road before we arrived, so we were able to find a cool meadow to camp in near the loop road about six miles from Frenchglen. We brought all the stuff we needed for self-support car camping. There's also cool digs at Fish Lake Campground and Jackman Park (higher-elevation sites).

Steens Mountain Loop Road 
The Frenchglen Hotel has a limited number of rooms, if you'd prefer to stay in a cozy bed. Make your reservations well in advance. The hotel is popular with birders and fills up quickly.

Birding - Wendy is an expert birder -- in case you didn't know. She identified 72 species in the three days we visited last week. Because of the drought that has gripped Southeast Oregon for several years in a row, Malheur Lake was VERY LOW, so the birding was not nearly as good as it could have been. Malheur NWR was established in 1908 as an important venue for nesting and migratory birds. You can thank Teddy Roosevelt for preserving the area. At this time of year, there were a number of shorebirds frequenting the area, a diversity of ducks, sandhill cranes, great blue herons, songbirds and much more. The refuge reportedly supports between 5 and 66 percent of the migratory waterfowl species in the Pacific Flyway. One of Wendy's favorite sightings last weekend was the American avocet. If you go, I'd recommend visiting the Malheur NWR headquarters, about 30 miles south of Burns, and see what refuge officials recommend as to the best locations to observe birds. It's hard to know when the lake has receded so far below its full level.

Hiking - There's a nice trail that follows the Blitzen River for about four miles (one-way) from Page Springs Campground. That's an easily accessible trail close to Frenchglen. It is a fairly rocky trail, and as of last weekend, people were seeing rattlesnakes along the way. I decided to skip the trail so my dog Huck didn't get zapped. Farther up on Steens Mountain, there are multiple hikes to consider. See the Less Traveled Northwest web site to see specific hiking recommendations ... many of them are short trails that start and finish on the Steens Mountain Loop road.

Biking the Steens Mountain Loop Road - The gravel road grinder-type rides are getting more and more popular these days, and the Steens Mountain Loop road is a well-compacted gravel road for almost 60 miles with lots of elevation gain from Page Springs (4,500 feet) to the Steens Mountain summit (nearly 10,000 feet). I rode a portion of the loop road to the Fish Lake Campground with a cross-biker from Portland, and really enjoyed it. To do the full loop road route, I'd recommend riding it over several days and camping along the way with vehicle support or carrying bike-packing equipment.

Hot springs - Back in my La Grande days, we used to hit Alvord Hot Springs all the time on the Alvord Desert side (southeast side) of Steens Mountain. It's an old tin shack with a nice, hot, deep pool. Since those days, Alvord Hot Springs has been commercialized by the property owners to maintain order. The day fee is only $5. You can camp there, too, if you want. There's also a hot springs on Hart Mountain, about an hour from Frenchglen.

Pete French Round Barn
Roof construction 
Inside the Round Barn ... they kept the horses inside in stables, and then
worked on breaking them in the outer loop of the barn. 
Round Barn - Harney County cattle king Pete French built several large round barns with his men in the early days to break and train horses for use in his big ranching operation. One of the barns is still standing near Diamond, Oregon, north of Frenchglen, and it's quite the masterpiece of construction. Worth the visit, I thought.

- SS

2 comments:

Wendy Wilson said...

Wilsons phalaropes, glossy ibis, rough-legged hawk, long-billed marsh wren, and....yellow warbler.yellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbler

Wendy Wilson said...

Wilsons phalarope, glossy ibis, rough legged hawk and yellow warbler, yellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbleryellow warbler