The Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area contains approximately 500 000 acres of private and public lands. The Bureau of Land Management oversees 428156 acres of public lands in the wilderness located in the State of Oregon. Different regulations apply on public and private lands so be aware of limits to access and activities, and stay on designated roads when traveling with a motorized vehicle.
The terrain is characterized by deep glacier-carved gorges which were formed as glaciers receded, digging deep trenches through the hard basalt rock and leaving behind the “U” shaped Kiger Gorge, East Rim, Big Indian Gorge, Wildhorse and Little Blitzen Gorge. A backcountry roadway provides access to campgrounds and scenic overlooks on the various gorges. Steens Mountain is a prominent feature in the area and the largest fault block mountain in the Great Basin. It is 30 miles long, and has an elevation of 9700 feet, with a rocky exposed east face rising one mile above the Alvord Desert floor below. There are three wild rivers passing through the wilderness area, Wildhorse Creek, Little Wildhorse Creek, and Kiger Creek and the Donner und Blitzen River flows adjacent to the wilderness area.
Vegetation in the area consists of juniper and aspen trees with sagebrush on the desert floor and wildflowers, shrubs, and native grasses at higher elevations. The Steens Mountain Paintbrush dots the sub-alpine areas and is unique to the Steens Mountain area. Large mammals supported in the wilderness include elk, deer, mountain lion, antelope, wild horses, and bighorn sheep.
Recreational opportunities in the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection area include camping, hiking, fishing, wildlife watching, mountain biking, antelope hunting, and in the winter, cross country skiing and snowshoeing. Sightings of the wild horse herd are a much sought-after experience for wildlife watchers visiting the wilderness area. The climate in the Steens Mountain region produces varied conditions with cold snowy weather in winter and high temperatures around 100 F in summer. High winds, electrical storms, and heavy rain also occur in the region. Visitors should be prepared for a variety of harsh weather conditions and carry adequate water to accommodate their trip.
While in the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area you can also visit other wilderness areas including the Malheur National Forest, Fremont-Winema National Forest, and Deschutes National Forest.
When traveling in the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area, be prepared for climate extremes with hot summers and cold winter weather, high winds, heavy rains, and severe storms. Cell service and amenities like service stations, restrooms, and drinking water supplies are sparse. Travelers should have accurate maps, satellite aided GPS systems, extra water, and supplies. Backroads may have livestock from nearby ranching activities or wildlife on them so be alert.
Some backcountry roads in the area require high clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles such as the area of the Steens Mountain Loop Road near South Steens Campground. The rest of the loop road is generally accessible for passenger vehicles, although high-quality tires are recommended for the rough backcountry road. Snowfall comes early in the fall and stays later in the spring at higher elevations, and travelers in the area can encounter icy conditions in winter months. Special permits are required to access backcountry roads during the winter. Winter tires and chains are recommended.
The wilderness area contains a mixture of private and public lands, so obtain permission before venturing onto or through private property and obey road closure signs. The Steens Mountain Loop Road is 66 miles long and is a popular route for viewing wildlife. The 52 mile Steens Mountain Backcountry Byway also provides access to the campgrounds in the wilderness area and overlooks of the gorges.
To access the BLM lands from the town of Burns, Oregon take Highway 78 southeast for two miles then turn right onto highway 205. Proceed south for 60 miles through the town of Frenchglen then turn right onto the Steens Mountain Loop Road.
Page Springs Campground can be reached from the Steens Mountain Loop Road about three miles down on the right after turning onto the route. Fish Lake Campground is about 17 miles down, and Jackman Park Campground can be accessed two miles east of the Fish Lake Campground. The South Steens Campground can be reached by passing through Frenchglen on Highway 205 and traveling up the “P” hill. Proceed nine miles, then turn left onto the Steens Mountain Loop Roads south entrance. The turnoff to the South Steens Campground is about 18 miles from Highway 205.
Campers at designated campgrounds are required to pack their trash out. Camping is geared more towards tent and small RV camping, and accessibility on backcountry roads may be difficult depending on the season and weather conditions. There are no RV hookups or dump stations are available at the designated campsites.
The BLM Page Springs Campground has 36 large campsites sheltered by cottonwood and juniper trees and adjacent to the Donner und Blitzen River where trout fishing is available. The campground is just three miles from the town of Frenchglen at the base of Steens Mountain. There are two trailheads with short hikes, the Blitzen River Trail and the Wilderness Nature Trail. A day-use area with picnic area is also located here. There are no RV hookups but there are vault toilets and a drinking water supply. A campground host is usually on-site during the peak season from May to September.
South Steens Campground is located in the heart of Steens Mountain and has 26 family campsites. Campsites are surrounded by juniper and sage vegetation and each site has a picnic table and grill. Equestrian camping is also available here and the equestrian sites are adjacent to the family campground. There are 15 sites with tie posts and corrals to accommodate horses. Equestrians must bring weed-free hay or pelleted food. The peak season is mid-May to November.
Fish Lake Campground is situated on the slopes of Steens Mountain at 7400 feet elevation. The campground is vegetated with aspen and willows and Fish Lake offers swimming and fishing. There are also great hiking trails in and around the campground and lake. The campground is open from mid-June to October and may require four-wheel-drive vehicles with high clearance to reach. The 23 campsites here have picnic tables and grills, and there are vault toilets and potable water.
Jackman Park Campground is located near the Fish Lake Campground on the flanks of Steens Mountain at high elevation and is also open from mid-June to October. There are six campsites situated here, nestled in amongst the aspen stands. Campsites have picnic tables and grills, and there are vault toilets. The campground is open July to October.
Although most visitors to the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area avail themselves of the primitive designated campsites at the four campgrounds in the BLM area, backcountry camping for up to 14 days per site is permitted.
Backcountry campers should be extra cautious of ticks, mosquitos, and rattlesnakes in the area. Water will need to be purified, or you will need to pack in one gallon of water, per person, per day. Observe restrictions on campfires in this heavily wooded area, especially in summer. Camp stoves are a good option for cooking when backcountry camping. You will also need to pack out all trash, adhere to “Leave no Trace” principles, utilize previously used campsites when possible, and bury human waste appropriately.
The backcountry in the BLM lands at Steens Mountain is wonderfully scenic, but also present challenges with wild rivers, deep gorges, densely wooded areas, and steep elevation changes. Backcountry campers should be equipped to handle the rough terrain and occasionally harsh climate. Temperatures near 100 F are common in the summer months and severe storms with heavy rains, lightning, and high winds are possible so be prepared.
Hiking the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection area is a real treat, with a variety of scenery and challenging terrain. During the summer months be sure to bring plenty of water, at least one gallon, per person, per day, and be prepared for storms, temperatures fluctuations, and significant elevation gains while hiking.
Ticks, mosquitoes, and rattlesnakes can be an issue in the area, especially in the spring and summer, and the prevalence of some of these hazards can be avoided by hiking later in the year. There are trailheads near Page Springs, and South Steens Campgrounds, at the Wildhorse Overlook and at Pike Creek.
The diverse ecosystems and vegetation are a source of food and shelter, and wild rivers provide water sources to wildlife in the area which supports large mammals. Keep a sharp eye out for Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, and wild horses in the area.
Migratory birds pass through the area and raptors such as prairie falcon grace the blue skies. There are several wild horse herds that frequent the region and these animals are a big attraction to wildlife enthusiasts in the region. The Kiger Wild Horse Viewing Area on the north end of the protected area is a great location to try for a sight of these local wild horse band.
Fishing at the Fish Lake Campground at the lake or at the Page Springs Campground on the Donner Und Blitzen River is popular with fishers and anglers visiting the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area. Numerous creeks, wild rivers, and small lakes in the area also provide stocked and native fishing opportunities.
Fish Lake is stocked with rainbow trout and trout are the most popular catch in the region. Be sure to have a valid fishing license for the State of Oregon. You can fish from shore or from watercraft where launching is available, mostly on the small lakes, and in non-motorized craft.
Motorized vehicle access to backcountry trails is by special permit only. There are outfitters in the area that offer tours on designed routes and can facilitate obtaining a permit for access of ATVs, and dirt bikes for special events and groups, and snowmobiling during the winter. See Special Permits for more information, and contacts, at local BLM offices.
Snowmobiling in winter is limited to Dingle Creek and along the Cold Springs Road to the Nye Cabin. Snowmobilers and groups must be accompanied by a member of the High Desert SnowDrifters Snowmobile Club of a Burns District Special Recreation Permit holder.
During the winter, snowfall in the area coats hiking trails, creating excellent opportunities for winter backcountry activity, including snowshoeing and cross country skiing. Access to the Steens Loop Road in winter is by permit only. Obtain a winter permit to use the road and access trails from Page Springs Campground.
The trail's terrain has gentle hills along the west side of the mountain. More adventurous hikers can climb up the east side of the mountain for steeper terrain. Trails are not groomed, so you will be breaking trail, which can be arduous after heavy snowfall.
The Steens Loop Road and Steens Mountain Backcountry Byway running through the Steens Mountain Cooperative and Protection Area take you to the various campgrounds and excellent scenic viewpoints and overlooks where you can get out and enjoy the view and snap some photos.
The 52 mile Steens Mountain Backcountry Byway also provides access to trailheads and the Riddle Brothers Ranch National Historic District, as well as wild horse viewing areas. Views from the overlooks at Kiger Gorge, East Rim, Big Indian Gorge, Wildhorse, and Little Blitzen Gorge are a definite must-see when driving the byway. A drive is a great option when it is too hot for outdoor activities or later in the fall or spring before or after the snow falls and the backcountry roads are accessible without a permit.