Steens Mountain: Good News and Bad News


Steens Mountain, in southeast Oregon, is the largest fault block mountain in North America. 30 miles across on the rim side, and 25 miles long on the gentler westerly slope, it reaches an altitude of just under 10,000 feet, 6,000 feet above the surrounding terrain.

Steen Mountain Cutaway. Drawing by U.S. Geological Service

Steen Mountain Cutaway. Drawing by U.S. Geological Service

Steens Mountain is like a giant 30 mile-wide trap door, hinged on the west side, with the precipitous lip on the east end. The precipitous drop is increased because the landscape there, the Alvord Basin, has itself dropped 2,000 feet or so as Steens Mountain rose. Both the precipitous east slope and the gentler west slope have been deeply carved by erosion, most recently by Pleistocene glaciers. It’s spectacular scenery.

And here’s the important part: at much higher elevations, it’s cooler. Boise is experiencing triple digits. When the alternatives are baking or driving a bit for cooler air, it’s an easy choice for this ex-Alaskan.

So WC went to Steens Mountain. the good news is that it was much cooler. The nighttime temperatures fell to the mid-50s, and above 7,500 feet it didn’t get much warmer than the mid-80s. These was a light breeze under cloudless skies. Late blooming flowers still covered the hillsides. The geology is amazing. The campgrounds weren’t over-crowded. It was almost perfect. Except for the bad news.

Kiger Gorge, Northeast slopes, Steens Mountain, Oregon

Kiger Gorge, Northeast slopes, Steens Mountain, Oregon

The bad news was that the smoke from the California wildfires ranged from annoying to chokingly awful, depending on wind and location. The Alvord Basin and the East Rim were especially bad. This is Kiger Gorge on July 31.

Looking north along the East Rim, Steens Mountain, Oregon, August 1

Looking north along the East Rim, Steens Mountain, Oregon, August 1

It wasn’t quite as bad on the west slopes, but it still wasn’t very good.

Mrs. WC and Tali at the top of Little Blitzen Gorge, Steens Mountain, Oregon August 1

Mrs. WC and Tali at the top of Little Blitzen Gorge, Steens Mountain, Oregon August 1

Little Blitzen Gorge is one of the immense, glacier-carved valleys that cut the west slopes of Steens Mountain. You can see the gorge behind Mrs. WC and Tali, but details are lost and the Malheur Basin is completely lost in the smoke and haze.

Fish Lake and Fish Creek Gorge, from Summit Trailhead, Steens Mountain, Orgon

Fish Lake and Fish Creek Gorge, from Summit Trailhead, Steens Mountain, Orgon

The glaciers created cirques, hanging basins, deep bowls carved in to the rock, and after the glaciers are gone the cirques fill with small lakes, called tarns. This is Fish Lake, immediately below the highest point on Steens Mountain.

Remnant snowfield, Big Indian Canyon, Steens Mountain, Oregon

Remnant snowfield, Big Indian Canyon, Steens Mountain, Oregon

There are no glaciers or even permanent ice fields left on Steens Mountain. A few, lingering snow patches that melt by mid-August are all that if left of the big ice that carved the canyons and gorges.

Despite the smoke, WC has no regrets at all. A few days of reasonably comfortable temperatures, wonderful scenery and an amateur geologist’s delight. WC will just have to go back. Earlier in the summer; or in the fall. Not during fire season.

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2 thoughts on “Steens Mountain: Good News and Bad News

  1. Thanks for sharing one of my favorite places. At least the smoke made for some different images. It is amazing how far away this one mountain can be seen from many locations in Idaho and Oregon. Fall has been my favorite time there …. but I have never been there in the spring.

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