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Dramatic gorges, rustic town punctuate beauty of Steens Mountain


Dramatic gorges, rustic town punctuate beauty of Steens Mountain

By Jim Witty
The Bulletin
Wednesday, August 6, 2003, front page of the Community Life Section

Steens Mountain is a wild, remote scarp, a desert island in the sky. Its gorges are pure vertigo and erosional perfection.

And you can drive to the summit.

The North Loop Road to the top of this massive fault block mountain begins in Frenchglen, a tiny burg with enough historic character to charm up a town six or seven times it's size.

Be sure to check out the general store; it's a little bit artsy, a little bit rustic and a whole lot down home. You can fuel up here, down a soda and check out the old unused bar in the other room that reeks of saddle leather and buckaroo cool.

Then there's the historic Frenchglen Hotel down the road. Originally built in 1916, the hotel is a must-see. Proprietor John Ross rents rooms in the main hotel for $65 a night, serves family size meals three times a day in the dining room (check out the marionberry cobbler) and keeps things good and simple. No televisions, telephones or air conditioning here and the bathrooms are down the hall. (The hotel also rents out four separate rooms on the property that have air conditioning and private bathrooms for $80 a night). Just a friendly place to relax, mull your options for the day or relive your exploits and dine on a little comfort food.

The dining room at the Frenchglen Hotel seats a maximum of 24 people, so reservations are a must. Call 541-493-2828.

It's about 30 miles from Frenchglen to the 9,733-foot top of Steens Mountain where you peer out over the Alvord Desert and think about how steep the east side of this rock is and how flat and vast the Great Basin is way down below. 

Between Frenchglen and the top, there are several dramatic gorges that swoop down off the western side, including Big Indian, Kiger and Little Blitzen. Each is well worth a look.

There's also Fish Lake, 17 miles up the North Loop Road from Frenchglen. It's a popular campground and fishing hole and a good spot to cool off in the shade of a shimmering aspen. About a half mile past the Fish Lake turnoff is Whorehouse Meadows, a lush mountain refuge where you'll probably see blooming wildflowers, grassy open spaces and more aspen groves.

The place earned it's bawdy name during it's bawdy past. In the early days when the mountain was being settled, the ladies of the night set up shop here, providing companionship for sheepherders and homesteaders.

All remnants of the old days are gone now, except for the name.

Driving the North Loop Road is an essential introduction to the Steens country. If you have the time, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge adjacent to Frenchglen is home to scads of water birds and other watchable wildlife.

But that's fodder for a future outing.

To learn more about Steens Mountain try visiting or

The Bulletin
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Read more
Photos of this Steens road trip and backpack into Big Indian Gorge
Wedding on top of the world