High-Desert Ad­ven­ture

Unique geog­ra­phy and elu­sive herds of Kiger Mus­tangs drew this reader and her hus­band to ride and camp in Ore­gon’s Steens Moun­tain Wilder­ness Area.


Unique geog­ra­phy and herds of Kiger Mus­tangs drew this reader and her hus­band to ride and camp in Ore­gon’s Steens Moun­tain Wilder­ness Area, con­sid­ered one of the crown jew­els of the state’s wild­lands.

The Steens Moun­tain Wilder­ness Area, lo­cated in Ore­gon’s high desert, is con­sid­ered one of the crown jew­els of the state’s wild­lands. The area, man­aged by the Bureau of Land Management, fea­tures some of the wildest and most re­mote land in Ore­gon. The 170,200-acre Steens Moun­tains Wilder­ness Area is part of the Steens Moun­tain Co­op­er­a­tive Management and Pro­tec­tion Area, 428,156 acres of scenic pub­lic land.

My hus­band and I had al­ways wanted to visit the area be­cause of its unique geog­ra­phy; it’s also home to sev­eral herds of Kiger Mus­tangs.

We loaded our smooth-gaited horses and headed to South Steens Camp­ground. This camp­ground is the only place in the nearly 500,000acre Steens Moun­tain Co­op­er­a­tive Management and Pro­tec­tion Area that al­lows horses, al­though one is cur­rently be­ing built near Fish Lake.

Get­ting There

To get to South Steens Camp­ground, drive to Burns, Ore­gon. From Burns, take State High­way 78 south­east for ap­prox­i­mately 2 miles. Turn right onto State High­way 205, and travel south for 60 miles to the vil­lage of French­glen.

Nine miles past French­glen, turn left onto Steens Moun­tain Loop Rd. Go 18 miles, and look for the South Steens Camp­ground on the right.

When we turned off the high­way, we were im­me­di­ately chal­lenged by 18 miles of re­lent­less wash­board. It took us two hours to tra­verse this road to get to the camp­ground.

But we for­got about the wash­board road as the mas­sive rock for­ma­tion of the Steens Moun­tains rose be­fore us — a 30-mile long fault-block moun­tain cut by four im­mense U-shaped gorges formed in the Ice Age.

We were also dis­tracted by mounds of horse ma­nure on the road — the “stud piles” of Kiger Mus­tangs. Our wash­board com­plaints were si­lenced as we slowed down even more to scan the hills hop­ing to catch a glimpse of a herd.

Eques­trian Camp­ground

We fi­nally ar­rived at our des­ti­na­tion. It was the mid­dle of Au­gust, the height of camp­ing and rid­ing sea­son in the North­west, but the camp­ground was al­most empty! This eques­trian camp­ground fea­tures 15 horse sites with cor­rals. Wa­ter is avail­able at a well house, but the flow is min­i­mal. The best time to ride here is in the fall and sum­mer, as the el­e­va­tion is 5,300 feet. We put our Ken­tucky Moun­tain Horse, Lance, and our Rocky Moun­tain Horse, Con­suelo, into a cor­ral and set up camp.

Lit­tle Bl­itzen River Trail

Our first ride was on the Lit­tle Bl­itzen River Trail. We started at the trail­head be­hind our camp­site (E9), went north along a fence, then turned east and passed a sign that pointed to­ward the Steens Moun­tain Wilder­ness Area. We turned left to go north, fol­lowed the trail as it crossed the Lit­tle Bl­itzen River, and as­cended into a meadow filled with sage­brush and wild­flow­ers. We could see the gorge laid out be­fore us. As the trail turned east, the gorge nar­rowed, tak­ing us up and down rocky hill­sides, and drop­ping us to shrub-lined, nar­row pas­sages by the river. After four miles, we popped out onto a charm­ing green meadow. Our horses halted, ears for­ward. We saw move­ment be­hind some trees. Out stepped a mule, then sev­eral more mules and horses. It turned out that they were all pick­eted to the trees. This was Four Mile Camp, where John and Lau­rie O’Con­ner, and three guests from Switzer­land, were spend­ing sev­eral days. The O’Con­ners are na­tive to the area. John is the founder and pres­i­dent of Steens Back Coun­try Horse­men. The group is work­ing with the BLM and pri­vate land-

own­ers to in­crease the num­ber of horse trails and camps in this wilder­ness area.

Lau­rie told us a lit­tle about the his­tory of the Steens Moun­tains. There used to be 100,000 head of sheep on the lower el­e­va­tions. In the meadow where we stood, sheep­herders had built sum­mer cab­ins. A few hun­dred yards up the val­ley, there were rem­nants of a sheep cor­ral. Ru­ins of year­round cab­ins can be found in other river drainages.

Lau­rie also told us about loop trails that aren’t in­di­cated on the BLM maps. There are sev­eral that link drainages to­gether. The O’Con­ners are work­ing to get the trails up­graded and horse-friendly.

We left the camp imag­in­ing the area be­com­ing a premiere horse rid­ing des­ti­na­tion, with plen­ti­ful horse camps and safe loop trails — a place hon­or­ing its age-old in­hab­i­tants, the Kiger Mus­tangs.

Big In­dian Creek Trail

The fol­low­ing day, we de­cided to try the Big In­dian Creek Trail. We were skep­ti­cal that it could be more beau­ti­ful than the first ride. We were wrong. The trail­head is the same as Lit­tle Bl­itzen, be­hind site E9, but it pro­ceeds east. The first few miles were on a rocky slope, dot­ted with stud piles. I’ve never been so ex­cited about ma­nure! I kept scan­ning the hori­zon try­ing to catch a glimpse of a mus­tang.

The view look­ing west was end­less — the high desert of east­ern Ore­gon. We turned north, crossed Big In­dian Creek, climbed up the other side, turned east, and there it was: a wide, rock-lined gorge, wa­ter­fall stains run­ning down its sides, the cirque (terminus) hid­den be­hind a dis­tant curve.

From there, we dropped down and crossed the creek two more times, then came upon the re­mains of a sheep­herder’s cabin. The view was ever-chang­ing. We fi­nally got glimpses of the bril­liant green cirque. We were get­ting closer to the end of the gorge!

At Mile 8, we en­tered a stand of aspen, and the trail be­came rough. Sev­eral dry falls had cut Vs in the side of the gorge, which we had to tra­verse. The first one was very steep with loose foot­ing, and Lance al­most slid back­ward. We made it to the other side and could see the trail ahead was rougher. We had lunch and turned back.

On our re­turn, we came across a hiker who told us that at the point we turned around, there was about a mile to go to the end of the gorge. But it didn’t mat­ter to us. Our horses were safe, and we had seen sights we never could’ve imag­ined.

His­toric Ranch

An in­ter­est­ing, easy half-day ride is to the Rid­dle Broth­ers Ranch. From camp, cross Steens Moun­tain Loop Rd. Fol­low a trail, then a dirt road, north­west to the ranch. Three bach­e­lor broth­ers, Walter, Fred­er­ick, and Ben­jamin Rid­dle, set­tled there in the early 1900s. The Rid­dle Broth­ers built their ranch by gain­ing con­trol of wa­ter in the area. They se­cured home­sites and raised live­stock. The bach­e­lor pads and other struc­tures still stand.

Feel­ing Grate­ful

The next day, we packed up and re­turned via the wash­board road. We hadn’t seen any Mus­tangs, but that didn’t de­tract from our ex­pe­ri­ence. This time, we were thank­ful for the wash­board road — it lim­ited the num­ber of peo­ple com­ing into the area, pro­vid­ing us with soli­tude.

We were also thank­ful to Back Coun­try Horse­men of Amer­ica and all the vol­un­teers who work to keep spec­tac­u­lar lands open to horsepeo­ple. TTR

Richard Tal­cott aboard Lance, a Ken­tucky Moun­tain Horse, as they exit the Big In­dian Creek gorge. “There are four mas­sive rock gorges in the Steens Moun­tains, which were formed dur­ing the Ice Age,” says Ce­cilia Kayano. “These make the rid­ing unique and...

Be­fore en­ter­ing the Big In­dian Creek Gorge, ex­pan­sive views of East­ern Ore­gon's high desert ap­pear to the west. Here, Ce­cilia Kayano rides her Rocky Moun­tain Horse, Con­suelo.

“At Four Mile Camp along the Lit­tle Bl­itzen River, we en­coun­tered mules and horses pick­eted to trees,” says Ce­cilia Kayano. “This was the camp of John and Lau­rie O’Con­ner, who were stay­ing there for sev­eral days.”

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