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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”