Bikepacking the Steens Loop

Ben Groeneveld

If you’ve ever dreamed of a desert bike trip circling Steens Mountain, this post from Central Oregon Wheelers members Ben Groeneveld and Kevin Briggs won’t do anything to dissuade you.


Oregon’s first desert wilderness

Oregon’s first desert wilderness

Steens Mountain: Oregon’s first desert wilderness

On October 30, 2000, Congress passed the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act, finishing the work that had taken ONDA and the other members of the Steens-Alvord Coalition decades  

Steens Mountain is a land of startling contrasts: dramatic u-shaped

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Carl Axelsen, member since 1999

Carl Axelsen, member since 1999

You folks at ONDA really have your stuff together. Such a well-planned opportunity to comment, since figuring out how to connect with the gummint is off-putting. You make it work for me.


Craig Terry, ONDA member and stewardship volunteer

Craig Terry, ONDA member and stewardship volunteer

“The people I have had the privilege to share time with each season keep me volunteering again and again. Who else but those ONDA staff leaders would make fresh coffee at dawn each morning or pack a watermelon all day to serve as a reward under a juniper in a steep canyon?” Craig, who grew up in northwestern Nevada, says ONDA connects him with places he loves and a mission he believes in. “My grandfather and his father put up wire fences for their ranching needs. Taking out barbed wire sort of completes a circle for me.”

A desolate expanse of pale alkali lake-bed is an unlikely place to order burgers.

But there we were, six hungry cyclists on a gravel road on the Alvord Desert, no one else in sight, passing a cell phone from one cyclist to the next.

Stopped on this road with barren peaks soaring alongside us, our minds were in a good place. We had nearly completed the second day of our five-day cycling journey around Steens Mountain. Now we had less than ten miles to go to reach Fields Station, a lonely outpost offering supplies.

With few reliable water sources, our mostly gravel route had passed the Andrews School House, where John Simpkins, the only resident in Andrews, had welcomed us and allowed us to fill our water bottles. John had converted the schoolhouse into an art studio, and it was his advice – If they say they stop taking orders by 3:30, then expect just thatthat had us putting in our order before the Fields Station grill closed.

It’s the rugged terrain, he said, The rugged terrain changes people.

Empty Alvord Playa
The best place on earth to order hamburgers is on the Alvord Desert.

Established in 1881, the Fields Station, a general store and diner, also welcomes cyclists. And, the burgers and beers at Fields Station seemed as magical as John’s art. We camped on the grass behind the store, beneath a star-filled sky as stunning as the nighttime sky above Ten Cent Lake, a dry lake-bed on BLM land where we had camped the previous night. The haze of the Milky Way was a repeat from that night before on the Alvord Desert, where it was accompanied by a chorus of coyotes.

Harney County has the lowest population density of the contiguous 48.

I don’t think anyone minded the ruggedness of our dry campsite at Ten Cent Lake. There always seems to be a special pleasure derived from the primitiveness of dispersed camping. Even the simple freeze-dried dinners and sparse breakfast were a treat. Long days of cycling leave you waking up hungry, so hungry it feels like you skipped dinner. Maybe the rugged landscape was having an impact because everything also tasted so good.

Two pieces of gear that were notable on this ride – the super compact crank added to an RLT 9 at Webcyclery and the stability of a Mr. Fusion seat post bag from Porcelain Rocket.

In contrast to the two-day ride from Crane to Fields which ended in an exhausting way, the route to Frenchglen was paved and fast. Although not a recovery ride, the route was a mellow enough to prepare us for the highlight of the tour, Steens Mountain.

Not everyone in our group was able to find a room in The Frenchglen Hotel, but the hotel is accommodating to cyclists and they let our overflow pitch their small tents on the grass. We eagerly anticipated that the showers and the family-style dinners were going to be a perfect debrief setting for the next two days.

I recommend skipping the Power Bars and Gu in favor of locally-made sack lunches.

Beginning in Frenchglen, the Loop Road has something to offer for all abilities, from out-and-back rides up to Fish Lake and Jackman Park, to viewing the textbook U-shape glaciated Kiger Gorge, and to my favorite the East Rim Overlook. The full loop is a long day of serious gravel cycling with more than 7,500 feet in elevation gain.

For the full loop, an early start is recommended, and for us, that meant sharing the road with surprised deer. The payback for the many miles of climbing is the steep downhill back to Frenchglen. Road apple hinted at another reward with wild horses appearing on the downside.

Riding the Steens Loop Road to the summit brings you up the highest road in Oregon. It’s surprisingly lonely.

The Steens Tour competes with our best cycling adventures and easily rivals our other favorite, the Oregon Outback. The two have much in common. That feeling you get when riding a bicycle and the sense of freedom from the obligations of daily life. The worries are simple. Are we on route? What are we eating tonight? Where are we sleeping? My mind wanders to Robin Williams’s response to why he liked cycling, that is, I think it’s the closest we get to flying.

This is good gravel!

In this shared experience, the little scenes make lasting memories. While we sat at breakfast at the Field’s Cafe, the cook pronounced firmly Husband, we’re out of coffee. He showed up from nowhere and brewed the next pot, smiling at us. And, there are the things you hear in close quarters after five days of cycling together. Like the childhood memory my friend shared, of his grandmother’s disdain when he had not made his bed and her exclaiming in her German accent, What will people think of us? Luckily, his sleeping bag stuffs well.

biking SteensAntelope on the Alvord greatly outnumbered traffic on the road.

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About the authors

Ben Groeneveld and Kevin Briggs are both members of the Central Oregon Wheelers.

Ben Groeneveld started riding as a child in The Netherlands. He first toured with his brother as a young teen to visit grandma riding all day.  Little did he know that was his first century. Ben has made Central Oregon home for both work and play since 2000, dabbling in summer and winter sports that offer adventure. Ben trades his engineering skills with Dassault Systèms to pay the bills.

A native of Florida, Kevin Briggs moved to Bend in 2010 after a handful of years in Portland. Over the years he has enjoyed a range of cycling, from racing triathlons to touring overseas. His cycling focus in Bend for several years has been a weekly ride that has evolved from a Meetup group, to an email list, and now to a Central Oregon Wheelers ride. His favorite cycling moment:  the image of a seventy-something French cyclist passing him on a climb in New Zealand and the thought—I want to be like that one day.