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Bend writer Dillon Upp Discovers the Magic of Steens Mountain

Posted by Barksdale Brown at Jun 06, 2017 09:20 AM |
Dillon Upp is a Bend writer who recently made his first journey into Oregon’s high desert. He describes his magical 24 hour experience hiking and camping at Steens Mountain, sleeping under the stars and discovering the true meaning of solitude.
Bend writer Dillon Upp Discovers the Magic of Steens Mountain

Photo by Ernest Jones

Dillon Upp is a Bend writer who recently made his first journey into Oregon’s high desert. He describes his magical 24 hour experience hiking and camping at Steens Mountain, sleeping under the stars and discovering the true meaning of solitude.

As I drove into southern Harney County I asked myself why I was driving into the middle of nowhere. I had always wanted to see Steens Mountain, and I had never been to this remote southeastern part of the state. I guess my question was why did I need to seek this intense solitude? Why did I need to drive so far to see such beauty? Maybe I was seeking what Edward Abbey sought so long ago in the unspoiled desert landscapes of Utah?

Steens Aspen Scott Erickson
Photo by Scott Erickson
The landscape jutted up from the stark desert plateau from the west gradually. I could see the top of Steens, a sentinel of the high desert. I turned onto the Steens Loop Road and almost immediately -- and from out of nowhere -- aspen groves and alpine meadows surrounded me, beckoning to be explored. I parked my Volkswagen at the trailhead, gathered my backpack, double checked my gear, and started off on the trail. The Oregon Desert Trail, a 750-mile route across the high desert that crosses the Steens, isn’t really a trail, and map and compass skills are mandatory. Here and there patches of snow hid in the shadows, still waiting for the last possible moment to return from where it came, a force that has helped carve these canyons for the past millennia. Juniper and sage dot the landscape, and the May wildflowers showed their riot of colors. My first destination was Wildhorse Lake, a hidden paradise that seems to float in the clouds. The lake sits just below the summit of Steens Mountain and is set in a polychromatic basin perched high above the Alvord Desert. I hiked to the summit of Steens Mountain to take in the beauty of everything around me, clouds making this landscape even more dramatic, casting colors I never knew existed. Where I was felt otherworldly, truly a unique hiking experience, and different from anywhere else on Earth that I have been thus far. After taking in the view I hiked into the basin to the lake, going down a zigzag path passing wildflowers and lichen-covered basalt.

Steens Fall Barb Rumer
Photo by Barb Rumer

It was almost noon as I got to the shores of the lake, and I thought this was a good spot to rest, let my feet dry out, drink in some water, and eat a few Clif Kids ZBars (one of my favorite trail snacks). After a quick rest I looked at my map and tried to figure out where I would be making camp for the night. From my location at the lake and by looking at the map I figured I could connect Little Indian Creek to Big Indian Gorge. I put my boots back on and followed a faint possible game trail to the start of the source of Little Indian Creek. Crystal clear spring water flowed straight out of the side of the mountain. Along the stream bright yellow monkey flowers were everywhere. At the confluence of the Big Indian Gorge I made a right around a rock escarpment gushing with water and the sight I saw was mind-blowing. Alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers, aspen groves, waterfalls flowing out of the canyon side, and a herd of bighorn sheep drinking from the spring. As soon as I spotted the bighorn sheep they sensed my presence and moved quickly up the hillside, watching my progress up the canyon. I got to a nice shaded grove of aspen trees and decided this would be a good spot to set up camp. I unpacked my pad and ground cover and aired out my sleeping bag. I opted to sleep under the stars after seeing that the weather forecast called for clear skies. The air was still, and I could see the sheep grazing on the steep slopes across from where I set up camp. I got out my stove, filled my pot full of water from the spring, got a good boil going, and added a package of freeze dried vegetables, meat, and chicken bouillon for an easy and quick dinner. Night settled quickly in the canyon, and there was no need for a headlamp, the stars above were brilliant. Absolutely brilliant, shining like diamonds. The Milky Way could be clearly seen, and this could be the most stars I’ve ever seen. I watched shooting stars, satellites, and the International Space Station take their laps around planet Earth. I drifted off to sleep while watching the lights from stars born eons ago shine their brilliance down on the canyon in this remote and beautiful part of southeastern Oregon.

I woke up early to the sound of the spring running nearby. I made an easy breakfast of oatmeal and watched mule deer graze in the distance. I planned to hike the rest of the canyon up to the overlook and back to my car. After repacking my backpack, I set off east towards the summit of Steens Mountain following a faint Jeep track on the edge of the wet meadows, and past gushing springs, and up through the glaciated basin to the promontory. From the top of the promontory I took in the view of the incredible landscape that I had just experienced over the last 24 hours. I went side country again, following a faint game track east, knowing Steens Loop Road was nearby. After a short scramble I got to the road and followed it back to my car at the trailhead. I took of my pack, and thought about the landscape I had just hiked through. Truly an amazing place that I will revisit again and again, slowly peeling back the layers that this incredible mountain range has kept secret for so long. The flora, the fauna, and everything in between create such a magical dreamscape that it feels as if I never left my car and had dreamed up everything I had just experienced. A high desert wonderland that needs to be preserved through the ages, for those who walked this paradise before us, and those who will trek though this heaven on Earth after us. I left only footprints and kept only memories.

--Dillon Upp

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S Johnson
S Johnson says:
Jun 11, 2017 08:00 AM

What a beautifully written story! I'm definitely putting the Steens on my destination bucket list.

Pete
Pete says:
Jul 02, 2017 12:47 PM

Two thumbs up!

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Oregon Natural Desert Association
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