Over 1,000 vascular plant species have been recorded at Steens Mountain. And, in mid-summer, you can expect wildflowers to be reaching their peak, with paintbrush, balsamroot, fireweed, stonecrop (uplands and rocky slopes), Columbian monkshood, sticky geranium, purple monkey-flower, monument plant, California corn-lily, ladies’-tresses, orange sneezeweed, glacial daisy, tarweed, arnica and more all in bloom.
As the highest point in southeastern Oregon, its elevation is certainly one key to the plant diversity here. But its height is just one of the factors that makes the plant displays on Steens interesting. In the Flora of Steens Mountain author Don Mansfield describes how the combination of isolation, extensive alpine topography, extreme climate, and unusual subalpine characteristics give the mountain such unique flora.
At the low end, adjacent to the Alvord Desert, you’ll find a salt scrub plant community, dominated by shrubs and grasses. In the glacier-carved gorges, expect a subalpine mix of wildflowers much like you would see in the Rockies and the Cascades, with lupine, penstemon, paintbrush, pussytoes, cinquefoils, and gentians all found in large quantities.
Up toward the 9,738’ summit, you’re in alpine territory, with low-lying clumps of phlox, sedum, and saxifrage, and clusters of cutleaf daisies and sulphur-flower buckwheat, as well as some of the mountain’s rare plants. The lanky Steens Mountain thistle, a preferred source of nectar for butterflies and goldfinches, lives only here and in the Pueblo Mountains. And only on Steens, and only on slopes above 6,500 feet, you can find the Steens Mountain paintbrush, which comes in a distinctive yellow-green hue, where other paintbrush species come more often in shades of red.
With the generous support of our community, ONDA has been ensuring the future vibrancy of Steens Mountain, since our founding 35 years ago. Most recently, we have completed an extensive analysis of more than 350 miles of “routes” in the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area (CMPA), a Congressional designation beloved by the ONDA community that protects more than 500,000 acres of wildlands and backcountry on the mountain. ONDA volunteers and staff have spent thousands of hours walking and photographing route conditions in every corner of the CMPA braving extreme heat, no shade, and boulder-laden paths (thank you, intrepid desert defenders!). We have compiled those years of findings in hundreds of pages in our CMPA “routes report” that we will submit to the Bureau of Land Management, advocating for closure of obscure routes in their upcoming travel planning process, in turn protecting this incredible and irreplaceable Steens Mountain landscape.
Here are three great hikes on Steens Mountain where abundant wildflowers can be expected in July: