One thing you can notice when you are driving in eastern Oregon is that ranches tend to be very large operations. Water and grazing land for cattle is scarce in the desert out here. The Whitehorse Ranch is a perfect example of such a megaranch. This ranch has a rich history going back to 1869 when John Devine drove a cattle herd up here north from Calfiornia to take over teh site of a small abandoned Army outpost - Camp C.F. Smith - which had been established three years previously during a period of local Native American unrest. The post was a way station along the Oregon Central Military Road - some of which is still in use, albeit minor use. Devine used the iste as his headquarters for what became the Whitehorse Ranch which was the first ranch in Harney County. He built the signature barn - still in use - topped with a miniature white horse. The ranch is an oasis of sorts with four creeks congregating and providing valuable water. For twenty years Devine rode his own white horse hereabouts stoking a somewhat flamboyant image, dressing like a Spanish don and keeping race horses, fighting cocks along with hounds for his guests to hunt with. A drought and very harsh winter in 1887 killed off most of his cattle forcing him to sell out to Miller and Lux - the largest ranching company that ever oeprated in the west, boasting at its peak of over a million acres spreading from 150 miles north of the Whitehorse, across Nevada and into the heart of their cattlelands in the San Joaquin Valley of California. Devine was kept on for awhile as manager, but her didn't realize that Henry Miller was now the boss and they parted company a short time later. Miller gave Devine 6,000 acres to the west at the base of the Steens which became the Alvord Ranch. The Whitehorse remained part of the Miller and Lux empire operating as the Pacific Livestock Company until it was sold off in the 1930's to Paul Stewart - his grandson, Cliff Bentz is the current State Representative for southeastern Oregon - and then to R.E. "Ted" Naftzger - a fascinating man in his own right. The brand used is still the double H which was the original brand used by Miller and Lux.
Today, the ranch runs as it has for over 100 years. Its operations encopass over 350, 000 acres of deeded land and grazing leased land - 547 square miles/1,416 square kilometers. There is a guesthouse, a bunkhouse and some tipis that guests can stay at with advance reservations. Bring your own food and plenty of gas. This ranch is a long ways off the beaten path! That said, this is glorious country to roam about in.
A few homes, an elementary school - originally, there was only one teacher, but there are two today, a store/gas station/cafe ... this is Fields. Named after Charles Fields who established the station in 1881, this is the community center for te ranches on the east side of the Steens. The gas station/cafe is also a main stopping point for travelers passing through wanting to test the local fame of the hamburgers and milkshakes. Fill your gas tank here as it is a long ways to your next stop!
Wildhorses and burros have thrived in western desert regions growing to populations that jeopardize the ecology and compete with range cattle. In response, The BLM goes out periodically and gathers up some of the wild stock and corrals them for future adoption. The horses come off Steens Mountain - some can be seen in the wild in the canyons above Diamond. The mules are sent up from Nevada and California. You can visit the corrals just off US 20 a few miles west of Burns-Haines.
I am not a birder, but if I was .... Over 320 species of bird - 58 species of mammal - can be found on this main stop along the Pacific Flyway. Extensive marshlands surrounding both Harney and Malheur Lakes and along the Donner und Blitzen River to the south attract thousands of birds each year. The creation of the refuge dates to 1908 when it originally only encompassed the lake area after commercial hunters a threatened egrets with extinction shooting them for their feathers which were then sent to New York and Paris for hat decorations. Diversion of water from the Donner und Blitzen led the government to acquire the land within the valley - made easier by hard economic times - in the 1930's, ensuring an adequate water supply to the lakes to the north. The amount of land in the valley section of the refuge corresponds to the size of French's old P Ranch, though the P Ranch also controlled much of the western slopes of Steens Mountain, as well, due to their control of the water below.
Round barns were popular in the latter part of the 19th century in America - though they had been around before that time. Structurally, they were efficient in use and simpler in design due to lack of elaborate truss systems. This round barn was used to break horses during the winter months - 300 to a thousand horses moved through here each year. Timber was hauled from over 60 miiles to the north as well as northern California with a 60 foot round stone corral - used for foaling - being encompassed by a larger 100 foot wooden enclosure. The central truss-like structure is umbrella-shaped with a central support beam of a tall juniper tree cut from Blue Mountain forest 150 miles away. The stone for the corral was hauled from a site eight miles away. This is only one of three round barns that Pete French had built, but it is the only one left standing. The 20 foot wide track around the inner corral was used to train the horses. The barn was recently restored with funding from the State Lottery and the CycleOregon group - included were some 85,000 wood shingles with half needing to be custom cut. Mud mortar mathcing the original construction was also mixed digging from an area just outside the barn. Near the barn is a visitor center where you can find out more about the barn and the cattle empire of Pete French.
Wildhorse Lake is not only the biggest on Steens Mountain, it is the largest alpine lake in the entire Great Basin. The lake is trapped on a high bench in the upper regions of the glacially-cut Wildhorse Gorge. From the summit trailhead parking lot, another trail comes off to the right that takes you to the Wildhorse Overlook in only 1/4 mile. From here atop a rimrock cliff you have a marvellous view over the lake and its gorge below. The trail winds down another 1.2 miles to the lake where you can camp - cold and windy - or just hang out. It is a magical place.
Access to the true summit of Steens Mountain is via a two-mile road that separates the Steens Byway into northern and southern sections. From the parking lot at 9,500, you walk up a steep jeep road for 0.5 miles to the radio buildings atop the peak - the summit is 100 feet tothe left of the buildings. The views here are even better than those from the East Rim Overlook. The view out over the escarpment is unreal, but looking out over Wildhorse Lake and its gorge is true magic. Here, at 9,733 feet high, you have climbed the eight highest peak in Oregon. For the mountain corgi - aka Toffee- it was her highest peak to date with her previous high being Eagle Cap in the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon.
This viewpoint is found along the way to the Summit trailhead off the main byway. The Big Indian Gorge is one of the four major canyons that cut deeply into the mountainscape here. It is possible to walk up the canyon with a trail that starts the way for you which eventually will peter out. It is about four miles up the canyon to the headwal and another four miles from there bushwacking to the summit.
The next glacial gorge after Kiger is this one, down which flows the Little Blitzen River, one of 27 perennial streams that flow off Steens Mountain. Like the Kiger Gorge, this is another U-shaped glacial valley. The Little Blitzen is a tributary of the Donner und Blitzen River - whose marshland valley makes up a major part of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The Donner und Blitzen was so named by Colonel Harney when he was forced to cross t he stream during a thunderstorm while chasing some local Native Americans in the mid 19th century. Before the Steens Byway was built, access to the summit was by hiking - or riding - up one of these gorges, similar to what you do today to get to the top of the South Warners or the Rubies.
This is as high as you can drive your car in Oregon - 9,730 feet high. The view is a knockout. On a clear day you look out over hundreds of miles. To the east, the mountain drops precipitously over 5,000 feet in three miles. It is similar to what you see atop the South Warners ro the Ruby Mountains only with more people to share the experience with. The day I was up here a ham radio advocee was up there making as many contacts as he could from his exalted position. If you don't like to walk, this is your top - the true summit to the south is only three feet higher.
Not far past the highest campground on the norther circuit of the Byway is a small road leading off the the Kiger Gorge Overlook. Take it! Like many other Great Basin ranges, the Steens were subject to glaciation and being more northerly, the range was impacted more than others. Kiger Gorge is of the most impressive examples of glaciation you will find. The view from up here - 8,920 feet high - is much easier than a similar view you get of Lamoille Canyon in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada further south near Elko where you have to walk up. Here, at Kiger Gorge, a huge glacier once filled the valley cutting a thousand foot deep U-shaped gorge over a mile wide. There are other glacial gorges found atop Steens Mountain that you will see along the Byway but none actually reached the eastern edge of the mountain block like here at Kiger Gorge. In fact, the glacier chipped away at the crest a bit as you can see by looking across the way at the Kiger Notch. This is one of the most beautiful spots on Steens Mountain so savor it. It reminded me of when I was top the Amphitheater or South Peak along the South Africa-Lesotho border with only the bark of an upset baboon missing.
Steens Mountain - it is singular and not plural - is a magnificent example of a Great Basin fault-block range with a gentler rising western side and a dramatic cliffside to the east where it drops off over 5,000 feet in just three horizontal miles. Unlike other Great Basin mountains, however, here access to the top is given to the many by way of the gravel Steens Mountain Byway which loops over the mountain top during the course of its 66 miles. The other ranges, you have to walk up. The northern part of the circuit - from Frenchglen to the Summit road - is an easy gravel road -speed limit 35 mph. Looking up from the Frenchglen Hotel, you could tell the course of the road by the many dust plumes rising into the air. Three of the four campgrounds are found along the northern section: Page Springs, Fish Lake and Jackman Springs - as are most oft he official lookouts. The southern section of the loop is much steeper and rutted enough to make problems for vehicles with low ground clearance. Wilderness purists hate the Steens Byway, but it is what it is. The road attains the highest point in Oregon reachable by automobile in Oregon at 9,730 feet at the East Rim lookout - the true summit is only reachable by foot. There are several gates you pass through on your way up the mountain that close as the winter snows encroach. Driving along the crest of the mountain brought back memories of other fault-blocks I have hiked atop: theDrakensberg, Lesotho, the Ruby Mountains, ro the South Warners (the Snake Range in Great Basin National Park is not quite your typical Great Basin fault-block range).