Little Blitzen River Canyon (Eastern Oregon) 13-May-2015

Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon

After a night of rain, we woke to clear, almost cloudless skies and new snow on Steens Mountain! We decided to take advantage of these good conditions – which didn’t last all day – to hike one of the classics – the trail into the canyon of the Little Blitzen River on the west side of Steens Mountain (Hike #91 in Sullivan’s Eastern Oregon guide (Third Edition)). The unique combination of clear skies and fresh snow made for an amazing hike!

The canyon is obvious as you approach it along the southern leg of the Steens Mountain Loop Road.

Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
The Little Blitzen River Canyon (arrow) on the west side of Steens Mountain

The trailhead parking is just beyond the 2nd gate (which was open, although the road was still impassable further up due to snow),

Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
Fresh snow at the Little Blitzen River trailhead parking lot

and from there it’s a short walk up to the actual trailhead. No permits are required but the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would like you to register so they can judge trail use. The register also served as a handy snow guage!

Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
The unofficial snow guage at the Little Blitzen River trailhead

The trail started by descending the canyon,

Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
Starting down into the canyon of the Little Blitzen River

and then offered up a really, really cold creek crossing.

Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
Crossing the Little Blitzen River

The trail itself was narrow but easily followed – even with a coating of snow – and climbs gradually up into the canyon,

Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
On the trail above the Little Blitzen River

which encompassed us in its 1,000-foot high walls.

Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
Looking up the Little Blitzen River canyon

After a clear start, clouds started forming-up right after we crossed the river and just continued to do so for the rest of the hike. We kept an eye on them as we didn’t particularly want to get caught in the canyon during a thunderstorm or another snow storm!

Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
Clouds swirling amongst pinnacles on the canyon’s walls

After climbing gently for about two miles, the trail started to level out in the marshes and meadows that border the river.

Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
Entering level ground
Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
Marshes on the canyon’s floor

We were greeted by a sun halo,

Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
The rare optics of a sun halo

as we moved further up the nearly level part of the canyon through six inches of fresh snow.

Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
Continuing up-canyon through the snow

At a little over 4 miles from the trailhead, we came to an old corral and collapsed line shack where we decided to call it a day.

Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
The old line shack in Little Blitzen canyon
Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
Old line shack detail

It’s possible to continue along the canyon floor and even climb the canyon wall to the loop road above or go all the way to the head of the canyon and cross over into Big Indian Gorge – hikes (or backpacks) best done under drier conditions and when the loop road is fully open. As we headed back, the clouds began to build in earnest,

Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
Heading back down canyon

and by the time we got back to the creek crossing, the sky was obscured.

Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
Clouds over Little Blitzen canyon

On the drive out, we caught a glimpse of the continuation of the Steens to the south,

Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
Snow on the Steens

of the now cloudy canyon we’d just exited,

Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
Chased by the clouds

and of some wild horses which we’d been told might be in this area. But to actually see them was special!

Little Blitzen River Canyon Steens Mountain Oregon
Wildhorses under cloudy skies

A great hike (less the freezing river crossing) under unusual circumstances in a very beautiful area (8 miles roundtrip; 1,000 feet of elevation gain). Later we talked to some hikers who had tried to hike Big Indian Gorge (the drainage just south of the Little Blitzen) but had gotten a late start (noon!) and had been completely soaked by a heavy rain squall that swept in over Steens Mountain later in the day. We, fortunately, were enjoying a cold beer at the hotel at the time of their drenching.

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