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.
The trailhead parking is just beyond the 2nd gate (which was open, although the road was still impassable further up due to snow),
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!
The trail started by descending the canyon,
and then offered up a really, really cold creek crossing.
The trail itself was narrow but easily followed – even with a coating of snow – and climbs gradually up into the canyon,
which encompassed us in its 1,000-foot high walls.
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!
After climbing gently for about two miles, the trail started to level out in the marshes and meadows that border the river.
We were greeted by a sun dog,
as we moved further up the nearly level part of the canyon through six inches of fresh 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.
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,
and by the time we got back to the creek crossing, the sky was obscured.
On the drive out, we caught a glimpse of the continuation of the Steens to the south,
of the now cloudy canyon we’d just exited,
and of some wild horses which we’d been told might be in this area. But to actually see them was special!
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.