Sunday, December 29, 2013

Oregon's Steens Mountain with Four Wheel Camper

I'm taking a hiatus from my Africa obsession to revisit a trip to the Steens Mountain Wilderness last year. Email subscribers, if you have trouble viewing, click on the blog title. 

The road to  the Pike Creek trailhead into the east side of the Steens Mountain Wilderness. If you go, that yellow grate might help you pick the right road because there are no signs. You'll know you've arrived when you spot the juniper rock after about a mile of rough going. 
It's cold and dank in Southwestern Oregon. Our lonely Four Wheel Camper is balanced on saw horses and drained of fluids for the winter. Sigh. I am missing the freedom it provides for quick get-aways. But of course camping trips close to home are not that desirable November through February so....nostalgia. One of our best trips ever was to Oregon's Steens Mountains in September 2012. 
This camp is close to the Pike Creek trailhead on the east side of the Steens Mountain Wilderness on an unmarked 4 WD road. Perfect! You can find directions to get there, but there is no such thing as a sign. A creek flows behind the rock from which grows a juniper that apparently exists on minerals, scant moisture, and profuse admiration from occasional campers. 

A closer look at that amazing tree, which is the largest hunk of wood I ever saw rooted in rock.
The trunk actually looks like the rock. I couldn't stop admiring it. The tree seems stronger than stone, but will wither and die long before the stone disintegrates, and eons after these admiring eyes are dead and gone. Wilderness/nature is a time gauge. It isn't going to make you feel any younger, but may inspire you to treasure your remaining moments on earth and ponder the mysteries.
PK, long an enemy of invasive species, pulls the evil puncture vine weed from around the juniper tree camp and piles it into a fire pit.

In the meantime, his sandals picked up
numerous punctures.

Something pretty near the juniper tree camp.

After walking for 10 minutes from the juniper tree, we finally know we're on an official
trail into the wilderness.

Pike Creek is an up and down trail with stream crossings as well as slide crossings such as this. We walked for about 2 hours before deciding it was getting late and time to turn back.
Getting there is half the fun, of course. The Steens are an easy day's drive from our home, and a detour onto Hart Mountain to camp and soak in the hot springs was a bonus.
Here PK, lower right,  lounges with a bunch of naked strangers (me too, but I covered up to take photos, as if anyone cared) in the Hart Mountain hot springs. The younger ones were with a tour group studying medicinal high desert plants. Judging from the fun but erratic conversation, I think there had been some medicinal plant sampling before the hot spring soak. After dark, under a full moon, PK and I made our way a short distance to an undeveloped hot spring and slipped into its shallow hotness surrounded by silence. Divine. It was one of those times when I didn't really want to go because it was cold and dark, but was so glad when I was gazing at the moon through the steam and holding hands with my partner of 40+ years.
It's great having a traveling partner who always wants to know
 where he is and where he's going. Then I don't have to navigate.

Where is he now? A hot springs in the Alvord Desert just down the road from our juniper tree camp. 
What the Alvord hot springs enclosure looks like from the road. It's way back at the end of the trail on the right. A private landowner has made it available to the public and even provided a changing room! Traffic is scant out here on the edge of the desert, so I don't think the "public" is much of a bother. I appreciate that rancher, nonetheless. Thank you.
Typical cattle sighting along the East Steens Road, AKA Folly Farm Road.
The blind around the pond at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge visitor's center. We saw birds on the pond, but not on the refuge, which is reportedly teeming with wildlife at other times. We visited in the fall of a dry year. A bust. Malheur borders the Steens Mountain Wilderness, and more savvy travelers might time a visit when they could enjoy the benefits of both.

Wildhorse Lake as seen from a trail dropping in from the Steens Mountain Loop Road. We walked about 1.5 miles to this point and decided against the steep descent to the lake. 
The Kiger Gorge, carved by a glacier, from the Steens Mountain Loop Road.

Looking east from atop the Steens Mountain Loop Road.

A trail out of the Page Springs Campground, where we camped for two nights, just a few miles from Frenchglen, features immense stands of cattails and teasel along the Wild and Scenic Donner und Blitzen River.  On a late afternoon hike, we met an ecstatic but exhausted trout fisherman who claimed to have just had the best day of his life fishing on this creek, which he has been visiting for 15 years This is his "life place" he tells us. He was radiant, and it wasn't all sunburn. He told of catching and releasing 18 inch to 22-inch redside trout, and taking 45 minutes to revive one trout before releasing it. He'd accomplished seven or eight river crossings in his waders. I don't know if I've ever seen a happier person, so excited to tell his stories that he gave it all up to strangers along the trail. I'm sorry I didn't get a picture. A few minutes after seeing him, we had a wonderful moment spotting a flock of cedar waxwings alighted in a snag near the river, producing at least some lower-wattage radiance on our faces. 
The Alvord Desert outside the camper window looks fine as I prepare food cooked ahead at home.
You can see that although the Four Wheel is small, it has amenities. Next to the stove is a roomy refrigerator with a freezer! Propane powered. The battery-powered electrical system is charged by driving the truck, and we can charge phones and computers, pump water from the storage tank, have lights etc. I know that veteran RVers are accustomed to far greater luxury, but it wasn't that long ago that we were tent camping. The last-straw experience was at high elevation and the low was 16 degrees. The first time we slept in the Four Wheel we about keeled over of happiness. In case you're dying to know, the camper does not have a toilet. But we use a small portable unit to prevent having to exit into the night when nature calls. We don't want a giant RV because we still want to 
use 4WD roads and get away from crowds and explore and have adventures.
I cook. PK cleans up. 

En route home, we scout a potential road biking route out of Klamath Falls. After a few hours, we decide poor road conditions, mediocre scenery, and relentless hills make this route undesirable.  

Still, we need to find a camp. But, hello! It is the night before deer hunting season opens and the campgrounds, the pullouts, the nooks and crannies, are jam-packed with everything from minimal campers to huge RVs. We're able to locate, an hour before dark, this level spot not far off the road. 

Night night in the camper. Lights off. I'm climbing into our cozy queen-sized bed soon.


  1. Now, that's my kind of camping exactly. Comfy but super simple. When I had my customized Econoline camper with the extended ceiling and pull out bed I also used a little portable toilet which I'd put inside a small tent. We were usually based in one spot for 2 weeks. The racoons loved to wash their food in it. Uck! Will have to get one again for use when and if we ever get away in the Boler. Did your hot springs have a strong sulfur/rotten egg smell? I've only ever been to the ones up on Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic Peninsula and they were WOW! stinky. Vancouver Island would drive PK crazy (as it does me) because of all the Scotch broom taking over everywhere. Our first year here I eradicated it from our property using the trailer hitch on my car and cable to pull it out. What a job. The seeds can lay dormant for 40 years. Okay, now I'm just rambling. Great blog and photos, as always, a pleasure to peruse. Thank you Mary and Happy New Year to you and Paul and the rest of your tribe.

  2. About that toilet. Wish I could remember the name, but it is completely enclosed, odorless, and non spillable. We keep it inside the camper. If you want to know, I can find out what it is. It has a great design. As for the hot springs, they were sweet. If there was a sulphur odor, I didn't notice. The Alvord desert one was icky in the area by the road, but by the time it pooled and was enclosed, no problem. Thanks for your comment!

  3. We have friends that have s vacation home in the little town of Plush, just below Hart Mt. We go over there twice a year for 3 or 4 days so have explored all over that area. Spend a whole day or two just driving around looking for wildlife and artifacts. Love it over there. Stop by the Plush store/post office/gas station/grocery store/bar and cafe for the best hamburger in that neck of the woods! Lois and Jack

  4. Really enjoyed this post Mary, especially since Bob and I did Steens for the first time in our 30 years in Southern Oregon, as part of our annual summer road trip this year. Next time you go though, you need to do do that Wildhorse Lake hike. It's a steep climb back up, and you'll be stopping frequently to catch your breath, but every time...that view...

  5. Thank you! We did go part way to Wild Horse Lake. Next time, all the way! Looking forward to checking our your blog..: )