Steens Mountain Loop road

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Go big or go home . . . or learn to just turn around!

The Steens Mountain is the largest fault block mountain (whatever that is) in North America with a sweet gravel road that climbs straight up from Frenchglen to the top of the mountain (from bottom to top there is over 6000 feet of gain and less than 200 feet of loss). The grade is mainly 6% with a few spikes up to 11-15%. It’s a loop with three different lookout points that are well worth the extra climbs.

If you aren’t in for the grand adventure of the backside, returning on the same road you came up on might be a better idea.

But before you pick your flavor … bubble gum or rocky road …. make sure you don’t get sucked into thinking the loop is going to be just a tad more difficult than the out and back. It’s not! Trust us on this one. Heading to the backside of the mountain is a serious effort.

Here’s the full route description:

The ride starts in Frenchglen. The first few miles are an easy warm up, crossing over a bridge and wandering through an open grazing area (a cow pasture is what east coasters call them.)

As you start to climb, you will keep looking up and thinking, “where is the top?” You might even think you are on the wrong road. But if you are headed uphill, keep on going ….

You pass by a few ponds and some trees, but mainly it’s open vistas. Just past Fish Lake campground the ride changes character. The pitches get steeper, the terrain becomes more undulating and scenic.

Eventually the top unfolds and you will wind through open, scrubbed mountain side. Look out for the famous Kiger mustangs, antelope, coyotes, and loads of birds of prey which are doing their job at keeping the chipmunk population down.

The first view point is Kiger Gorge which is an incredible deep canyon running north and south. (1/4 mile out of the way, with a 100 yard walk). The second view point is the East Rim which leaves you feeling like you are standing on top of the world (.5 mile climb that is steep.). And the third viewpoint is from the true summit. It provides a fantastic view of Wildhorse Lake and the Alvord Desert. (2.5 miles and super steep, but with the best views!!)

Once you are done playing tourist, the fun just begins. Give your brakes one final check and continue on the Steens Mountains Loop Road. In ten miles you will drop 4,100 feet. It doesn’t take a math major to figure out that’s a tough descent on gravel roads. You will be squeezing the brakes.

At the bottom, you need to find your second wind. You roll along open dry forest mixed with more open grazing areas. A few short popper hills will wake up your legs until you intersect Highway 205 which is the first paved road since you left. From there, you have ten miles back to French Glen. Which eight of those are a slight uphill for which (fingers crossed) you have a tailwind. And then … a blissful winding downhill that will help you forget the last 8 miles and have you giggling like a school girl.

Then you can pop into the French Glen hotel for a snack or a well deserved beer.

A few words of warning:

  • This ride is best ridden in the early summer. The road opens late so catching it right after it opens is a tremendous idea (to avoid the washboard). This ride offers up little protection from the sun so there’s a great chance of frying on the second half. And given you are climbing up to 9700 feet, you might suffer from hypothermia (the summit is 15 degrees cooler than Frenchglen ) or heat exhaustion in the same day. Check with the Burns district  BLM for road status and conditions.
  • Cell coverage is shockingly good on the front side for some carriers (we were posting Facebook pictures at the top) but suddenly falls apart on the backside. Even the last ten miles of paved road was crickets.
  • And while this is the largest fault block mountain in North America, there’s not enough traffic on the backside to plan that someone is going to rescue you if it all goes to shit.

This route is also included in our 5-day bikepacking / touring route of the Steens Mountain.  Click here for the 5-day ride.

Adventure / Gravel Route

– Loop : 72 miles / 7300 ft gain
– Style: Mixed (1 gravel sector, 61 miles)
– Location: ~ 1 hour south of Burns, OR
– Best ridden: late Spring through early Fall
– Route Author: Captain “O”
– Date Posted: July 2018

Difficulty

Advanced. Due to distance, gain, elevation, remoteness and exposure.

The Start

Frenchglen hotel

Food / Water

@ mile 16.5 Fish Lake campground, @ mile 18.5 Jackman Park campground, @ mile 43 South Steen’s campground

References

– ONDA Visitor Guide to Steens Mountain Region
– BLM map
– Poster board map
– Fish Lake Campground
– South Steens Campground


Downloads:

Cue Sheet / TCX File

Legend:

Red = paved road
Brown = gravel / dirt road

For help with Ride, GPS files, etc see the “Help with …” page.

5 thoughts on “Steens Mountain Loop road

  1. Hey Kevin,
    Nice report. I’ve only driven that loop once. I would love to ride it at some point. We were there the third week of September and the aspens were red and yellow, very pretty. How do you think the ride would be counter clockwise? The climb would be steeper, right? But, the descent would be less steep and maybe a smoother road, at least when I was there.
    Thanks for posting all of these rides on bendcycling.
    Scott

    • The CCW direction is definitely more steep – a gain of 4100+ feet in 10 miles. But I would not discourage giving it a go. Right now there is little washboard in either direction. Not sure about Fall conditions. I would give BLM a call.

  2. Steens is a remote, big, spectacular place. Make sure you ride to the various overlooks and to the cell towers….you’ll miss the best views if you skip them!

    The final 16mi of gravel on the loop road and 11mi of pavement are a bit of a grind, so, save some energy for these last sections.

    This is an epic ride, in an epic place!

  3. As the write up says, this ride is no joke. 15% grades above 9000 ft definitely get your attention, and the sun is relentless. Yes, some of the campgrounds on the way up have water, but frankly, the side trips to get to them are a bit intimidating. Having a sag vehicle along makes the entire experience far more enjoyable and safe – at least for the riders if not the driver. The views from the summit are absolutely stunning and dramatic. Not your typical mountain summit at all (if there is such a thing). Starting out I kept asking “where’s the mountain?”. You definitely feel like you’re climbing one, but it never looks like you are until the very last miles. Instead it’s more like scaling a tilted plane … no, wait, is this what they mean by fault block?

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