Hikers: Mary “Fireweed” K., Barb “Bashinka” S., Terry “Energizer Bunny” T.
Sept 10: We left Ashland around 8 AM for our long journey to South Steens Campground. We stopped at Lakeview for lunch at a small park and got Field’s Station’s famous milk shakes at the “town” of Fields, just south of Steens Mountain. Our forward progress was temporarily interrupted by a huge herd of cows walking on the road outside of Lakeview. The campground (5320 ft elevation) was eerily quiet and there were a lot of empty spots. The camp cost us only $12 for 4 nights using a Senior National Park and Federal Recreational Lands pass. We lit up our picnic table with our solar powered lanterns and Barb initiated a card game that was easy to learn called “Skip Bo”. I brought some “El Silencio” Mezcal to sip. I had filled the truck with wood in Ashland for a campfire, but campfires were forbidden even in campgrounds because of extreme fire danger. Although the campsite next to us had what appeared to be a fake campfire device that flickered from inside their tent. Didn’t know that kind of thing existed.
Sept. 11: It was a beautiful sunny day. We saddled up and hiked into Big Indian Gorge—a large glacially formed U-shaped valley west of the summit of Steens Mountain. The trail started out in grassland dotted with Junipers. There were three river fords—one ankle deep and two with plenty of rocks to cross with dry feet. As the trail curved into the gorge, the views opened up. Aspens were just starting to turn color. We spotted a huge cairn on top of one the peaks on a ridge bordering the trail. We saw some remnant wildflowers including purple aster and lupine, red Indian Paintbrush, and yellow rabbit brush. The Oregon Natural Desert Association had cleared brush from the trail for several miles into the canyon.
We found a camp in cottonwoods next to Big Indian Creek about 7 miles up the canyon (6450 ft elevation). After we set up camp we hiked farther up the canyon through several aspen groves about 1.5 miles to a waterfall we learned about from other hikers. We encountered several couples all from the Portland area. One of the couples said someone told them that Wildhorse Lake (our hike on the 13th) was dry! This was alarming—hard to believe that the huge lake would be dry, but everything was dry here. We could do an alternative hike on the 13th up the Little Blitzen River. After a pink tinged sunset, the night was cold, but we were prepared with warm sleeping bags, jackets, gloves and hats. A rodent visited Barb’s tent at some point—either when we were gone on a hike or overnight and chewed a hole in a small cloth bag.
Sept. 12: I woke to the slight pinging sounds of ice crystals hitting my tent rain fly. I thought, “Oh, no—snow”. But when I unzipped the vestibule there was no sign of precipitation. Gray misty clouds looked ominous and we momentarily considered staying another day, but we didn’t have enough food. Next time, we would plan an extra day to hang out in the gorge. We heard a Great Horned Owl early in the morning. The clouds cleared up and we returned down the gorge and got to South Steens Campground around 3:30 PM. We passed 6 people hiking into the gorge. After a short break we hiked over to the Little Blitzen River from a trailhead adjacent to the campground, which would be another option for backpacking and camping in future years. We also saw red-shafted flickers and many unidentified birds feeding above an eroded cliff in the willows.
Sept. 13: It was cold again last night. I slept in the back of my truck under the shell, which was so soundproof I didn’t hear the coyotes that Barb and Terry reported on in the morning. We commenced our drive up to near the summit of Steens Mountain and the trailhead for Wildhorse Lake. We were the social butterflies of the Steens on this day on the way to the trailhead, encountering many interesting people as we pulled out onto scenic viewpoints: a plein air painter above the Little Blitzen River Gorge, a woman from Chicago who thought it was beautiful and couldn’t believe how few people were here because, a Portland Buddhist with a solar powered prayer wheel perched on the dash of his 4 WD pickup and Portland fine art photographer Russell Young who was taking pictures of a Steens ancient juniper outside his Ford camper van. We struck up a conversation, impressed by his Ford camper van and he let us look inside. A copy of his book “In the Mist—Giving Voice to Silence” that paired Oregon poets with photos of misty landscapes was on the dash. We checked it out and were so impressed Barb and I bought copies from him. He was also impressed at making money in such a remote place.
Onward to the trailhead after a stop to gaze over the precipitous east side of the Steens—the view to the valley reminiscent of the views from the trail up to Mt. Whitney down to the Owens Valley in the Southern Sierras of California. Plenty of people were parked at the trailhead to Wildhorse Lake (9600 ft) but most were hiking the ½ mile up to the summit of Steens Mountain. We encountered two backpackers we had met the day before in Big Indian Gorge—they backpacked through the gorge and up the west facing headwall of Steens Mountain to the parking lot at the Wildhorse Lake trailhead.
We slowly approached the cirque rim above Wildhorse Lake to see if the lake was, indeed, dry. But it wasn’t!! We hiked 1.8 miles down to the lake (8400 ft. elevation). We rested in the silence on the lakeshore looking at the jagged peaks surrounding the lake. Terry later saw that there was a small dry lake below an outcropping close to the trail and this could have been the dry lake mistakenly reported as Wildhorse Lake. We also saw some bighorn sheep feeding in rocky areas near the trailhead. We hiked over to the Wildhorse Canyon viewpoint south of the lake. I reminisced about my hike through this area when I completed the 800 miles Oregon Desert Trail in 2016. For entertainment that night in the campground, we each read three poems from the book “In the Mist” we had just bought. Terry said, “I picked three poems—one was a picture.” Then we played Barb’s card game “Skip Bo”, which Terry won even though he had never played this game before.
Sept 14: A long haul back to Ashland with stops to pick sagebrush, have lunch at Burns and take a shortcut into Ashland over Dead Indian Memorial Road that cut off an hour of driving time through Klamath Falls. We spotted a northern harrier in a tree next to the South Steens Campground access road and several hawks on the way back. We got back to Ashland around 6 PM.
Ending the walk
Returning the crow’s feather
where I found it.