When we pulled into Crystal Crane Hot Springs (click here to read our earlier review), a tiny RV park surrounded by miles and miles of nothing in a very unpopulated county in eastern Oregon, we immediately recognized the Safari motorhome that belongs to our friends Bill and Wilda. Two days earlier, when we were in Boise, we’d received an email from Bill, hoping we were still in Baker City so we could visit during their upcoming overnight stop there… after which they were heading further south.
Of course, we were long gone from Baker City, planning on heading to Crystal Crane Hot Springs from Boise. It sure brought a smile to my face when I read that their next planned overnight as they hopped down to Arizona was Crane! What are the odds?? It was great to see them, and to share a float in the hot pool.
Next morning, well before noon, Odel donned his swim attire, wrapped up in his (rented) plush pink terrycloth bathrobe, grabbed his swim noodle and headed to the hot pool. As he floated with a couple of neighboring RV’ers in the steaming pool, the topic of “home” came up. Our neighbors mentioned that they are headed to their home in southeast Arizona. Odel dug a little deeper and, imagining they would get a blank look from him, the neighbors specified Sunsites, Arizona.
Boy, did we laugh when Odel told me the story! My cousin Rosanna and my aunt Carol live not far from there, so we know the area VERY well (as do Al and Kelly, the Bayfield Bunch). When the neighbors mentioned where they lived, Odel asked about the golf course there (always teetering on the edge of demise), and they all got into a conversation about the small towns and junctions of Cochise County, including the Mustang Mall (their t-shirts proclaim “Conveniently Located in the Middle of Nowhere”).
Since Crystal Crane Hot Springs is also conveniently located in the middle of nowhere, in an area that is surprisingly similar to Cochise county (high desert, dry, ancient mountains poking up all around, interesting history, interesting places to visit for those who dig a bit - and are willing to drive many, many miles to visit), it seemed amazing and particularly apt to meet in such an unpopulated spot.
We’re back in Harney County (Burns is the largest town and county seat) for a specific reason: to drive the scenic road to the top of Steens Mountain. When we visited last June (click here to read our post from that visit), looking for sunny skies and warm weather, the Steens Mountain Scenic Loop road was still closed by a heavy layer of snow. We explored as far as Frenchglen, the tiny town that is the gateway to the loop, visited several interesting historic sites and the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, but no luck driving to the top of the mountain (a hair under 10,000 ft. elevation).
So, we’re back – and this time we made it. Unlike our experience with Hell’s Canyon, the drive to the top of Steens Mountain (click here for an interesting description) was every bit as amazing and beautiful as I expected.
I’d printed information from the internet detailing hikes on Steens Mountain, and we packed a picnic lunch to take along on our epic journey – which turned out to be 184 miles round trip, with about 40 miles of it on Steens Mountain. This, from Oregon.com, is a good description of the unusual mountain:
“Driving the road up Steens Mountain is like climbing a 20-mile ramp. A tilted mesa with an active fault on its steep, eastern side, the fault-block mountain has risen up in the past five to seven million years. During the Ice Age, seven large glaciers gouged 2000-foot-deep, U-shaped canyons into the western slope.”
So you’ve got a huge slab of rock, tilted high on one side (east); a gentle slope from the west side to the top, then a free-fall down the eastern side.
The drive begins on the west side of the “ramp”, at Frenchglen, on a gravel and dirt road with plenty of washboard to keep you alert. Frenchglen is at an elevation of around 4,200 feet, the summit of 20 mile long Steens Mountain is at 9,735 feet, so the ecology and weather change considerably during the ride. The road never seems steep, but it is a steady climb. (By the way, there is an annual run up Steens Mountain – I’m sure the slope seems steep to the runners!)
By the time we reached Kiger Gorge (third photo), where we anticipated our first hike, the wind was blowing HARD – so hard and gusty that we didn’t dare wander too near the edge of the deep, glacial gorge. It was freezing, and oh so apparent that hiking was NOT happening! Back in the car, we drove another few miles to the east rim, another fantastic (and very cold and windy) viewpoint – 9,730 feet - looking down from the top of the mountain to the Alvord Desert, far (FAR!) below. Even in the cold, driving wind, we drank in the scenery – it was truly fabulous.
The road became more narrow and bumpy as it climbed another couple miles to the summit parking area (9500 feet, just a couple hundred feet below the summit). Two more hikes, one to the summit, the other to Wildhorse Lake, neither remotely appealing in the whipping, frigid wind. Instead, we sat in the Jeep eating our ham sandwiches and chocolate, watching heavily bundled photographers and hikers (half a dozen cars were there with us) brave the cold winds. (I DID jump out to take a few quick photos.)
Then we began the long drive back down the mountain, past the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, back to the soothing warmth of the hot pool awaiting us at home. Worth the trip? Absolutely.
Starting back down the road from the summit.
No hiking to the windswept summit for us!