High Desert Discovery Scenic Byway


In the High Desert Discovery Scenic Byway you will experience a different side of Oregon as you travel along roads surrounded by juniper and sagebrush. This sparsely populated region takes you through true frontier country, past the dramatic mountain ranges of the Steens Mountains and the wide-open spaces of the Alvord Desert. With towns few and far in between, you have the chance to explore these remnants of what was once the Wild West the way the cowboys of old did.

    1. Burns to the Refuge

Food and services, including gas, available in Burns and The Narrows. The Narrows also has RV facilities.

The High Desert Discovery Scenic Byway begins at Burns, which rests at the junction of Highways 20, 78 and 395. From Burns, proceed south on Highway 205. Wright’s Point provides stunning views of the Blue Mountains to the north and Steens Mountain to the south. At the Narrows interpretive site, Mud Lake and Harney Lake offer pleasant vistas to the west.

    1. The Malheur Refuge

To the east, Malheur Lake and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge offers a veritable oasis amidst the arid range lands. The Refuge stretches 39 miles wide and 40 miles long, and is home to 320 bird species. Spring is the most spectacular season. Northern pintails and tundra swans begin to arrive followed by sandhill cranes and large concentrations of snow, Ross’ and whitefronted geese. Waterfowl, shorebirds and songbirds hit high number peaks as well. As the flurry of migration settles, broods of trumpeter swans and other waterfowl can be seen on most Refuge ponds and migrant shorebirds congregate on mud flats and alkali playas. Activity increases again in the fall as migration begins. One of the Refuge’s greatest attractions occurs when greater sandhill cranes “stage,” or gather, in the southern Blitzen Valley. Also look for large flocks of ducks, Canada geese and tundra swans. Winter is the quietest season at the Refuge although a variety of raptors, including bald eagles and rough-legged hawks can be seen.

    1. Highway 205 & South Diamond Lake

Skirting the marshes of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, you’ll soon pass the turnoff for the Diamond Loop Tour Route (number 3), which leads to the Peter French Round Barn. Continue to follow the route that parallels ancient basalt flows until you reach the southern end of the Blitzen Valley and the community of Frenchglen.

    1. Frenchglen

Frenchglen provides services (but no gas) for Steens Mountain visitors and is the point of departure for the Steens Loop Tour Route (number 5). You may also access the Donner und Blitzen River from here which offers excellent angling for redband trout, a species of rainbow trout indigenous to the high desert region. Outdoor activities within the area include hiking, horseback riding, camping, birding, fishing and winter recreation. One of the focal points of Frenchglen is the historic Frenchglen Hotel which was built in the mid-1920s and remodeled in 1938 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It’s an excellent example of American Foursquare architecture and is still open today, providing lodging and family-style meals.

Mr. French and Mr. Glen:
In the 1850s, word of the lush grassland around current day Frenchglen attracted stockmen, who moved their cattle to the region. Among them was John W. “Peter” French, who arrived from California in 1872 with 1000 head under the auspices of Hugh Glen, a wealthy California stock owner and his father-in- law. French soon fenced the entire Blitzen River Valley for his herd numbering over 40,000. Some valley residents resented French and his empire. In 1897, he was allegedly shot and killed by a homesteader named Ed Oliver over a fencing dispute; Oliver was acquitted.

    1. Steens Loop Tour Route

This 59-mile loop departs from Frenchglen and climbs to the top of Steens Mountain, which rests in the clouds at nearly 10,000 feet. Along the way, you’ll have ample opportunities to view wildlife and take in the grandeur of a national treasure.

Remarkable Rocks
Steens Mountain is an example of a fault-block mountain, formed when massive internal pressure forced the east edge upward along a fault line. From the east rim overlook, the Steens Mountain drops over a vertical mile to the Alvord Desert floor. There are five major glaciated canyons on the Steens. The Kiger Gorge overlook offers the visitor a breathtaking opportunity to stand at the headwall of a classic textbook example of a massive “U” shaped canyon.

The Dry and the Moist
Steens Mountain acts as a great moisture collector, creating vastly different ecosystems from the valley floor to the mountain top. While the upper west slope of the mountain may receive as much as 25″ of precipitation, the Alvord Desert in its shadow receives less than six inches. Making your way to the summit, take note of evolving plant life. Sagebrush dominates in the lower, drier environs, giving way to dense stands of juniper, then quaking aspen and mountain mahogany as the moisture levels increase. Cattlemen, as well as Irish and Basque sheepherders, were once drawn to the upper mountain in the summer to graze their stock on the lush meadows that thrive there.

Abundant Wildlife
Many animals are drawn to Steens’ unique habitats. Bighorn sheep can sometimes be spotted negotiating rocky escarpments; pronghorn antelope, mule deer and elk also call the mountain home. Raptors, including golden eagles, the largest raptor on Steens Mountain, can often be seen riding the updrafts in search of prey. The end of the tour loop winds through wild horse country. The South Steens Wild Horse Herd descended from mustangs that escaped from early explorers, Indians, settlers, miners, and ranchers. The herd is managed by the Bureau of Land Management to preserve their wild, free-roaming nature. Spotting one of these wild mustangs is an exclamation point on a remarkable drive.

Outdoor enthusiasts can seek a wilderness experience in the backcountry of the Steens or stay at several campgrounds with drinking water and vault toilets located along the loop: Page Springs, Fish Lake, Jackman Park, and South Steens.

Distance: 59 miles
Minimum time: 3-5 hours
Best Time: July through October-the road is closed in the winter months.

    1. Catlow Rim

Heading south from Frenchglen, you’ll soon pass the turnoff for the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. This primitive road leads to the 275,000 acres of high-desert habitat that was set aside in 1936 to provide spring, summer and fall range for the region’s pronghorn antelope herds. Continuing south, Route 205 parallels Catlow Rim (number 6) and Catlow Valley, home to some of the region’s wild horse herds and big horn sheep which can frequently be seen from the road.

    1. Fields

The High Desert Discovery Byway ends in the ranching community of Fields. At the turn of the century, borax was collected around Borax Lake, providing a significant source of revenue. Fields is an excellent staging area for outdoor adventures in the nearby Trout Creek and Pueblo Mountains. The privately owned Alvord Hot Springs is currently open for public use. Fields offers some essential traveler’s services such as food, gas and lodging. From here, you can loop north on the East Steens Tour Route (number 13), which ends back in Burns.

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