Taking the High Road

Steens Mountain in winter is an exhilarating outing in showshoes or backcountry skis.
Steens Mountain in winter is an exhilarating outing in showshoes or backcountry skis. Photo: Joshua Meador/TandemStock.com

Oregon’s Outback offers solitude and intrigue in winter or spring

written by Joni Kabana

People often say “just take the high road,” but did you know you can do this, literally, in Oregon? The highest road in our beautiful state is a stunning drive around the Steens Mountain in southeast Oregon near the quaint town of Frenchglen. The mountain, the largest fault-block type in the northern Great Basin, soars to almost 10,000 feet but it is the surrounding landscape that makes this mountain stand out from the rest.

Surrounded by high desert sage, the Steens Mountain commands with dipping valleys and caverns and gorgeous sweeping vistas along every turn. The drivable internal loop is only open during weather permitting times of the year, usually mid-June through October, but visiting this location in off-season has its own very special rewards. With less cars and crowds in the area, standing before this mighty behemoth, alone, will give you a profound wilderness experience.

If you have time, drive an extra two hours on Route 205 to the Alvord Desert to visit yet another wildly isolated destination. In the off-season, this dry lake bed is free from campers and vehicles. Once there, turn off your engine, walk out onto the vast white earth and feel the silence. It’s an experience you will not forget.

For those wishing for a bit more action, make time for a dip in hot springs that are found in various spots throughout the region or drive some back roads to see if you can catch a glimpse of wild horses that roam the area. Pack extra water and food and make sure your vehicle is in good shape before venturing outside of the main throughways and let family/friends know your plans. This is the Wild West as it was, and still is.

For accommodations during this winter adventure, consider staying at the Central Hotel in Burns. After sitting idle for 20 years, Forest and Jen Keady purchased the building in 2016 and renovated it “as an extension of our home.” Attentive to the smallest details, this fully restored hotel is a haven for the most discerning tastes. From heartwarming signage to a hidden “Boiler Room” whiskey cellar, this hotel pampers the adventurous spirit with comforts and surprises. Cold outside? Just wait until you see their extraordinary fire pit on the patio.

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