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Hiking Oregon SE Oregon Steens Mountain Trip report

Big Indian Gorge – 08/17/2021

Our original plan for Tuesday had been to drive up the Steens Summit Loop Road and hike to the summit and Wildhorse Lake, one of four of Sullivan’s featured hikes (post) we were hoping to check off during the trip. With the amount of smoke in the air Monday night though we decided to wait until morning to decide if that was still the plan or if we were going to do the Big Indian Gorge hike instead. At 5am when we were heading out the door the air still smelled of smoke so Big Indian Gorge it was. We drove from the Steens Mountain Resort to Highway 205 in Frenchglen (a whopping 3.1 miles) and headed south on the highway ten miles to the southern end of the Steens Mountain Loop Road where we turned left for 18.9 miles to the South Steens Campground. This section of road passes through the South Steens Horse Management Area (HMA) and we got a chance to see some of the wild horses up close as we passed through.
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The hike up Big Indian Gorge begins at a day use area at the end of the South Steens Campground.
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One thing that we really appreciated about the trails in the area was the quality of information the BLM had posted at all the trailheads we visited. Maps, trail condition reports and photos were posted at them all.
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The Big Indian Gorge Trail began as an old road bed passing through juniper and sagebrush on the way to the mouth of the gorge.
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It was long past flower season but evidence of a large number of wildflowers was still visible.
IMG_2318There were tons of wild onions along the way.

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IMG_2344Deer on one of the hillsides.

IMG_2357Beginning to drop down to Big Indian Creek.

Just under two miles from the current trailhead we arrived at a much older trailhead and a ford of Big Indian Creek.
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This was the first of three fords (two of Big Indian Creek and one of Little Indian Creek) which I managed to make dry footed. Heather was not so lucky, which was a change from what normally happens on these types of crossings. The ford of Little Indian Creek followed just 0.2 miles later and proved to be quite a bit easier.
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While there was still quite a bit of haze in the sky there was beginning to be some signs that things were improving.
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Our goal for the day was to reach Cottonwood Camp, approximately 6.5 mile in, before turning around. Beyond Little Indian Creek the trail climbed a bit passing a collapsed cabin 0.4 miles from the second ford.
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Three quarters of a mile from the cabin ruins we arrived at the third ford (3.1 miles from the trailhead). This crossing had enough exposed rocks to also make it across dry footed.
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IMG_2391Quacking aspen along the trail.

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We continued on passing a rather large boulder a mile from the third crossing where we passed a backpacker on his way back to the trailhead. The landscape was a mix of juniper and sagebrush with some quacking aspen and cottonwoods scattered about. Most of the wildflowers here were also far past bloom but a few were hanging on. We did notice that there had been a lot of Brown’s peony plants in the area which we sadly missed blooming.
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IMG_2402One of the many Brown’s peonies along the trail.

IMG_2407Hawk atop a cottonwood

IMG_2410This counts a lupine in bloom!

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IMG_2413A lone yarrow

IMG_2414One of a couple of spring fed streams along the trail.

IMG_2416Aspens and junipers

IMG_2420Tassel-flowered Brickellbush

IMG_2429Waxwings

IMG_2622The large boulder later in the day on our way out.

Cottonwood Camp was another 2.4 miles beyond the boulder. It was a very gentle climb through increasingly open terrain to the camp. We were heading toward the Sun which was amplifying the smokey haze ahead of us. We kept thinking we were going to be heading into increasingly thick smoke but that never really materialized.
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IMG_2436One of the other spring fed crossings.

IMG_2437There were lots of crickets/grasshoppers bouncing about.

IMG_2438We could see some of the closer cliffs through the haze.

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IMG_2442We started to see a few more lupine in bloom the further in we hiked.

IMG_2444What the smoke looked like ahead.

IMG_2447Lots of butterflies too.

IMG_2450Salsify

IMG_2454Paintbrush

IMG_2458Aster or fleabane

IMG_2459Geranium

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IMG_2472We couldn’t see very far up the gorge because of the smoke.

IMG_2474The view was better behind us.

IMG_2484Coneflower

IMG_2489Hummingbird visiting paintbrush

IMG_2486A few aspen already turning golden.

IMG_2509Cottonwood Camp down to the right.

IMG_2510Looking up Big Indian Gorge from the trail near Cottonwood Camp.

IMG_2514Genitian

IMG_2518Raptor

We took a short side trail to the large camp site and took a nice break amid the cottonwoods. It hadn’t gotten too warm yet and as we rested a nice breeze picked up which kept the temperature down and started to push the smoke out.
IMG_2521Cottonwood Camp

IMG_2519View across the gorge when we arrived at the camp.

IMG_2523Big Indian Creek

IMG_2536A few white clouds started to appear along with the breeze.

IMG_2541The near wall above Big Indian Creek and Cottonwood Camp.

By the time we started back we could at least make out the headwall and other features further up the gorge through the haze that was left.
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The view heading out of the gorge continued to improve as we made our way back to the fords and eventually the trailhead.
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IMG_2556We missed this nest on the first pass. It was about 30 yards off the trail.

IMG_2562We also missed this Nuttall’s linanthus blooming along the trial.

IMG_2564Improving views

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IMG_2604This was a very pretty butterfly that for some reason the camera just didn’t want to focus on.

IMG_2619Clearer skies above.

20210817_111418Skipper

IMG_2623Clouds building up over Steens Mountain

IMG_2633Lorquin’s admiral

IMG_2639Ground squirrel

IMG_2646Some type of wood nymph.

IMG_2653Back to the first ford, which I again managed to cross dry footed giving me a perfect record for the day which is unheard of.

IMG_2655A comma of some sort.

IMG_2665A vast improvement over the morning.

IMG_2677Looking back toward the gorge from the old road bed.

IMG_2679What a difference a few hours can make.

Our track – My GPS had 14 miles vs 13 miles but I tend to wander, a lot.

After our hike we drove back to the Steens Mountain Resort where the views had also improved greatly over the previous afternoons. Happy Trails!
DSCN0776Our accommodations.

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Flickr: Big Indian Gorge

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