What better symbol of the “West” than a wild mustang galloping magnificently across a sage covered landscape? These fabulous specimens of the family Equidae still roam free in scattered populations across Nevada, California, Oregon, Utah, Montana, and Wyoming where the Bureau of Land Management, (BLM), is tasked with protecting and managing wild horses and burros. One of the best known areas for these free ranging horses is in southeastern Oregon around Steens Mountain.
Did You Know – Steens Mountain is the largest fault-block mountain in the Northern Great Basin. During the last Ice Age, glaciers dug 4 one-half mile deep trenches through layers of hard basalt, resulting in enormous U-shaped gorges – Kiger, Little Blitzen, Big Indian, and Wildhorse. The resulting 30-mile-long mountain has a spectacular and rugged face that rises one vertical mile above the Alvord Desert to the East.
Of the seventeen BLM Herd Management Areas, (HMA’s), in Oregon, the Burns district is responsible for eight HMA’s, including two that are home to the famous Kiger mustangs. Kigers are closely related to the original Spanish mustangs, the breed that helped settle the West. With unique markings and characteristics, Kigers are an exceptional breed of wild horse. Predominately found in the Kiger and Riddle Mountain HMA’s, these wild horse herds consist of fewer than 200 horses that range over nearly 60,000 acres of extremely rugged high desert country divided by deep canyons and tall plateaus. Seeing a Kiger is a function of luck, perseverance, and going deep into the back country. It’s hard, but don’t despair. There’s a way to increase your chances of seeing a wild horse.
Did You Know – The natural structure of a family of horses is the band. The dominant stallion’s role is to protect his band from danger, and increase his harem of mares and foals. However, it’s the lead mare that leads the band in its daily routine of grazing and finding water.
The South Steens HMA has been said to have the most visible of the Steens Mountain wild horse bands. While they’re not the more famous Kiger mustangs, the South Steens horses are the ones that are seen most often. Numbering in the low 300’s, this HMA has one of the larger horse populations in the district.
South Steens also has an excellent and equine friendly campground. With 15 sites specifically designated for stock use, this comfortable campground offers corrals, restrooms, potable and stock water, and direct access to two trails into the surrounding Steens Mountain Wilderness area- 170,202 acres of some of the wildest and most remote land in Oregon. Visitors to the South Steens Campground will get to experience first-hand one of the crown jewels of Oregon, and maybe see a wild horse.
To get to this fabulous horse riding and camping area head South on Highway 205 from Burns, OR for about 70 miles, past the town of Frenchglen, then head East on Steens Mountain Road for about 18 miles to the campground on the right.
The equestrian campground entrance is immediately before the main, (non-horse), campground. Pull in, find an open camp site, pay the camping fee, ($6/night as of June 2016), set up camp and enjoy.
Of course we’re here for the riding, and maybe perchance to see a wild horse, so let’s explore the area outside the campground. Not only can you ride across the open country during your stay, there are several trails and unique areas to visit. The Little Blitzen trail starts across the road from the campground, and heads
Norths towards an intersection with the Desert trail where a sharp eye may find the crumbling remains of the Walter Riddle cabin. A two mile ride West from the campground will take riders to the well preserved Riddle Brothers Ranch complex, where the BLM has been preserving and stabilizing the structures. The ranch’s shady cottonwoods along the Little Blitzen River make this a fine area for a lunch break. Riders that head East into the Steens Mountain Wilderness proper can take the Big Indian Gorge Trail at the rear of the campground. The trail crosses streams, passes through meadows, and for the first couple of hours is well marked before it fades into a cross country ride through a glorious glacier carved gorge.
Did You Know? – Of the 170,202 acres of the Steens Mountain Wilderness, 98,859 acres are considered “cow-free,” meaning that no cattle grazing is permitted.
Remember to bring your binoculars when you visit South Steens, and if you’re lucky you may catch a glimpse of a wild mustang!
As always, for more information on this and many other horse riding and camping locations across the US, visit www.trailmeister.com.