6 Nature-y Things to Do at Steens Mountain

 Kiger Gorge overlook, with buckwheat and squirreltail bottlebrush in foreground. Photo: Katya Spiecker

Kiger Gorge overlook, with buckwheat and squirreltail bottlebrush in foreground. Photo: Katya Spiecker

The Nature of Bend focuses on plants and animals found within an hour’s drive of Bend, but there are perhaps one or two other pretty places in the state. One is Steens Mountain in southeast Oregon.

A couple weeks ago, a friend and I made the five-hour drive to Steens (four hours if you don’t drive like an old lady, as I happily did). While there, we met up with a few other friends and had some nature-y experiences that I hope give you inspiration for your next trip to that spectacular area.

1. Find the Endemics
Endemic species are those that are limited to a particular area, and Steens Mountain is such a singular place geologically and ecologically that it has at least six endemic plant species. (The Native Plant Society has details.)

Head up to the jaw-dropping Kiger Gorge Overlook and just beside the trail you can spy Steens Mountain paintbrush (Castilleja pilosa var. steenensis)—it’s a greenish-yellow paintbrush found only above 6,500 feet. Also nearby is the bluish-purple Steens Mountain penstemon (Penstemon davulsonii var. praetentis) and Steens Mountain thistle (Cirsium peckii), which is topped by pretty lavender blooms.

My favorite uncommon (though not endemic) find was dwarf lupine (Lupinus lepidus var. lobbii), a miniaturized version of the various lupines seen around Central Oregon. The inch-high purplish-blue flowers will be blooming till September.

2. Count the Stars
We camped at Fish Lake Campground, which is at 7,400 feet. From that high, clear vantage point—with little of the light pollution found in urban areas—the sky is filled to overflowing with stars.

You’ll see the Big Dipper and Little Dipper, of course. The North Star, some planets, and dozens of other constellations too. Also satellites and the Milky Way and falling stars. Sit around the campfire, open the skylight in your RV, or look up through your tent and ooh and aww. It’s truly breathtaking.

 Killdeer are talkative ... and beautiful. Photo: John Williams

Killdeer are talkative ... and beautiful. Photo: John Williams

3. Search for Old Friends
Steens is at a higher elevation than Bend, but you’ll still find many of the same animals that are covered in The Nature of Bend. It’s fun to identify the species you recognize as a first step to figuring out all that you don’t know.

On your drive along Hwy. 20 toward Burns, keep an eye out for the white rumps of pronghorn—we spied a dozen or so in a field beside the road (an advantage of driving like an old lady). Also see how many deer you can find; it shouldn’t be tough to beat our count of five seen on the way to Steens and on the mountain itself.

At our campsite we also enjoyed visits from dozens of Belding’s ground squirrels, and at the summit of Steens we met a too-friendly golden-mantled ground squirrel (don’t feed wild animals, no matter how cute they are!).

As for birds … well, how much time do you have? Killdeer roamed about in the shrubs behind our campsite, engaging in what I’m pretty sure was a fractious debate about the presidential election. Also look for Red-tailed Hawks, Osprey, Red-winged (and Yellow-headed) Blackbirds, swallows, robins, bluebirds, and many, many others that are also common to Central Oregon. Here’s a bird list for Steens.

 Have you planted your milkweed yet? If you plant it, Monarchs will come! Photo: Sue Anderson

Have you planted your milkweed yet? If you plant it, Monarchs will come! Photo: Sue Anderson

4. Watch for Monarchs
Yep, we got lucky and saw a Monarch butterfly! With any luck it will find the milkweed planted nearby at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and lay its eggs there.

You can look for Monarchs through fall, or just enjoy the many other kinds of butterflies up on the mountain. I’m not good enough at identifying them to give you many specifics, but if you’re a beginner like me, start with the colors: See if you can find at least one white, one blue, one sulphur (golden yellow), one darkly colored wood nymph, and one multicolored Lorquin’s Admiral.

5. Find a Sit Spot
Steens Mountain is a great place to sit still and watch nature happen. So find a quiet place (there are many), plop down, and make yourself comfortable for a while. You can do this at home, too—find a place you like, whether in wild nature or in your backyard, and visit it for maybe 20 minutes a day a few times a week. That’s what some call a “sit spot.” Hold still, watch, listen, smell, and see what wonders take place.

One example of what happens when you hold still for a while: Every time we walked on a certain path, dozens of swallows would fly away. But when we stopped and waited for the birds to settle down, we noticed one young Tree Swallow sitting on a branch calling again and again for its parent.

We waited some more, and sure enough the parent eventually swooped in, threw an insect into the chick’s mouth, and dashed off again. It took an impressive bit of maneuvering to deliver the food without knocking the chick off the branch! Next day: same bird, same branch, same plaintive calls, same result, with a “kiss” delivering much-needed nourishment.

 Gorgeous pic of monkshood by J. Schmidt of the National Park Service. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aconitumcolumbianum.jpg

Gorgeous pic of monkshood by J. Schmidt of the National Park Service. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aconitumcolumbianum.jpg

6. Discover a “New” Species
I imagine even botanists discover new-to-them plant species when they visit a unique place like Steens Mountain. Take a hike or just a stroll outside the car and find a species you don’t know—then look it up in a guidebook and see if you can identify it.

On this trip, we discovered several species we’d never seen (or at least noticed) before, including the gorgeous hairy evening primrose (Oenothera villosa) and a prolific one with the great name of orange sneezeweed (Hymenoxys hoopesii).

My favorite was monkshood (Aconitum columbianum), which stands a few feet tall and has beautiful purple blooms that hang down like a witch’s—or, okay, a monk’s—hood. The fun part was researching the plant later and discovering, among other things, that it’s a poisonous plant (some species of Aconitum have been used to poison arrows) and that it’s also called wolf’s bane.

If wolf’s bane (also spelled “wolfsbane”) sounds familiar, it might be because it comes up more than once in the Harry Potter books. There’s a wolfsbane potion that helps werewolves stay rational when they become wolves (very important). And Snape lectures Harry about the plant, telling him in the first book: "As for monkshood and wolfsbane, they are the same plant, which also goes by the name of aconite."

Now, aren’t you glad you know as much about wolfsbane as that bad-boy botanist Severus Snape?