558 N. Main St., Prineville, OR 97754 | (541) 447-6205
Steens Mountain and the Blitzen Valley from Frenchglen.
From Prineville I make my way to Highway 20 and head east, entering a landscape of wide open spaces with long, straight roads that seem to go on forever. A thin skin of juniper and sage makes a feeble attempt to hide the volcanic underworld. After a few hours of driving, down a slight hill and around a bend, the Harney Basin opens up before me.
The Harney Basin is the largest closed basin in Oregon and one of the largest inland wetlands in the country. The area attracts not only visitors but also birds. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, about 30 miles southeast of Burns, spans an area 40 miles long and 39 miles wide, covering over 187,000 acres of habitat which includes wetlands, riparian areas, meadows and uplands. Over 320 species of birds and 58 species of mammals have been observed here.
On the entire drive along Highway 205 from Burns to Frenchglen, there are views to the southeast of Steens Mountain, standing like a sentinel over the Harney Basin. Steens is the largest fault-block mountain in the northern Great Basin. The loop road is definitely worth a drive when it opens later in the summer.
Although it appears to be a mountain range, it’s a single mountain. During the early fur trade, it was even called “the Snowy Mountains.” In 1860, it was renamed for U.S. Army Major Enoch Steen, who battled the Paiutes on the mountain.
Frenchglen is one of those towns where you might say, “Don’t blink or you’ll miss it” as you’re driving through. With a population hovering somewhere around 12, it’s not a thriving metropolis (Burns and Hines are the only two incorporated towns in Harney County) but it is an interesting little town with a rich history.
Frenchglen is named after the French-Glenn Livestock Company, founded by Dr. Hugh Glenn and later joined by Peter French. Born John William French in Missouri in 1849, French adopted the name Peter later in life. His father moved the family to California a year after his birth and eventually ran a successful sheep ranch.
As French grew up, he looked for more challenging work and left the family ranch for Jacinto where he met Dr. Hugh James Glenn, a wealthy entrepreneur who gained his fortune in wheat and livestock. French started out breaking range horses for Glenn and soon became his foreman, and eventually son-in-law.
Looking to expand his holdings, Glenn sent French north in 1872, with 20 vaqueros and a herd of about 1,200 shorthorn cattle. He stopped when he reached the lush valley of the Blitzen River.
“Peter French probably came down through this gap right here where Highway 205 now passes,” said John Ross, who operates the Frenchglen Hotel and owns the adjacent Drovers’ Inn. The hotel was built in 1916. The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department acquired it in 1972. Great family-style meals are served each day. The historic hotel has eight rooms.
Ross has studied up on the history of the area and has become somewhat of an expert on French’s life and the valley. He explained that there was a man named Porter who ran a few cows in the area that’s now Frenchglen. After searching unsuccessfully for gold in the surrounding hills, he sold his cows and his brand, the P Brand, to French. Shortly after, French built the P Ranch, which became the headquarters of French-Glenn Livestock Company.
At its peak, the company owned upwards of 150,000 acres and ran around 45,000 cattle and 3,000 horses and mules. Over the next 25 years, French built what was to become the largest cattle empire in Oregon at the time. The company’s range was so large that a northern headquarters called the Sodhouse Ranch was built near the present-day refuge headquarters.
French worked his cowboys very hard, but he worked at least as hard. He never wanted to see anyone sitting idly by, even during the tough winters. This was one reason he had the Round Barn built. His cowboys could now train horses in the winter. To reach the Pete French Round Barn, turn east from Highway 205 about halfway between the north end of the refuge and Frenchglen and follow the signs for about 17 miles.
On the way, be sure to stop off to explore Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area to see some interesting geology. The area has about 30 square miles of volcanic vents, craters, cones, and lava flows, all within a large caldera that erupted between 6,000 and 25,000 years ago.
Besides birding, many people come to the valley each year to hike, camp, fish, hunt, and drive the scenic Steens Mountain Loop Road. From the road, you might be lucky enough to spot some of the wild horses that call this rugged country home.
The herd size is just around 300 horses. These horses became “wild” when things went mechanized and there was no need for them or when they were culled out for ranch stock many years ago. In each case, the horses were simply let go to roam on their own.
And some have done so very successfully. Take the Kiger mustang herd for example. DNA testing has shown that these horses have descended from those brought to this continent by the Spanish Conquistadors in the mid-1500s and could be the oldest herd of horses in the country. All these wild horses were considered feral until Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971 to protect, manage, and control the animals on public lands.
“I’ve lived here since the winter of 1990, and even though I see lots of people here at the hotel, you can quickly get off the beaten trail, get into some nice country, and see no one,” said Ross.
Who to contact
541-493-2204 or 541-493-2825
541-493-2612 or www.fws.gov/malheur.