The Frenchglen Hotel is the quintessential queen in the high desert of southeastern Oregon. The present hotel has been welcoming guests for eighty-eight years, since 1923, although a smaller, more rudimentary rooming house was built in 1916. On a sunny September morning, my two canine companions, Milly and Clare, and I took off from the Ashland area to visit this queen.
Located in the small town of Frenchglen, OR (pop 11), the hotel sits on the edge of the Steens Mountains and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, in remote Harney County. The hotel is the jumping off spot for hunters, hikers or sightseers. The magnificent Steens Mountain Loop Road literally begins across the highway.
Frenchglen got its name by a combination of Peter French and Dr. Hugh Glenn, early Oregon cattle barons. Peter French was only 23 when he drove 1,200 head of cattle into the Donner and Blitzen Valleys. These high desert valleys provided plenty of space and grass for his cattle. With the financial backing of his partner and father-in-law, Dr. Glenn, the French-Glenn Livestock Company took root. The 1,200 cattle grew to 45,000 on nearly 200,000 acres. This land became known as the “P” Ranch.
French is well known for building three unique round barns, in the early 1880’s, on the “P” Ranch to break horses in the winter months. It is estimated up to 1000 horses were tamed in these barns each year. The barns were 100’ in diameter, with a round stone station for foaling. A 20’ wide corridor surrounds the foaling station and it is here the horses were worked.
The Round Barn has an inverted umbrella style center support, thought to be from juniper trees 150 miles away in the Blue Mountains. The one remaining Round Barn is near the tiny hamlet of Diamond and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is open to visitors daily, if the weather allows road passage.
From the beginning, the partners were plagued with problems by squatters and hostile Indians. Both men were eventually gunned down and killed in ambushes; Glenn in 1883 and French in 1897. French was only 48 years old. In just twenty five years, he had built the nation’s largest cattle ranch.
The Frenchglen hotel has a rich history. It was originally built as an overnight stop for stagecoach and freight travelers by the meat packers, Swift and CO, who owned the “P” Ranch in the early part of the 1900s. At that time, the hotel had five bedrooms.
In the early 1930’s with stagecoach travel extinct, the hotel was used to house local teachers. The school district paid the hotel $30.00 a month for each teacher, which included three meals daily. The hotel manager was required to deliver lunch to the teachers.
During the Great Depression, the “P” Ranch was sold to the Department of Fish and Wildlife and became the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. The Frenchglen hotel was included in this sale. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) arrived to remodel and improve the site. Indoor plumbing, bathrooms and three more bedrooms completed the hotel. Most importantly, electricity, via a gasoline powered power plant, was added. In 1959, electricity came to Harney County and the gasoline powered plant was removed.
The Oregon State Parks bought the hotel in 1972 and made the hotel a State Heritage Site. At this time, the State Parks did a bit more remodeling bringing it to its present state of 8 bedrooms, and two shared bathrooms (one men’s and one women’s). In the last few years, five offsite, ensuite rooms have been built.
The Frenchglen hotel’s authenticity cannot be matched. The rooms, spare but comfortable, are without television or telephone. Colorful handmade quilts cover the beds and decorate the walls. The bed springs squeak and the stairs creak, adding to the charm. I felt encased in history.
Another charm is that no key was given for my room, although one is furnished on request. No matter, I felt safe, even without two dogs that would initially warn anyone off (then beg for a lap).
As are most buildings of American Foursquare architecture, the Frenchglen Hotel is a two storied rectangle. It utilizes every inch of space. The long screened porch across the front is filled with log furniture. Enjoy a drink and conversation there, watching stars hanging huge and low as these are some of the darkest skies in the United States. A group from the Nature Conservancy was also at the hotel; one of them commented, “This porch is the best place in the world to relax”.
The pet-friendly Frenchglen Hotel serves three meals a day, plus a boxed lunch for day trippers. There are menus for breakfast and lunch. Check the menu board for the daily special. It is always French toast for breakfast, a choice I highly recommend. The lunch special varies but is often a soup, sandwich and dessert combination.
Dinner is another matter. Reservations are required for the evening meal, as the dining room only seats 24. This meal is served family style with whatever the cook has in mind. Of the two nights I dined there, the first was huge platters of prime rib, well done to nearly raw. Accompanying the prime rib were generous casseroles of cheesy au gratin potatoes, large bowls of fresh salad, a steamed vegetable, rolls and dessert (marionberry cobbler and ice cream).
The second evening was baked chicken halves, mashed potatoes, vegetable, salad, rolls and dessert (this time homemade apple cake and ice cream). There is more than enough for everyone.
The Frenchglen Hotel has a wine and beer license. No hard liquor can be consumed in the hotel.
The Steens Mountains are the highest fault block mountains in the U.S. Naturally, the Steens Mountain Loop, the biggest draw to the Frenchglen area, is a geological wonder. The Loop Road, which begins in Frenchglen, is nearly 60 miles of jaw-dropping scenery and informative waysides. Be sure to educate yourself at each one. From information on junipers, fire control, glacial history, native flora, fauna, animals and birds, these wayside mini lessons are fun facts to know.
Four spectacular U-shaped canyons, the work of glaciers during the Ice Age, can be viewed from the Steens Mountain Loop Road – Kiger, Little Blitzen, Big Indian and Wildhorse. I found each gorge, nearly one-half mile deep, silent and eerily spiritual.
At the first gorge, Milly, Clare and I were hot and shedding layers. By the last one, the gorgeous hanging valley, Wildhorse, we were dressed for the Arctic. As badly as I wanted to hike down to Wildhorse Lake and back, it was just too windy and cold. Thick, dark clouds were hanging on the horizon.
By the time we drove down the curve laden hillside, to the isolated Riddle Brothers homestead (three bachelor brothers who ranched in the Steens for many years), I was stripped to shorts and tee and the girls were hanging their heads out the rear windows.
The Loop Road is only a small part of the more than 496,000 acres of the Steens Mountains Cooperative Management and Protection Area. It is a combination of public and private lands that offers scenic and recreational opportunities like nowhere else. Four or five herds of wild horses roam this area, the most exotic being the Kiger Mustangs, believed to be descendants of Spanish Mustangs brought in by the Conquistadors in the 1600’s. They have a characteristic dun color. There are Kiger Mustang viewing areas, but they chose not to accommodate me.
The Loop Road is gravel but can be rutty. It is not recommended for low clearance vehicles or RV’s. The Steens Mountains make their own weather, so be prepared for sudden storms any time of year. These storms could produce thunder and lightning, rain, snow or any combination.
There are campgrounds along the Loop Road, including the South Steens Campground, which is the trailhead for both Little Blitzen and Big Indian Gorges. It is also a few miles away from the Riddle Brothers homestead. The South Steens Campground is open May – October and has 36 campgrounds, nearly half of them horse camping sites (with horse ties) and one group tenting site.
Two other campgrounds, each only three miles from Frenchglen, are Page Springs and the Steens Mountain Resort.
Page Springs has 36 camp spots for RV’s and tents. Sitting on the Donner and Blitzen River, it has pit toilets, but no showers. The cost is $8.00 per vehicle per night and is open all year.
The Steens Mountain Resort, also open all year, is under new management. This resort has 37 full RV sites and 39 water and electric sites. The prices vary depending on the need. There is an end row for tents (maybe 10 sites) that cost $15.00 per night. Additionally, there are 8 cabins with full kitchens and porches. Prices vary for these, as well.
The Steens Mountain Resort has showers, toilets, laundry and a general store with maps and information.
The Frenchglen Hotel is located in the town of Frenchglen, OR, 60 miles south of Burns, OR, on paved Highway 205 and operates from March 15th to November 1st. The busiest time is Labor Day to the end of October.
To visit Peter French’s Round Barn, travel south of Burns on Highway 205, turning left on Highway 78 toward Diamond.
For reservations, call 541-493-2825, or e-mail email@example.com.
Both the Page Springs and South Steens Campgrounds are operated by the BLM. Information on either can be found at 541-416-6700 or www.blm.gov/or.
Steens Mountain Resort can be reached at 800-542-3765 or www.steensmountainresort.com.