The Donner und Blitzen River cuts through the Oregon high desert from its headwaters on Steens Mountain to marshland and Malheur Lake. It flows 17.3 miles and drops more than 800 feet, creating unique ecosystems, basalt canyons and wild trout fisheries along the way. Hikers can enjoy the beauty of part of the river by walking the Little Blitzen Gorge Trail.
The trail follows the Little Blitzen River (an arm of the larger river) through a glacially-carved canyon. From the parking lot trailhead the path descends to cross a shallow creek, then turns right to a shrub-encroached trail that leads another 3.1 miles to 4-Mile Camp. Walk by the campsite under cottonwood trees and trough a wildflower-rich meadow. There’s a nearby stream that's perfect to rest and cool your feet in nearby.
From here continue up just under 4 miles to a fork by a rimrock knoll that divides the canyon. You can head left or right here. The left trail is a steep hike up past a small waterfall to the Steens Mountain Loop Road. Head right to stick to the main trail and take a path with a gentler ascent that rises for 2.4 miles to a 20-foot waterfall.
This is a great, short hike for those hoping to enjoy the lush wilderness that comes to life along the tributaries of the Donner und Blitzen River. Bird watchers should look for osprey, red-winged blackbirds, and a multitude of small marsh birds who flock to the area. Visit the trail in the spring to catch the full display of wildflowers that claim the canyon slopes.
As for the river's name, no, it’s not named after two of Santa’s reindeer. Colonel George M. Curry crossed the river in 1864 during a storm, and he named the river "Dunder und Blitzen," after the German words "dunder und blitzen"-- "thunder and lightning." Local settlers latter modified the name to Donner und Blitzen.
Directions from Burns:
Drive about 2 miles on Highway 78, then turn right onto Highway 205 and travel south for 60 miles to Frenchglen. Pass through Frenchglen and about 9 more miles down turn left onto the Steens Mountain Loop Road south entrance. Continue to the South Steens Campground 19 miles ahead. The marked trailhead is half a mile east of the campground.
Learn more about nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge: https://www.shareoregon.com/en/listings/125270-bird-watching-in-malheur-national-wildlife-refuge