Frenchglen, Oregon

By Kathleen Byrne, Guest Contributor

The Frenchglen Hotel is the quintessential queen in the high desert of southeastern Oregon. The present hotel has been welcoming guests 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 in our trusty Minnie Winnie to visit this queen.

Located in the small town of Frenchglen, Oregon (population 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 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.

Unique Round Barns
French is well-known for building three unique round barns in the early 1880s on the “P” Ranch to break horses in the winter months. It is estimated up to 1,000 horses were tamed in these barns each year. The barns were 100 feet in diameter, with a round stone station for foaling. A 20-foot 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. This barn 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 25 years, he had built the nation’s largest cattle ranch.

Frenchglen Hotel History
The Frenchglen Hotel has its own 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 1930s, with stagecoach travel extinct, the hotel was used to house local teachers. The school district paid the hotel $30 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 make improvements to 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 eight bedrooms and two shared bathrooms. Five offsite ensuite rooms have been built across the back lawn.

Charm and Simplicity
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.

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.

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. You can check the menu board for the daily special.

Dinner is another matter. Reservations are required for the evening meal as the dining room only has seating for 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, casseroles of cheesy au gratin potatoes, large bowls of fresh salad, a steamed vegetable, rolls and marionberry cobbler and ice cream for dessert.

The Frenchglen Hotel has a wine and beer license, and no hard liquor can be consumed in the hotel.

Jaw-dropping Scenery
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.

Recreational Opportunities
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 1600s. They have a characteristic dun color. There are Kiger mustang viewing areas, but they chose not to accommodate me.

When You Go
The Loop Road is gravel but can be rutty. It is not recommended for low clearance vehicles or RVs. The Steens Mountains make their own weather, so be prepared for sudden storms any time of year. These storms are capable of producing 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 hikes into 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 to October and has 36 campgrounds, nearly half of them horse camping sites (with horse ties) and one group tenting site.

South Steens Campground is nine miles south of Frenchglen. Turn left on the graveled Steens Mountain Loop Road for 18 miles before reaching the campground.

Two other campgrounds, each only three miles from Frenchglen on gravel roads, are Page Springs and the Steens Mountain Resort.

Page Springs has 36 camp spots for RVs and tents. Sitting on the Donner and Blitzen River, it has pit toilets but no showers. The cost is $8 per vehicle per night and is open all year. A volunteer camp host is at Page Springs from May to October.

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). Additionally, there are eight cabins with full kitchens and porches. Prices vary for these as well. There are showers, toilets, laundry and a store with maps and information.

The Frenchglen Hotel is located in the town of Frenchglen, Oregon, 60 miles south of Burns, Oregon, on paved Highway 205 and operates from March 15 to November 1. 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.

Although there is a gas station in Frenchglen, it is not always operational. Gas is available in Burns, Oregon, 60 miles to the north, at “the Narrows” (a small strip of land between Harney and Malheur Lakes, both part of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge) approximately 40 miles north and in the town of Fields, Oregon, 50 miles south.

For dinner or room reservations at the Frenchglen Hotel, call 541-493-2825, or e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Both the Page Springs and South Steens Campgrounds are operated by the BLM. Information on either can be found by calling 541-416-6700 or visit www.blm.gov/or.

 Kathleen is a freelance travel writer from southern Oregon who has been traveling her entire life. She has led trips to Nepal, across the Chilkoot Trail in Alaska and along the Southwest Coastal Path in England. Additionally, she has canoed in the Boundary Waters and been part of medical missionaries in Rwanda.

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