Steins Pillar Panel Invites Visitors to Explore Geology of the Ochocos

Steins Pillar Photo

A new interpretive panel in the Ochoco National Forest invites visitors to explore the area’s unique volcanic history through interactive recreational experiences.

The new interpretive panel was installed in November 2016 at the Steins Pillar viewing area on Mill Creek Road. Steins Pillar is one of many iconic features in the Ochoco Mountains that brings Central Oregon’s geologic history to life with the help of interpretive materials provided by the Forest Service. To reach the panel, travel 9 miles east of Prineville on State Highway 26, turning left on Mill Creek Road, and continuing for approximately 8 miles to the viewing area. 

Central Oregon contains a variety of volcanic features, including cinder cones (such as Pilot Butte), shield volcanoes (such as Newberry Volcano), and giant volcanic craters known as calderas.

In 2005, while performing geologic mapping in the Prineville area, Jason McClaughry and Mark Ferns of the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, unexpectedly discovered evidence of an ancient volcano, which they named the Wildcat Mountain Caldera after a nearby mountain. When the Wildcat Mountain Caldera erupted 40 million years ago it would have been a cataclysmic event. Today, the underlying volcano is extinct, unlike Yellowstone (a dormant caldera) and Mount Saint Helens (an active volcano). Wildcat Mountain Caldera measures 10 miles in diameter and encircles the Mill Creek Wilderness.

The Ochoco National Forest invites the public to take a tour through time by hiking inside an ancient volcano! Several hiking trails of varying lengths await.

Steins Pillar Trail – This 2 mile (one-way) trail slowly climbs through old growth forest, flower-filled mountain meadows, and rocky ridges. The trail reaches its final destination at the base of Steins Pillar, a 350-foot monolith of welded tuff, deposited during the collapse of the Wildcat Caldera around 40 million years ago. Steins Pillar is the misspelled namesake of Major Enoch Steen, an explorer of Central Oregon during the 1860s. It is the only substantial remnant of the 22 cubic miles of tuff, or compacted volcanic ash, that filled the crater after the eruption. 

Twin Pillars Trail – This 8.3 mile (one-way) trail leads hikers into the heart of the Wildcat Mountain Caldera to a geologic feature known as Twin Pillars.  The trail winds through an area that experienced a wildfire in the 1990s, allowing visitors to witness the recovery and succession of plants recolonizing the landscape. The fire also opened up scenic vistas in many locations. Visitors can walk right up to the Twin Pillars formation and touch a volcanic vent that once fed the ancient eruption of Wildcat Mountain Caldera. 

Wildcat Mountain Trail – This 8.5 mile (one-way) trail traces the east rim of the Wildcat Mountain Caldera in the Mill Creek Wilderness. Some sections of this trail are well forested with mixed conifer trees and sparse understory plants, while other portions transverse the footprint of recent wildfire events.

Belknap Trail - This 2.3 mile (one-way) trail drops off the eastern rim of the Wildcat Mountain Caldera and into the heart of the crater and the Mill Creek Wilderness, providing scenic views of the Twin Pillars formation.